Knee Surgery Can't Get Unitis Back On Grid
August 18, 1992|by ANN WLAZELEK, The Morning Call
Former football player Johnny Unitis entered Lehigh Valley Hospital last week to have his knee replaced.

Well, no, not the Johnny Unitas who became a football legend as quarterback for the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s. The two spell their names differently and celebrate birthdays at least seven years apart.

But the 52-year-old Coaldale Unitis, who played football in high school, is a good sport about those who mistake his identity.

In fact, he hasn't always been the first to correct the false impression.

"In my younger days, I signed a few autographs," he admitted from his Salisbury Township hospital bed yesterday. "I tell people I'm his 52nd cousin."

Unitis apparently fooled a few hospital staffers as well in the week after his operation. Word got passed to the newspaper, which caught up with him in room 5C17B.

"Are you THE Johnny Unitas?" a reporter asked over the phone.

"Well, no," the patient confessed. "But I met him several times."

The confusion, Unitis said, is sporadic. "It happens especially when I go on vacation in Maryland."

Unlike his namesake, however, this Unitis didn't get injured on the football field.

A heavy equipment operator for a coal mining company, he injured his knee on the job in 1984. After a few operations, he decided to have it replaced. Dr. Clifford Vernick performed the surgery last Tuesday.

Yet Unitis WAS named after a football great, he said.

"My father played pro ball before there were leagues, in the 1920s," he said. "He played for the Big Greens of Coaldale, who played against the Pottsville Maroons."

Also, Unitis isn't the only one in the family to inherit a famous name, he said.

"I had to be a junior, so my son got hung with John Unitis `the third'."