The family and advisers of the late football legend Johnny Unitas are embroiled in a legal dispute over the marketing rights to his name, adding a painful postscript to the life of a Baltimore icon who was one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.
The feud pits John C. Unitas Jr. against his father's widow from a second marriage and two business advisers in a struggle for control of Unitas Management Corp., a father-son venture that has had modest success since its inception in 1991 -- 18 years after the former Baltimore Colts quarterback retired from football.
When Unitas died of a heart attack in 2002, at age 69, the longtime business advisers he had named as estate representatives -- attorney Charles M. Tatelbaum and accountant Howard Moffet -- assumed control of his majority holding of company stock. They installed themselves and Unitas's widow, Sandra, as directors and ousted Unitas's son as president.
"They tried to take something away from me that my father and I built together," John Unitas Jr. said recently. He added, "My father would be turning in his grave."
He and his father were the company's only shareholders. Unitas Jr. won a significant victory Sept. 21, when a panel of state appellate judges ruled that the estate representatives took control of the company improperly. The court found that an agreement called for the elder Unitas's shares to be purchased by the company after his death. The shares then would have been retired, leaving the younger Unitas as the only shareholder.
The dispute, however, promises to linger in court for some time. The estate, which earlier prevailed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, will ask the appellate court to reconsider its ruling, an attorney for the representatives said.
Moffet referred questions to attorney Stephen J. Nolan, and Tatelbaum did not return calls seeking comment. Efforts to reach Sandra Unitas, whose phone number is unlisted, through Moffet were unsuccessful.
Court records lay out the accusations that have shattered relationships among those who were closest to Unitas: that the younger Unitas squandered company money on country club fees and other personal indulgences; that Sandra Unitas failed to tell the children from her late husband's first marriage about a graveside dedication for their father; that the estate representatives improperly prevented John Unitas Jr. and his siblings from collecting on a $100,000 life insurance policy intended to benefit them.
Other families, of course, have fought bitterly over control of a famous name -- or even over a famous body. One macabre episode followed the 2002 death of former Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, whose body and severed head were cryonically frozen despite the vehement objection of one of his daughters.
Just as Williams was a Boston icon, so was Unitas in Baltimore. The city was without a major league franchise for the first half of the century. Before the Colts arrived in 1947, a Sports Illustrated writer once observed, "the best athlete in town was a woman duckpin bowler named Toots Barger."
Unitas's Colts career began inauspiciously: His first pass in 1957 was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. But he led the team to victory in the next game, and the next, and threw a record-setting series of touchdown passes in 47 straight games beginning later that season. He led the Colts to a 1958 championship victory over the New York Giants in what many commentators believe was the greatest game in NFL history. That title helped seal his celebrity and elevated pro football's popularity to a new level.
Baltimore had its hero, and so did the NFL. Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, and, on the NFL's 50th anniversary, the hall's selection committee named him the greatest quarterback ever.
According to Unitas Jr., Unitas Management Corp. -- which markets and licenses the rights to Unitas's name, likeness and other aspects of his legacy -- had revenue of $500,000 or more in a typical year in the 1990s. But the company, under the control of the estate representatives and Sandra Unitas, filed for bankruptcy protection last year. The younger Unitas said the action was unnecessary and that he suspects it was a ploy to make it appear that he mismanaged the company.
Nolan declined to comment on the bankruptcy.
Robert R. Bowie Jr., an attorney for Unitas Jr., said the company was successful enough to contribute toward the football legend's first and second families.
"Unitas Management had grown and become profitable and basically clothed and fed both families," Bowie said. "This wasn't a Fortune 500 company by any means, but it was . . . a good, solid profitable business."
Mark Roesler, a celebrity licensing executive whose firm has represented Unitas Management, estimated that between $100,000 and $400,000 could be spun out of the football legend's legacy each year. "When you've got a player like Johnny Unitas . . . his intellectual property rights are valuable," said Roesler, founder of CMG Worldwide.
The court case in Maryland turned on a 1992 shareholders' agreement that allowed the company to buy and retire Unitas's shares after his death. The transaction was to have been conducted this way: The company would maintain a $125,000 life insurance policy on Unitas. After his death, the company would turn over the policy to his estate, which could then collect on it. In return, the estate would give the company the elder Unitas's 90 percent stake in the business, which would then be retired.
Less than three weeks after his father's death on Sept. 11, 2002, Unitas Jr., as president of the company, turned over the policy to the estate. Rather than accepting the policy and transferring the shares of stock to the company, the estate's representatives, Tatelbaum and Moffet, convened a shareholders' meeting and voted to cancel the agreement.
In the months after Unitas's death, Moffet and Tatelbaum suggested that Unitas had raised questions about his son's spending. Tatelbaum said in an affidavit that a partial review of company records "discloses a pattern of, at least, improper conduct" by the son.
Unitas Jr. countered in an affidavit that the dispute "has been manufactured by Tatelbaum, Moffet, and my father's second wife, Sandra," and that the three kept him and his siblings from collecting $100,000 in life insurance from a policy unrelated to the policy in the shareholders' agreement.
Nolan said economics was one of the considerations in the decision to terminate the shareholders' agreement. He said that Moffet and Tatelbaum were obligated to act in the estate's best interest by retaining a financial stake in a company that could profit again from marketing the Unitas name.
In January 2003, Unitas Jr. wrote a letter warning Sandra Unitas and her three children that "the Unitas family is on the verge of breaking apart because of outside forces" and inviting them to meet at his home "without lawyers or anybody else present but the family."
The letter, now in the court record, warned that both sides would file lawsuits if they did not meet, adding, "The public will be brought into all of this and we will not have the chance ever again to be the family that our father wanted."
Unitas Jr. said he got no response.
"We don't talk," he said in an interview. "I don't know if we'll ever talk."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.