Editor’s note: In this unprecedented, unexpected time with no games to watch, we reminisce about the stories behind the coolest piece of sports memorabilia we own.
My parents dropped me off at the mall one evening in the early 1990s, and I walked with purpose to the Montgomery Ward entrance, where I expected to encounter an eager throng.
Instead, I arrived upon a small, quiet gathering.
So I checked the watch on my left wrist while I held a book — “Sidelines: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Sport” — in my right hand.
Did I have the date or time wrong? The wrong store?
Wasn’t the greatest quarterback of all time supposed to be here in the next few minutes to sign autographs for an adoring mass of fanatics? Where were they?
I looked around anxiously, an uncertain teenager in a modest group of adults. I considered leaving, figuring surely I had flubbed some detail.
Right about then, an older gentleman strolled casually into the scene. He was wearing an overcoat, and his hair was parted on the side rather than styled in that famous flat-top. Even so, I recognized him right away.
I’d never been in the company of greatness, and I was thrown off by Johnny Unitas’ low-key entrance. Maybe, in my naive young mind, I thought someone of his legend got carried around everywhere on a garish litter by fully-padded football men. A bugler might announce his presence, and he’d always be wearing his familiar blue No. 19 Colts jersey.
But, no. The greatest quarterback of all time was all alone, and in plainclothes. This seemed as odd to me as the size of the crowd that had shown up to meet American sports royalty.
Unitas found a store representative and soon took a seat at a table. A line formed, and I was near the front.
Understand: I wasn’t an autograph collector, per se. Yes, a few years earlier at that same mall, I’d purchased a book that listed addresses of numerous professional athletes. And I’d sent letters to several of my favorites, showering them with praise and asking for their signatures. Dave Winfield. Ozzie Smith. Tony Gwynn. Bo Jackson. Jose Canseco.
I never got any letters back — except those marked “Return to sender.”
So I gave up.
But soon after my folks had gifted me “Sidelines” — an official licensed publication of the NFL — for Christmas that year, an ad in the local paper announced Unitas would be appearing to sign just that book.
This had to be as close to a sure thing as there was in the autograph game — if I could get a good spot in the line I imagined would be stretching around the entire building.
Turns out, as the event started, I was just a handful of people away from the greatest quarterback of all time, who held thick, black marker.
When it was my turn, I approached sheepishly and handed him my book. I was too nervous to say anything, especially since this man had made football history and captured the hearts of an entire city as he set the blueprint for modern-day quarterbacking decades before I was even born.
After he’d signed “Best wishes, Johnny Unitas” on the color photo of himself in action on page 182, he closed the book and looked up at me while handing it back.
I thanked him, and I felt like I couldn’t let this moment pass without something more. So, unsure what else to do, I stuck out my skinny, clammy hand. He shook it — with a right hand that was attached to his famous golden arm.
That was it. The interaction was simple and lackluster, much like the entire event. But I’ll never forget it.
I keep the book safely in the cardboard cover that it came in. It’s not on display in my home, but it’s my most prized piece of sports memorabilia.
I Googled that book Monday, and copies of it can be had online for around $5. Mine’s worth way more than that, but it’s not for sale.
The morning after the signing event, I checked out the local newspaper. There was a story about Unitas’ appearance at the store with a photo of him interacting with a fan — the woman who was in line directly behind me. She was even quoted in the article.
“Darn it,” I thought. I had been so close to having my experience with the greatest quarterback of all time preserved forever in the newspaper.
All these years later, with this column, I finally get to fix that.
Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith