Amid the quiet elegance of McCafferty's restaurant in Mount Washington, near the baby grand piano polished to a high gloss, they have built a shrine to Johnny Unitas.
Hanging on the wall is the Hall of Fame quarterback's autographed Colts
jersey, an oil painting of him barking signals at the line of scrimmage with
that familiar, round-shouldered stoop, another painting of him dropping back
to pass against the Buffalo Bills. There is also a photograph of him accepting
the 1971 Super Bowl trophy with all the solemnity of a priest accepting a
John Unitas sits sipping
a Jack Daniel's and Coke, having graciously accepted a luncheon invitation
from a reporter with the local fishwrap.
Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, even for the quarterback
many consider the greatest to ever play the game. The quid pro quo here is
that the reporter gets to pick John Unitas' brain on Baltimore's new NFL team,
the former Cleveland Browns, and their owner Art Modell, who, until Mahmoud
Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem and Dennis Rodman wigged
out and head-butted that referee, was the whipping boy for the national media
and sports fans.
Right now, however, John Unitas has been asked what it feels like to be a
legend in this town, the embodiment of the glory years of the late '50s and
early '60s, when the Colts played in three league championship games, elevated
the image of the NFL from that of a Podunk league, and won the hearts of an
Of this legend business, he tells this story: Not long ago, he found
himself at BWI airport with time to kill. So he bought a newspaper and headed
to one of the lounges to grab a beer.
As he walked in, a voice next to him cried: "Brooks!"
Mr. Unitas paid no attention, but the voice persisted: "Brooks! Brooks
Robinson!" And when John Unitas looked up, a man was smiling and waving at
By now, of course, there was every reason to suspect he was in the
presence of that most annoying of all celebrity hangers-on: the certified nut
"Are you talking to me?" Mr. Unitas said. "I'm not Brooks Robinson."
"Bull-- !" the guy said sweetly. "You're Brooks Robinson! I just spent
last weekend with you down at the Eastern Shore."
Well. At this point, most of us in Mr. Unitas' situation would be edging
toward the exit and motioning for the bartender to call security.
But Mr. Unitas kept his cool, even when the man persisted and demanded to
see his driver's license.
When it was produced, the man examined it and said: "God damn! You're not
Brooks Robinson! Well, do you play golf? Why don't you come down to North
Carolina and we'll play some golf?"
At this, John Unitas throws back his head and laughs, a boyish laugh that
seems to fill the room and vibrate back to the piano, where a couple of fans
are visiting his shrine.
This May, hard as it is to believe, John Unitas turns 63. A survivor of 18
years in pro football, he's had celebrated financial troubles, two total knee
replacements and suffered a heart attack three years ago. But his face is
largely unlined, and when he shakes your hand he has the grip of a blacksmith
if they even have blacksmiths anymore.
These days, he's an executive vice president with Matco Electronics, an
upstate New York company that designs high-tech circuit boards. He's also a
traveling spokesman for Merck Pharmaceuticals and its Benign Prostate
Awareness Program, which urges men over the age of 50 to undergo an annual
As the most celebrated of the old Colts, he's excited about Baltimore's
new football team. Still, it takes him back to the cold, gray morning in 1984
when he turned on the television and discovered Bob Irsay had packed up his
team as though it were so much Tupperware and moved it to Indianapolis in the
middle of the night.
"To hear we're getting an NFL team after all these years " he says, voice
trailing off. "I've always felt Baltimore was raped, basically, by [former
general manager] Joe Thomas and Irsay. Baltimore always deserved to have a
franchise, because in the years we were here, it was always a franchise to
look up to."