An appreciation of Unitas

His cathedral was a football stadium. Instead of sermons on Sunday afternoons, Johnny Unitas delivered eloquent testimonies to the lords of the pigskin by firing rainbow spirals that were a vision to watch. Worshippers of the late Baltimore Colts quarterback genuflected at his crew-cut presence. In flashes of blue and white, Unitas painted a tapestry to rival any work of art by Picasso.

Instead of a paint brush and canvas, Unitas used his golden arm, a keen mind and a blue-collar work ethic to exploit opponents' weaknesses.

"He's Babe Ruth," insisted Ernie Accorsi, the New York Giants general manager and Baltimore native, while church bells signaled that it was time to pay final respects to his fallen pal. "He transcends generations."

A funeral dirge of bagpipes sounded Tuesday morning for Unitas, whose services at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen acted as a full salute to an uncommon quarterback and man. White roses and lilies lined the casket, and beautiful words celebrated his legacy.

"We remember the cheers that rang out from 33rd Street, celebrating a man in black hightop shoes," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore in a nod to Unitas' heroics at old Memorial Stadium. "He humbly and generously dealt with everyone, whether a grandson beginning to play football or a fan seeking autograph. He led, and he touched others by his integrity and loyalty."

Unitas' fans sensed greatness in the Hall of Famer's precise, victorious ways. They took comfort in the knowledge that Unitas was truly one of them: a man of the people as honored to greet a homeless man as he was in the company of dignitaries.

As the son of a coal deliverer who embodied the ways of Western Pennsylvania long before Joe Namath and Dan Marino, Unitas will forever be remembered as a family man who didn't take his celebrity seriously.

Through three titles engineered by the plainspoken man with the angular frame, Baltimore was elevated from a town of relative obscurity into a metropolis teeming with pride at its status in professional football.

"He should get this kind of respect," said Art Donovan, the wise-cracking Colt defensive lineman turned solemn by Unitas' death. "He's the guy who put Baltimore on the map."

Unitas created believers by practically inventing the modern passing game and its two-minute drill. Raymond Berry, the recipient of so many of those well-thrown passes, said Unitas transformed the impossible into the possible on the gridiron.

Unitas left behind so many sweet memories. He led the Colts to victory in the 1958 title contest called the Greatest Game Ever Played. He was the Greatest Quarterback Ever.

"He symbolizes football," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He was mythic."

Ten Pro Bowls, three MVP awards and 22 passing records mark the wide swath cut by Unitas. Unitas' record of tossing a touchdown in 47 consecutive games will probably never be touched. It's every bit the equivalent to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

 Perhaps No. 19 is still drawing up plays, using his fingers in the clouds to compete in an eternal game where the scoreboard clock never stops ticking.

"The leader is gone," said Tom Matte, the Colts running back and Unitas confidante. "He will be missed."

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