Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Competitor

Category: Issue 21

They had all come out in the miserable November weather to see the quarterback. Well, he used to be a quarterback, but those days had long since passed him by. He hadn’t taken an NFL snap in nearly thirty years, yet they still came out by the hundreds, in the rain, on a cold Wednesday night, just to hear the man speak about his glory days and his thoughts on the Ravens. The parking lot of Tully’s was stuffed full of cars, most of which had brought people to see this man do his weekly talk radio show. Tully’s was a nice little family restaurant in a suburb of East Baltimore called Middle River, and it was lucky to have this kind of turnout on the busiest of Holiday weekends, let alone on a weeknight. Of course these people weren’t here just to eat crab cakes or to drink a few cold ones. They could have easily done that in the warmth of their own homes. They were here to see Johnny Unitas, the quarterback, the golden arm himself. He was here to discuss football, present, past and future.
Johnny Unitas was one of those rare athletes that changed the way the game was played. Like Babe Ruth in baseball, there are stats before Johnny Unitas played the game, and there are stats after Johnny Unitas played the game. Like Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan in their respective sports as well, the rules of NFL football were changed to make the playing field more level after Johnny U set records in nearly every important quarterback statistic around. He just lost the record for most consecutive games with a passing touchdown to Peyton Manning, and still registers in the top ten in most important passing categories. Johnny Unitas is a sports legend in America, a Hall of Famer, but in Baltimore, they say God sits at his right hand, and Cal Ripken Jr. to his left.
The place was mobbed as I walked in, jammed to the rafters. Waitresses were hustling and bartenders were stressed trying to keep up with all the business. In the center of the room there was an open space about thirty feet by thirty feet wide. In the center behind a mixing console sat the legendary quarterback, flanked by a couple engineers and the show’s host, Tom Davis. People could have easily mobbed the stage with the obvious lack of security, but I guess out of respect and reverence, no one did. There was an organized line of autograph seekers, seemingly endless, waiting for a few seconds of precious time with Johnny U. I was there on business, delivering footballs for the quarterback to sign from WJFK AM, the station I worked for that was broadcasting the show. They were to be Christmas presents for important advertisers. There must have been fifty of them.
I approached the stage cutting in front of the line and Tom Davis came up to stop me.
“TJ sent me.” I said, raising the footballs for him to see. One of the engineers I knew from the station waived hello and Tom let me through, going back to his dinner as show time neared. I approached the great man and sat the balls gently at his feet. He looked tired, but smiled at me anyway. He was busy taking pictures with some young happy couple, and as tired as he appeared, he genuinely seemed happy to meet them.
“I see you brought me some work.” he said.
“Yes sir. They’re from TJ.”
He nodded, picking a ball up. A woman a few years younger than Johnny rushed over and placed a Sharpie in his hands so he could start signing the balls. That was when I noticed his fingers. They were mangled. They were beyond mangled. He had eight fingers and two thumbs that pointed in forty different directions. He couldn’t hold the pen or grip it. The woman had to slide the marker in between his crooked knuckles. His NFL years had obviously been rough. I wasn’t sure how he could eat, much less sign with that grip, but he did. How did he ever throw a football? He began signing one ball after another.
“This is my wife Sandy.” He said. Another fan was ushered before him, and he stopped signing long enough to take a photograph.
Sandy pulled me off of the stage and I followed her to a table in the back. There were a few guys from work and some friends and family of the Unitas’. We ate and drank and watched the show, and I was spellbound the whole time. After it was over Johnny came back to the table, sat down and relaxed. He was in his seventies at least and it was nearly eleven o’clock at night. It was really time to go and let the man be.
“I never had a chance to see you play other than on film.” I said to him. What do you say to a legend? “My father and uncle idolize you though. They got to go out to the airport and wait for the team to return after a big game one year, and you took the time to acknowledge them. It made their year.”
“Did we win or lose?” He asked.
“Lost to the Rams and just missed the playoffs.” I said. I’d heard the story too many times.
“Ah, ‘67.” he nodded wistfully. “We should have won that game.” He leaned over and picked up a couple balls. “What were their names?” he asked. This time his grandson helped him with the Sharpie. I tried to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. It was the greatest Christmas present I ever gave my Dad and my Uncle. Probably the greatest gift they ever received. And all I did was sit there and remind him of some fans that supported him after he lost a tough game almost 25 years before.
The next day we went golfing at a nice golf club in Carroll County. Again, Johnny insisted, and my boss, TJ, went with us. Johnny’s grandson had to strap the clubs to Johnny’s wrist because he couldn’t grip them with his hands. He shot a 72. I shot 116 and I usually break 90. It was a tough course.
At lunch Super Bowl III was brought up, and he grimaced at the mention of Don Shula, the Hall of Fame coach he apparently didn’t like. I asked him if he would’ve won the game had he started. One of his friends said that he was injured, but Johnny just shrugged.
“I wouldn’t have needed a full half.” he said quietly.
I believed him. He was the greatest quarterback that ever played the game. He didn’t need to lie to me.

Later, when he died, I read some stories about him. He struggled with some business ventures and went bankrupt after football, an all too common story. But the great competitor inside the great Johnny Unitas didn’t allow him to hang his head. He persevered, got his affairs back in order and worked productively until the end of his life. When I read about the squabbles between the NFLPA and the league itself over dollars, company referred to as an argument amongst millionaires over money, I remember that great man’s mangled fingers, his business struggles and triumphs. I hope to hell whatever happens with the labor strife in 2011, they remember the humbled veterans like Johnny Unitas and many others, and if nothing else, they increase the support for the veterans and former players that made the league the great piece of Americana that it is today.