Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 38

September 19-25, 2002

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What Memorial’s Big Enough for Big-Hearted Johnny U?
If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

Unitas Stadium has such a nice ring to it.
— Headline to Thom Loverro’s Washington Times column, September 16

Thousands upon thousands, who knows, maybe a million football fans would agree with that. Who better deserves to have his name on a stadium than Johnny U? He made the Colts.

The Colts were nothing when Johnny U signed on; not long after they won the ’58 NFL championship, a feat repeated in ’59 — and that was before there was a Super Bowl, one of which he also conquered.

If ever a single gridiron star made a team — and made that team the darling of a city, indeed, the whole state — it was Johnny U. He was the consummate quarterback, cool, smart, confident and able to pick a defense apart.

He made Baltimore a football city big time. Who could keep track of his records? He completed 2,830 passes for 40,239 yards. How about three seasons of passing 3,000 yards or more when the Colts also had a good running game. How about his tossing TD passes in 47 consecutive games?

There were Most Valuable Player awards in ’64 and ’67, Player of the Decade for the unforgettable ’60s, 10 selections for the Pro Bowl, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And if that isn’t enough, Johnny U capped it all when he was named Greatest Player in the first half century of pro football.

Billion to One
But let’s be realistic. All that isn’t enough to put his name on that young purple stadium in Baltimore that until last year was called PSI-Net Stadium, where currently the hunt is on for another ‘sponsor’ willing to pay hundreds of millions for the exposure.

In the greed of today’s pro sports, how much chance do you think there is for a Johnny Unitas Stadium at the southern entrance to Charm City — even though fans by the many thousands are making their wishes known on-line?

I asked my friend Alan Doelp that loaded question, and he agreed you could add up all the ridiculous annual salaries of all the gridiron players of today, and if they came to a billion bucks, that’s what the odds would be — a billion to one.

All the Johnny U fans — for that matter, all the old Colts fans as well as every Ravens fan — could speak up for the Golden Arm. But let’s face it, speak up until you’re hoarse, money talks. When naming rights skyrocket to $300 million for 30 years, well you figure the odds.

Don’t forget that the financial wizards of Baltimore and Maryland first built that stadium with our moola, then sold the naming rights to the Ravens for a measly $10 million smackers. That’s a better financial deal than the Colts made when they picked up Johnny U, a cast-off from the Pittsburgh Steelers, for the money one of today’s quarterbacks makes in a single game.

Where Was Raymond Berry?
All this doesn’t mean anything to John Unitas. The heart that never flagged on the field gave out on 9/11 at age 69. Though we knew his health hadn’t been good in recent years, his passing came as a shock. Unbelievable. Once, he could emerge from beneath a half ton of opposing players, shake his slope-shouldered body a few times and be ready to fling the pigskin again.

Where was Raymond Berry? That’s the first thing this writer wondered when he heard the news. Any Baltimore sports fan in his 40s or older would remember Raymond Berry. Who could forget the trademark late-game Unitas-to-Berry flip?

When the score didn’t look good and the clock was running out, time after time, it was a quick Unitas-to-Berry sideline pass, and Unitas and his Colts were still alive and marching down the field.

No surprise. The fans — as well as the opposing team — had come to expect it. Unitas to Berry, and oh so many times there was no effective defense against it. Almost always, it pulled a game out of the fire. And how did Raymond manage to keep his feet in bounds?

But life is not a game, and as time was running out last week, there was no Raymond Berry there to save the day. For Johnny U, it was all over. And I, like so many others, lost a friend.

Farewell, Old Friend
We fished, we played pool, we partied, we dined and we talked — and not once did I ever hear him mention a single exploit from the gridiron. He was great. He was humble. He was a pro in the true meaning of the word. Can you picture him doing acrobatics on the field after one of those record 290 touchdown passes? If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

To Johnny U, football was a job. He did it well, and not just on the field. He was one of those heroes who appreciated that he had obligations off the field. Whether it was the annual city police fishing trip for underprivileged kids or another appearance for someone whose luck had run out, I saw Johnny U there. He never forgot he came from blue-collar stock, and there were dues to pay.

He had hard luck in business ventures, but I never saw him down in the dumps. After retirement, he was like he was on the field when the clock was running out and the Colts were down on the scoreboard. He had confidence he could toss a pass to someone like Raymond Berry and things would look better.

Several years back, time almost ran out on Johnny before emergency open-heart surgery gave him another first down. I called him a few days after he was home from the hospital to tell him that as soon as he was up and about and wanted to rid himself of the boredom of convalescence, I’d take him fishing at the pond of a mutual friend where we first fished 35 years before.

I understood the frustration and depression that often follows bypass surgery, for I underwent it via the same surgeon who repaired his heart arteries. Before our chat ended, he was giving me a pep talk. One would have thought I’d had the latest open-heart operation. Bristling with confidence, he was ready for the next play.

Number 19 was unflappable, whether on the field or off. He always had an answer if not a solution. Nothing really got to him. That wry sense of humor was always there — whether he was on the giving or the taking end of the situation.

I’ll not forget the late afternoon of one weekday at the long and busy bar at the south side of the popular Golden Arm restaurant, when then Evening Sun sportswriter Larry Harris, Johnny U and I were talking about a fishing camp in Canada, that, as I recall, the quarterback had a financial interest in.

A few stools away perched a quiet stranger to the Golden Arm who, after finishing his one and only beer, plunked a few bills down on the bar and quietly exited. “Look at that,” said Rocky Thornton, who managed the bar and was tending our end of it.

“Johnny, that SOB left a two buck tip, and skipped out without paying his tab,” added Rocky, who feigned pocketing the greenbacks. His blue-gray eyes shining with that trademark glint, and his mouth with his trademark sly smile, Johnny U responded, “Rocky, that’s not the way it works.” And he turned to resume the fishing conversation.

The cash register clanked, and without turning his head from us, Johnny U said “Thanks Rocky. Too bad that SOB didn’t leave a tip.”

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly