Originally created 09/18/02

Unitas remembered as quarterback who 'made the impossible possible'



BALTIMORE -- With the wail of bagpipes filling the cathedral and his coffin covered in white lilies and roses, Johnny Unitas was remembered as "the greatest," a quarterback who made the impossible possible.

Before more than 2,000 relatives, fans and friends, the Hall of Famer was honored Tuesday as a leader who forever changed the NFL and made everyone around him better. Unitas died Wednesday of a heart attack at 69.

Former Baltimore Colts receiver Raymond Berry, Unitas' most frequent target, told the crowd his teammate was a "once-in-a-lifetime quarterback."

"You elevated all of us to unreachable levels, whether we were in the stands or on the field," Berry said.

Berry was joined at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick and players Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Michael McCrary. Also attending were former Baltimore Colts teammates Art Donovan and Tom Matte, and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"He was mythic," Tagliabue said. "He symbolizes football, and, more importantly, he symbolizes leadership."

Outside the cathedral, a small plane flew overhead with a banner that said, "Unitas We Stand" in big red letters. Near the coffin stood a painting of Unitas walking into the distance in his No. 19 blue Colts jersey.

Unitas' six sons were the pallbearers. Chad Unitas choked back tears as they prepared to take the coffin out of the hearse and a bagpiper played "Edelweiss."

"We remember the cheers that rang out from 33rd Street, celebrating a man in black hightop shoes," said Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, recalling Unitas' glory days at Memorial Stadium.

"He humbly and generously dealt with everyone, whether a grandson beginning to play football or a fan seeking an autograph. He led and he touched others by his integrity and loyalty."

The memorial service and funeral Mass were open to the public. The cathedral, which seats about 2,200, was filled by the time the Mass began. The coffin was closed, and the body will be cremated.

Unitas played for the Colts from 1956-72, and for the San Diego Chargers in 1973. He set 22 NFL passing records, was named MVP of the NFL three times and was selected for the Pro Bowl 10 times. He won three championships, including the overtime victory against the Giants in the 1958 NFL title game.

"You made the impossible possible," Berry said. "Those images of your performances still haven't faded."

Former Colts teammate Art Donovan added: "He was the greatest. He should get this kind of respect. He's the guy who put Baltimore on the map."

Outside the cathedral, Ravens president David Modell said Unitas supported the new team when it came to Baltimore from Cleveland before the 1996 season.

"Johnny U. was the father of modern football, so all of us, including my father, who enjoyed participating, owe that to Johnny," Modell said. Modell's father, Art Modell, is the Ravens' owner.

Frank Gitschier, a former coach at the University of Louisville, was the first speaker.

"The world has lost one of its greatest legends and all of you have lost a friend," Gitschier said. He recalled how he met Unitas 52 years ago, when he was recruiting as an assistant coach.

Gitschier said he was told, "This kid is tough as nails and he could really throw the ball." After he promised Unitas' mother that he would go to Mass every Sunday and would graduate, she agreed he could attend Louisville.

"It was no great recruiting coup - we got Johnny U. because no one else wanted him," Gitschier said.

Several of Unitas' children also spoke. Janice Unitas DeNittis said she remembered sitting on her father's lap as a little girl as they watched game film over and over. She said that after practice, her father and Berry would often run pass plays in their yard until they perfected them.

His son Joe recalled his dad's reputation as a straightforward man, including his traditional pregame speech to his teammates: "'Talk is cheap. Let's go play."'