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Mike Downey

Unitas Stars in This Tale of Two Cities

December 29, 1985|MIKE DOWNEY

Do people in Minneapolis still pull for the Lakers? Do people in Brooklyn still follow the Dodgers? Do people in Oakland still root for the Raiders? Do people in San Diego still think about the Clippers?

(Did anyone in San Diego ever think about the Clippers?)

These questions surfaced in my mind the minute I read about Johnny Unitas' situation with the Indianapolis Colts.

In case you missed it, Unitas wants the Colts to stop referring to him in their record books and brochures. While he is willing to acknowledge that Indianapolis is, indeed, part of the National Football League and part of the United States, Johnny U never played there, and does not like the idea of his being mentioned as a former Indianapolis hero.

Unitas played quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, see, before owner Bob Irsay dialed up Mel's Midnight Special 24-Hour U-Haul and moved the club's belongings to Indiana.

The Colts have continued to praise Unitas' role in their history, paying homage to his 17 glorious seasons in flat-top hair and high-top shoes. But Unitas wants them to cut it out. He wants them to cut him out.

"They have no right to anything that happened in Baltimore," Unitas contends.

Thus, Baltimore continues to fight back in its own small but stubborn way against the carpetbaggers from Hoosierville.

Old-time Baltimore football fans are as loyal as the kid in the movie "Diner" who refused to wed his fiancee until she could pass a Colt history test. They have not forgiven Irsay for stealing their team and they have not forgotten the Indianapolis jokers who started printing up "Indianapolis Orioles" shirts a few weeks later.

In Indianapolis' defense, the franchise was in a no-win situation regarding Unitas. If it had ignored him in its records and yearbooks, it would have been accused of trying to wipe Unitas and the Colts right out of history, pretending they never even existed.

Unitas is not in the same situation as, say, Willie Mays, who played baseball for the Giants in both of their cities. Even Mays, though, ended up resenting how long it took for San Francisco to give him a day and retire his number.

Unitas was identified with Baltimore, as closely as Earl Weaver and crabs. It is one thing to have trouble picturing somebody with the wrong team, as with Vince Lombardi coaching the Washington Redskins or Joe Namath playing quarterback for the Rams. But Unitas never even set foot in Indianapolis, even as an opponent.

Imagine the San Francisco Giants moving to Denver next season and Denver devoting some season-ticket literature to that immortal Colorado hero, Juan Marichal.

Tricky business. I was glancing through a L.A. Laker media guide the other day, and not a whole lot of ink has been wasted on George Mikan. You could flip through these pages for hours trying to find evidence that a team called the Lakers ever played in Minneapolis.

They left the snow a quarter-century ago, but they did play there for a dozen years, you know. The first year the Lakers spent in Los Angeles was 1961, when they were eliminated in the playoffs by that other ever-popular NBA franchise, St. Louis.

Let's have George Mikan Poster Night at the Forum in Inglewood. And everybody who wears glasses gets in for half-price.

What to do, what to do. Somehow, I doubt if Daryle Lamonica or George Blanda would want the Raiders to leave them out of their Los Angeles history books. I doubt if John Madden goes around saying: "Give me Oakland or give me death."

Being adopted by Indianapolis isn't such a bad thing.

As a matter of fact, I think Indianapolis should run with this. Instead of adhering to Unitas' wishes, I think the city should counterattack.

Erect a statue of Unitas outside the Hoosier Dome. Ask a high school marching band to form a giant "U" at halftime of one of next season's games. Maybe ask college kids to give themselves butch haircuts and paint little horseshoes on their temples.

Make Johnny Unitas the most famous athlete ever to have not played in Indiana.

Unitas might have been trying to score a point on Baltimore's behalf by asking Indianapolis to scratch him off the charts. Then again, maybe he was just in a lousy mood. This hasn't been his best year. He got sued earlier this year because a bank he had once endorsed in advertisements did not turn out to be as good with money as your average mattress.

The ball is in Indianapolis' hands now. Ignore the greatest Colt in history in the record books or ignore the greatest Colt's wishes.

It will be the second biggest issue in Indianapolis in the weeks to come, right after the auto racers' decision to drive in the Baltimore 500.

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