Sandra Unitas remembers how her husband, John, late in life could barely sign autographs with his once-powerful right hand, much as he tried.She used to find rubber bands strapped to pens he had jury-rigged so he could scrawl his name with a limb -- "The Golden Arm," it was once called - that was of little use because of a tendon injury the Baltimore Colts legend said dated to a 1968 preseason game.

The quarterback's widow said yesterday that she has decided to tell the Hall of Famer's story - the injuries, the pain and disappointment at having his disability claim denied -- because it might help surviving teammates and others qualify for aid from the benefits system endorsed by the National Football League and its players union.

Sandra Unitas, 63, said she will appear today at a news conference for the former players and attend a congressional hearing because "he would have been there if he was here. This is something deep to his heart. He was very disappointed in the league's action -- or lack of action."

The House subcommittee hearing will focus on a disability system that many retired players say makes it too difficult even for those with debilitating football injuries to qualify for benefits.

Unitas said it is fitting that today is the 35th anniversary of her marriage to the Baltimore icon, who died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 69. "I don't think I've spoken publicly before about this, but I have tried since my husband passed to carry on in areas I knew he was very much interested in. It makes me feel close to him."

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, the California Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, said she called the hearing to have "an open discussion on the fairness of the system to severely disabled retired players."

"The NFL is a billion-dollar organization built on the backs of individuals who have, in many cases, sacrificed their mobility, suffered traumatic brain injury or worse," Sanchez said.

Many older players say they did not understand the importance of documenting their medical conditions while they played. They say the system makes it too difficult for them to establish links between football and various health problems.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said yesterday that disability decisions aren't made by the league, but by trustees on a board that includes club owners and former players. He said 284 former players are receiving $19 million this year.

"The overwhelming majority of players who leave the NFL are not disabled and don't become disabled," Aiello said.

John Unitas, who came from working-class roots and played before NFL salaries escalated far beyond those of most Americans, was known for his stoicism. His fame and penchant for choosing his causes carefully lends credibility to his widow's statements, said Jennifer Smith, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which provides social services to retired players in need.

"Johnny Unitas was not a whiner," Smith said.

Aiello said yesterday that John Unitas "applied for total and permanent disability and was employed at the time, and his application was denied. In other words, he was able to work."

Unitas, who had two knee replacements and underwent heart bypass surgery in 1993, was involved in a number of businesses after leaving the NFL in 1974, including bowling alleys, a restaurant and an electronics firm.

He played golf by strapping his hand to the club.

"He would take a glove to a shoe repairman and they would put Velcro in and he would wrap it around the club so the club wouldn't go flying," Sandra Unitas said.

She is not scheduled to testify at the hearing but plans to speak at a news conference with such former players as Green Bay Packer Willie Wood, whom Gridiron Greats characterized as in "dire need."

After speaking to 70,000 fans at Ravens Stadium after her husband's death, she said she is not afraid of making public appearances, even on a controversial issue. She said football provided "a second family" to her husband and that he believed "you should take care of your own."

Among those expected to testify is Hall of Fame tight end and former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, who plans to call for a House investigation into, among other things, the relationship between head injuries and late-onset dementia, and the statute of limitations on disability claims. The NFL says players have 15 years from retirement to file claims, a period that Aiello said was arrived at in collective bargaining between the league and the union.

"I find it incomprehensible that the common man and the common fan knows that these former NFL players are being treated like dogs in a callous and uncaring manner while the NFL players union endlessly debates the issue and does nothing material to help these guys," Ditka said.

National Football League Players Association communications aide Joanna Comfort did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The involvement of Sandra Unitas adds a new voice to an increasingly heated debate. Many retired players, including Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, have singled out Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, for criticism.

In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Upshaw said: "A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."

Upshaw and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have scheduling conflicts that will prevent them from attending the hearing, the committee said. Others who are familiar with the system were invited to speak in their place.

"We invited Mr. Goodell and we invited Mr. Upshaw and tried to facilitate the hearing to fit both their schedules," said James Dau, a spokesman for Sanchez, the committee chairwoman.

He said the panel decided not to issue subpoenas, which it reserves for all but the highest priority matters.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com