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Greatestness came to town last week. Few noticed.
Johnny Unitas was the guest of honor at a luncheon at the J.W. Marriott on Tuesday, a fete meant to commend him for his work on behalf of prostate health awareness. Event organizers had hoped Unitas’ name would draw attention to the cause, for which he has been a paid celebrity spokesman for two years. On many levels, he’s got a good, good name.
It so happened that earlier that same day the NBA unveiled a list of the 50 best players from its first 50 years. The roster’s release inspired Shaq-or-no-Shaq? debates around water coolers all over America. There was similar harking back when the NFL had its own 50th anniversary some years ago, too. But there was no need to lump 50 names together: Unitas was singled out as the greatest player ever. There could be little quibbling about the choice.
Unitas made football what it is. In his 18-year NFL career, he obliterated the touchdown and yardage records of his peers and predecessors at the quarterback position, and essentially invented the two-minute drill. Unitas’ most storied moments came in leading the Baltimore Colts over the far more celebrated New York Giants in overtime in the 1958 NFL Championship. With that performance, the hunchbacked underdog with the buzz haircut recast pro football, until then a regionally popular sport, as the real national pastime. His physical appearance and conservative, incredibly efficient playing style were perfect for the times.
Unitas is still belovedif that’s a strong enough wordin Baltimore. The Ravens brought him out to Memorial Stadium to flip the coin at the team’s inaugural home game earlier this year. The inept Art Modell-run organization acted like the name of its ceremonial captain was a big secret before game time, but there would have been a riot if anybody else had been given the duty. A lot of cherished ex-Colts still hang around Baltimore, but nobody can fill Unitas’ high-tops in his hometown.
There isn’t, however, that same captivation outside Charm City. A PR firm hired to promote the luncheon told Washington news organizations that Unitas would be available for interviews at the hotel throughout Tuesday morning. I jumped at the opportunity, since I always viewed Unitas as among the most undeservedly underexposed of athletic icons. But Unitas’ appearance drew embarrassingly little response from other local media. Only one TV crewfrom WJLAbothered stopping by. The producer immediately declared that they wouldn’t be staying for lunch, when the actual awards presentation for Unitas was to take place. With that news, an overanxious flack, who never appeared the least bit cognizant that he was dealing with Greatestness, inanely decided it would be a good idea to bring Unitas over to a Marriott ballroom and stage a phony bestowal before the WJLA cameras. The station didn’t bother using the bogus footage, or even mentioning that Unitas was in D.C. for the day.
Then came my turn with the 63-year-old legend, who autographed footballs as we talked. The Colts had been in Washington to play the Redskins just two days before Unitas’ luncheon, so I began by asking if he’d watched the game on Sunday. When he said yes, he had, I got curious about who he cheered for.
“I rooted for the Ravens, of course,” he said. “And we won.”
What about the Colts? I found it inconceivable that Johnny U. wouldn’t hold some allegiance to the team whose helmets still bear the same blue horseshoe he made sacred. I was wrong.
“The Colts game? The Colts game? Nothing. Nothing,” he said, his head shaking back and forth, as if the question caused discomfort. “I have no interest in the Colts.”
Unitas then remarked that he doesn’t enjoy living in the past, glorious as it was. Answers to subsequent questions were generally very brief, and further proved his allergy to nostalgia. Only once during the entire interview, in fact, did he reveal that he even remembers the good old days. With amazing clarity, it turns out.
When he was asked to talk about the 1962 Pro Bowl, a game in which he threw a touchdown pass on a broken play in the last minute for the winning score, his memory sparkled.
“Jon Arnett [a running back and Pro Bowl teammate] was being covered by a linebacker,” Unitas said. “There’s no way a linebacker could cover him. That game was played in the late afternoon, and if you remember, the sun was setting, coming right over the edge of the L.A. Coliseum, and Arnett was looking back from the end zone right into that. If he stands straight up, the sun would be hitting him right in the eyes. But he got lower than the sun, so he could see the football better. I threw him the ball, he went down on his knees and caught the touchdown pass.”
Finally, I thought, Unitas was talking! But alas, not for long. Perhaps unnerved at having breached his personal no-reminiscing rule by talking about the Pro Bowl derring-do, Unitas nodded at the flack and called an audible. Our interview was then terminated, long before its scheduled end. Which was fine by me. I assumed going in that Unitas would be bored by me and my questions, but I was amazed at the end of our abbreviated session at how unentertaining the meeting had been for me. No wonder nobody showed up, I thought.
But as I got up to leave, it hit me that my expectations were off base and even unfair. I recalled how he had indicated earlier in the session, with customary terseness, that he had no desire to live up to the Johnny U. name.
“‘The Greatest,’ well, that’s a pretty tough moniker to hang on a guy,” he’d said. “I can’t live up to it. I don’t even think about it.”
That separates him from today’s stars. In this Just Do It age, just doing it isn’t enough. Since Unitas hung up his cleats, flash and pomposity have been rewarded far more than actual performance. Unitas, Greatestness notwithstanding, was being penalized for his lack of ostentation. The penalty Unitas paid on this day, it occurred to me, was overwhelming apathy toward his luncheon.
But was it a fluke? When I got home, I looked up a sports memorabilia vendor in Wheaton to see what sort of prices Johnny U. paraphernalia could bring in. An autographed 8-by-10 photo of the Greatest Pro Football Player, I was told, goes for $25. In that same store, a signed Dennis Rodman glossy fetches $35.Dave McKenna