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No Athlete Meant More to Baltimore

September 12, 2002|BARRY LEVINSON

My first recollection of Johnny Unitas was when I was a kid going to Memorial Stadium for one of those preseason intrasquad games the Colts used to have each year. The thing that stood out in my mind, and now in retrospect, was when he was introduced, the public address announcer said, "And now, Number 19, John Uni-TASS." That was him. He was just this guy. He got his chance to play when George Shaw, the starter, was injured, and he wasn't terrific initially.

And then suddenly, it happened.

Unitas certainly had the athletic ability and the leadership qualities, but the thing that made him great, in my mind and those of the people of Baltimore, was that he was a working-class hero. There was nothing flashy about him. He had the high-top shoes, the crew cut. His attitude wasn't "I'm super cool." He just went out and did the job. And no matter how spectacular the comeback may have been, or how incredible the play was, he would just walk off the field, the crowd would be cheering and he never celebrated that. It was like, "I did my job."

There was something about that simplicity that endeared him to me, the fans and the city in ways that are almost indescribable. With Unitas, it wasn't about showmanship. You'd see him walking off the field, if he'd just thrown an interception or just won the game in the last seven seconds, and it would seem to be the same. We had to fill in the emotions, because he didn't show them. And I think that made the experience even more special.

One moment I will never forget was a game in 1960, when the Colts were playing for first place in their division. Unitas was trying to bring the team back to win and he tried to throw, but the ball was hit and it fluttered out his hand, incomplete.

He had been knocked to the ground, and the field was muddy. I remember him getting up. The Colts lost. And Unitas walked back as he always did--he could have just thrown the touchdown pass that won the game and he would have walked back the same way. Highs or lows, you never saw any emotional distinction. I was always fascinated by that, and I know my friends were. He was "the Quiet Man." If you would apply it to film, it would be Clint Eastwood, that kind of quiet stoicism.

I met Unitas several times, but I didn't know him well. I only knew him really as a fan. I used to go out to watch the Colts practice. And then after everyone left, Unitas and Raymond Berry would continue to work on pass patterns. Everyone else had left long before. The work discipline between them was really extraordinary. It was like the guy took on the job, got it done, was great at it, no fanfare. He just did his work.

I think he embodied the city of Baltimore more than any athlete who ever played there, even more so than Cal Ripken Jr. There was something mystical about Unitas. Maybe because he was more distant in a certain way, or maybe because he came from a time when there was less media and it was slightly more innocent. There wasn't the accessibility to athletes that there is now. I think that's why we think of him in slightly more mythical terms.

He had an incredible, profound effect. Unitas happened at the time when Baltimore was just getting a football team and he rose to dominance just as football was rising to prominence. And, of course, there was the 1958 NFL championship game against the Giants, which has been called the greatest game ever played. This was Baltimore beating New York, which was a very big deal then.

All those things collided at one time. Unitas was involved in all these things that almost defined modern football. When football really began to explode in the late '50s, he was The Quarterback, playing on the greatest team in the world. And he symbolized that era. The next generation was Namath. Flashier. Boisterous. Unitas didn't say much.

The last time I saw him, oddly enough, was when I came to Baltimore to watch the Ravens play the Indianapolis Colts. Unitas was on the sidelines and I came down there with my son, who at the time might have been 10. I said, "Hello, this is my son Jack," and Unitas told Jack, "Come on, get in a little closer, get a better view of the field."

I said to him, "Isn't it odd to be rooting against the blue and white and the horseshoe?" He looked at me and just kind of shook his head, as if he was still in disbelief that that team ever left Baltimore.

And then, at one point, the Ravens were driving and Unitas' face was flashed on the big screen. The place went crazy. It was an amazing moment. This was my childhood hero and the crowd was cheering the tight shot of him and my son Jack whispered to me, "Who is that man?" He had no information of him at all.

We were leaving stadium after the game and I told Jack, "That was the greatest football player we had ever seen." And then I told him stories of Unitas and how he won the championship game against the Giants. I filled him in on who he was, and my son was suddenly quite taken by him.

But that one moment of "Who is this guy?" made me realize a couple of generations have gone by and it's up to you to pass on this information. Because they need to know.


Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson was born and raised in Baltimore and reared on Colt football. Baltimore has served as the backdrop for such Levinson films as "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon," as well as Levinson's Emmy-winning television series "Homicide."

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