Through her tears, Sandra Unitas steps up to carry her husband's legacy forward with energy and skill
Sandra Unitas visits the Babe Ruth Museum section dedicated to her husband, Johnny Unitas. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)
"She's raised the kids remarkably well," says Shirley Green, 68, of Bethel Park, Pa., John's younger sister. "She had an inner strength. She was always down to earth, friendly and loved her kids."
Sandra met John 32 years ago while selling toys in Stewart's department store. She'd been hired to promote a new football game. So had he. Two years later, they were married in a Reno courthouse.
Parent by default
It was not always easy being married to a celebrity, of course. He was away a lot. In public places, they'd often find themselves besieged by autograph-seeking fans. But, she said, John never complained about the rigors of fame, so she didn't either.
"When people asked me what it was like to be married to a living legend, I'd tell them it was very lonely," she says.
Her husband also had five children from his previous marriage to Dorothy Jean Unitas, who died in May at age 67. Sandra says she's become their collective "parent by default" since John's death, and describes their relations as friendly and supportive.
Sandra and John lived on a 20-acre farm in Baldwin until a year ago. The couple had wanted to downsize, to prepare for, if not retirement, then semi-retirement, and they moved into a townhouse.
On the day John died, she was having her hair done at a Towson salon. She received a cell phone call from a friend. "Have you heard that John's had a heart attack?" She was doubtful.
She'd heard rumors just like that several times since John had suffered his first major heart attack - while undergoing knee replacement surgery nine years earlier. She called the rehab center where John had gone for treatment. His longtime therapist got on the line - "Call your internist," he told her, his voice quavering.
John died on a Wednesday. The funeral didn't take place until the following Tuesday. John hadn't left instructions. He was never the sentimentalist. She banned most flowers (he thought them a waste of money), and television cameras (inappropriate and exploitive), but opened the funeral mass to the public - an acknowledgement of how much the fans' affections had meant to her husband.
The feelings of loss and sorrow were overwhelming. She lost 12 pounds in the month that followed. "It was unbelievable," she recalls of those days.
Listening to memories
Suddenly, she was presented with a lot of decisions. Matters of insurance and finance, estate planning, taxes and contracts. John had provided for help. Money has not been a problem, she says, but the new responsibilities loomed large.
In the midst of all that came a call from Towson University. Just days before John's death, they had printed a brochure announcing their stadium campaign. It had included a photograph of John who'd agreed to serve as community liaison over the summer.
Landing John had been quite the coup for Towson. The university's athletic program has never been particularly high profile. Would his widow allow them to continue to use the Unitas name?
Yes, she told them. If John wanted this, then it will happen. And Sandra took one step further, she'd be happy to help out, too. After all, her two youngest children were Towson students. His eldest daughter a graduate. It was a chance to do something for John, and for them, too.
"That was incredibly exciting," says Gary Rubin, the school's vice president of advancement. "And fitting. She's already doing a fantastic job in raising support. When she speaks, people listen."
But more important, perhaps, she listens. That's because this is what it's like to be the widow of Johnny Unitas: You get introduced, people want to meet you, and then they want to tell you stories - about how much your husband meant to them, about some personal encounter, perhaps, or just a recollection of his football accomplishments.
"I tell them now I know where he was when he was late so often for dinner," she says. "He was creating a memory for them."