Dealt a bad hand, Former QB Unitas in fight with NFL over disability claim
BALTIMORE - The "Golden Arm" could barely move a pen well enough to sign an autograph. The hand was cramped, and one of the greatest players in NFL history struggled to write his name for fans at a recent appearance at a restaurant here. Johnny Unitas threw for 290 touchdowns and 40,239 yards in his 18-year career and led the Baltimore Colts to four NFL championships, including Super Bowl V. Unitas helped make the NFL the biggest professional sports league in the United States. He was one of the league's brightest stars during the crucial years of the late 1950s and 1960s, when television helped create the foundation for the success pro football enjoys today. Now Unitas can't use the right hand that once gripped a football, even to button a shirt. "I have no use of it," he said. "I can't open zippers. I can't brush my teeth or shave with my right hand, any of that kind of stuff." But Johnny U, one of the icons of American sports, has been told by the NFL to look elsewhere for help. "That's not right," said Unitas, who lives on a farm just outside of the city. "I don't care what they say. This is from an injury that I sustained in the game of football. It's not something that happened to me out of the game." It's an embarrassing situation for the NFL. The league's retirement board, which consists of three members of management and three former players, denied Unitas' disability claim. Unitas said the injury occurred in a 1968 preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. "I was chased out of the pocket and getting ready to throw on the run," he said. "I was throwing. I was hit on the elbow, and the ball went one way and the elbow went the other way. They tore all the muscles in the arm. I was out for basically the whole season." Unitas didn't play again that season until the fourth quarter of the Colts' 16-7 loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. "They treated the arm as torn muscles in the arm, and I worked on it throughout the offseason," he said. "It got stronger, and I played the rest of my career up to 1974, when I retired." More than 20 years passed after Unitas retired before he would feel the effects of that injury. "About two years ago, I started to lose the strength in my fingers in my right hand," he said. "I went to a hand specialist, and he sent me to a nerve specialist. I got the nerves tested, and what they found was the nerves were pinned above the elbow, and the doctors decided what they had to do was to go in and release the nerves from the elbow." Doctors discovered two ligaments not attached to bone - they had been "left laying in there for 30 years," Unitas said. The doctors moved a nerve and reattached the muscle. But Unitas has seen little progress since the operation. "It's been a year and a half now, and the nerves really haven't come back or regenerated enough to give me any real strength in the hand," Unitas said. Unitas, 66, has had his share of health and financial problems. He had a heart attack six years ago. He never earned a lot as a player; he made about $25,000 in 1960 and about $250,000 in his last season. Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson will make $3.9 million this season. Unitas said he was told by the league's pension board that a player cannot file a claim more than 11 years after retirement. They also said a player cannot file a claim after the age of 55. "It didn't matter to them that I had this injury all this time," Unitas said. "It was one of those things that just lingered and didn't affect me at all until a year and a half ago. I never lost the strength in my hand until then, so what sense does that make?" League officials have a different version. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Unitas' claim was denied because he is currently working. "A neutral physician said he is not disabled," Aiello said. "A physician said he is able to work." Also, Aiello said that because Unitas currently receives a pension from the league, he cannot also get a disability payment. "Those are the issues," he said. Unitas does work. He is an executive vice president at an electronics company in Baltimore. He's not completely disabled. But he can't do the everyday things people take for granted. "I can't hold anything," said Unitas, who gets treatment three times a week. "I have strength in the arm. I can pick up things if I can lay them in the palm of my hand. But I can't do anything that involves using your fingers." Unitas said he has not been cashing his pension checks. "It's mandatory that I take the pension. But I haven't cashed any of the checks, because I think that if I started cashing the checks, they would have some other recourse against me," Unitas said. "All [the check] amounts to is a couple of hundred dollars. I'm not cashing the checks until I make a decision about whether or not I have a chance at getting a disability claim. If I ultimately decide I can't get any disability, then I guess I'll have to start cashing the checks." Unitas hopes to prevail eventually in a legal battle, but he feels he is running out of time. "I hope eventually something happens from my case that could benefit everyone, but I've got to make a decision soon," he said. "I don't want to keep taking these checks and not cashing them. I want to put that money to some use." For now, though, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the league - a symbol of NFL history - is reduced to trying to avoid performing a simple athletic feat in public, such as throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game. "I was in Houston for a program and was asked to throw out the first ball," Unitas said. "I told them I can't really do it, but they insisted. So I got to the ballpark, and when I went out to the mound, I motioned to the catcher to come closer. I still just bounced it to home plate. It was embarrassing."