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Johnny U was my Dad's man

September 23, 2002|by MARK KELLER

My father loved Johnny Unitas.

He loved all of the Baltimore Colts, just as so many people in this area did in the 1950s and '60s.

In the days since Unitas passed away, it's been said so many times how he and the other Baltimore players - and many other players of their era - were just regular guys who happened to play professional football for a living.

Most didn't consider themselves any better than the common fan, unlike so many of the players on current NFL rosters.

They proved it, too. It wasn't unusual for members of the Colts to be found having breakfast at a Holiday Inn before home games. And not in a private banquet room or locked away in an upstairs suite. Right there with the church-going citizens of Baltimore.

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It was also common for those players to take time away from their breakfast to talk or sign autographs for fans young and old. Try to approach the average player today and it's hard to tell what kind of reaction you'll get.

Being a cocky teenager and a Miami Dolphins fan, one can only imagine how much I admired Dan Marino when he burst onto the NFL map in the mid-'80s. If I had a dollar for every time I opined that he was the best quarterback ever ... well, I might not be writing this column right now.

When Marino was in his prime, throwing 35 or more touchdown passes a year like it was easy, I asked my father who he thought was the best quarterback ever.

Without hesitation, he said Unitas.

I presented the numbers. Marino has all the records, shattered the ones that stood before.

Didn't matter to Dad. Unitas was the best. Marino wasn't even in his top three.

In 1982, I watched what I consider to be the greatest football game ever - the San Diego Chargers' 41-38 overtime win against the Miami Dolphins. I remember saying as the game bounded toward the overtime period, "This is the best game ever."

My father scoffed. He told me this had nothing on the Colts-Giants game in 1958. That, he said, was the greatest game ever.

Nobody has ever been able to change my mind on that subject. My vote still goes to Chargers-Dolphins.

I wish the result had been different (and it could have been, if Uwe von Schamman had just kicked the ball higher ... twice!), but I certainly appreciate how good that game was, win or lose.

I also appreciate how important that Colts-Giants game was to so many people. The players, the fans and, most of all, the NFL. That game started the league on the road to becoming the new American pastime.

And they have Johnny Unitas to thank for taking the first shift behind the wheel.

From hearing my father talk about those old Colts teams, I knew that those players, particularly Unitas, belonged to Baltimore.

As I watched the coverage of his funeral and memorial service this week, it hit me just how much he did mean to that town and this state.

Unitas was the man in Baltimore sports, his legend perhaps only surpassed by that of Cal Ripken. No Baltimore football player - not Ray Lewis, not anybody - will ever hold a candle to him.

His love for the game of football and his love for the fans who cheered him on were evident in the way he played the game and the way he showed his support on the sidelines for Baltimore's new team.

For those reasons, I can now say, without a doubt, that he was the best ever.

Mark Keller is sports editor of The Herald-Mail. His column appears every Sunday. He can be contacted at 301-733-5131, ext. 2332, or by e-mail at keller@herald-mail.com.

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