In Memory of Johnny Unitas

Many years ago, I visited the Carmelite Monastery in the hard coal region of Pennsylvania as the nuns were preparing for their annual novena honoring their foundress, St. Theresa of Avila. They told me of various intentions they had received for the novena, especially one that puzzled them: “Please pray for the knees of Johnny Unitas.” They asked, “Could this be a request for someone who spends long hours on his knees in prayer?” I could help them relate this to another need in the world of championship sports, at a place on the map called Baltimore, Maryland. Who could foresee that Johnny would spend the last months of his life—since last December—just across the road from another Carmelite Monastery where he was wont to assist at Mass for his spiritual nourishment?

Long centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah (25:6-9) beheld on Mount Zion a vision that took him to the end of time, a vision that has illumined ever since reflection on the meaning of death for one who believes in God. Isaiah foresaw the Lord serving a great banquet with nourishment “for all peoples.” At the banquet, new vision will be given to those at table: The Lord will rip away the veil that keeps human eyes from seeing the divine. Tears and mourning, human sadness itself, will vanish as they are drawn into the new and total glory of God’s kingdom.

The apostle Paul wrote to the early Christian community in Rome (Romans 6:3-4, 8-9) about a particular aspect of this new glory. It is to begin with that real and wondrous sharing in the life of Jesus that commences with baptism. The ancient rite, with saving waters poured, means also a participation in the death of Jesus, as a step toward participation in His rising from the dead.

In John 14:1-6, Jesus begins His final discourse to His apostles at the Last Supper. His first words are for us as well: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”

Then He reminds them of something all who heard Him took for granted: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” He promises that He will return and bring them to that house in a dwelling place prepared for them. It is a house of reunions in the Lord, where family members can meet one another in an enlarged vision of the meaning of life, of our individual pilgrimages on the earth. In that belief and hope, Johnny Unitas made his own pilgrimage, the one that ended so abruptly a few days ago. He lived that belief and hope in a life full of love for his family, humbly and generously dealing with all, whether a grandson beginning to play football or an autograph-seeker approaching him by surprise.

In answering a question from the apostle Thomas about the way to heaven, Jesus responds directly and powerfully, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Quietly and humbly Johnny Unitas walked along the way that Jesus traced. A strong leader in his family and on the playing field, he led and touched others also by his integrity and loyalty.

Because Johnny Unitas was a genuinely humble man, he would probably have been amazed—he might even have laughed—if anyone had suggested to him that what he did on all those Sunday afternoons in the old horseshoe stadium at 33rd Street and on gridirons across America had something to do with sanctity. As a young man, he was determined to play professional football; rejected at first, he found an opening and then made the most of the opportunity the Baltimore Colts gave him. He did his job to the best of his ability. That, I am sure, is how he thought of his legendary career. That is what a truly modest man—the kind of man who would tell a homeless person that it was an honor for him, Johnny Unitas, to shake that person’s hand—would think. But I suggest to all who mourn the death of a great quarterback that there was something else, something more, at work in this life cut short at 69.

As Christians, we believe that God has a design, a plan, for each of us: a unique way in which each one of us is called to live out the Christian vocation into which we are baptized. If we live that vocation with devotion, God uses what we do with our lives to make us more than we imagine ourselves to be: God uses our work to bless others, and God uses us to make us into the kind of people who can live with God forever.

The great human attributes that Johnny Unitas displayed in his NFL career—native physical gifts and football intelligence honed by hard, dedicated practice; courage in the face of pain and adversity; grace under pressure; commitment to teammates; unassuming, inspiring leadership—were not just “skills.” These were virtues, and he carried them over into his family, asking his children to give their best, even as he asked it of his teammates, setting for those at home high standards of performance coupled with loving support.

As we Catholics understand them, virtues are the habits of mind and heart that make us, over time, the kind of people God intends us to be—the kind of people who can live with God forever.

And that is why when our memories turn back to those fall afternoons of 30 and 40 years ago, and we remember the cheers that rang out from 33rd Street celebrating the feats of a man in black high-top football shoes, I believe we may hear an echo of what we pray at the Eucharist. Johnny Unitas will hear from the Lord and from his angels and saints, prophets and martyrs: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of time.”


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