Johnny Unitas was standing in the shadows of the trees surrounding the Baltimore Colts' practice field, watching his former team prepare for the 1979 season. His son, Joseph, age 5, was hugging a football and making deft cuts between the elms. "Daddy," he called, "were you the man who ran with the ball?"
Unitas, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame a week ago, replied, "No, sir, I was the man who threw the ball."
Out on the field, Bert Jones, who now is the man who throws the ball for the Baltimore Colts, was warming up. Jones looks just a little bit like a grown-up version of Unitas' son, something many Baltimore fans have always expected him to be.
Jones does not believe in living in the past, anyone's past. But this summer, he has had no choice.
Last season, he started only three games for the Colts, because of a shoulder separation that occurred during the preseason. He reinjured it in one of his starts, against the New York Jets. In another game, nationally televised on ABC's Monday Night Football, he beat the Redskins on a 78-yard touchdown pass to Roger Carr.
This prompted some people, including Redskin Coach Jack Pardee, to wonder whether Jones as as good an actor as he is a quarterback.
"I wish I was," said Jones. "I was genuinely hurt. And I probably should not have been playing. If I had known the true mechanics of the situation, I probably wouldn't have done it."
The injury, Jones says, was real enough that until recently "I was truly wondering if I'd play this season."
Jones, at 27, is quite literally the fair-haired boy, the guy who seems to have it all. After the 1978 season, he went home to Louisiana to face the prospect of being separated from it all by his partially separated shoulder.
During the offseason, he lifted weights, played tennis, and played catch with his father, William A. (Dub) Jones, a former halfback for the Cleveland Browns (1948-55) who, his sons says, still has the hands and the moves.
"The throwing mechanics have not been interrupted," said Jones. But some things are still hard to do, he added, reaching over his left shoulder, as if to scratch his back.
He is still apprehensive. "I can't help but be. Until someone knocks the cold hard stuffing out of me, I'm going to wonder what's gonna happen."
The Colts were apprehensive enough about his condition to acquire veteran quarterback Greg Landry from the Detroit Lions. But Jones is, as he would say, "key."
The Colts won three consecutive division championships with him. They finished 5-11 without him.
That fact had something to do with Jones' decision to play hurt, something he says he would not do again. "There was pressure from myself," he said.
And from the team? "The only pressure was, "We're a damn good team when you're there. And we're not that much when you're not." "
The remark could be taken as braggadocio.
From Jones' point of view, he was merely stating a fact. And Bert Jones is nothing if not a matter of-fact guy.
Jones grew up in Ruston, La. He was, his mother Schumpert said, "just a normal boy," who "lost his shoes a lot." He liked to hunt, fish and get himself into trouble.
He sounds like Tom Sawyer. But Mrs. Jones hesitated. "Was Tom the good one? Or was he more like Huck Finn?"
In summers, Jones and his four brothers went to training camp with their daddy, then the Browns' offensive coach, the way other kids to go the office. Jones grew up with Cleveland quarterbacks, then Frank Ryan and Jim Minowski. John Unitas was not his hero.
In 1973, Jones was the No. 1 draft pick and the second player selected. The All-America from Louisiana State was going to make everyone forget John Unitas.
Ever since then, people have been trying to find some flaw in this seemingly perfect good 'ole country boy, the father of 1-year-old twins, who built a house for himself and wife Danni across the street from his parents. If it has been easier to find flaws - bunions and buck teeth - than it has been to get a fix on him, his mother thinks she knows why.
"He's such a normal person, he's just not very good copy," said Mrs. Jones. "You can only talk so much about hunting and fishing and loving what you're doing while you're doing it."
"I don't think I'm a real deep person," Jones said. "I think everyone knows pretty much what I'm like, what I feel, and how I act."
The lack of anything remotely neurotic in his behavior has created the impression that Jones is just too good to be true: That, he says dead pan just isn't the case. "Two-Beer Bert," as he was known in his early days in Baltimore, says, "I drink a bottle of wine and go to bed with my wife."
"People can write and make you the saint of the world," he continued. "I'm not. Never have been." It's just that "what's relatively bad for me," he added, "may be goody-two shoes some place else."
Jones has been known to turn down endorsements worth "$25,000 for two days of shooting," said Ernie Accorsi, the Colts' assistant general manager, "because he thought they were silly."
"Of course," Accorsi added, "it helps to be independent."
Jones' independence was evident in 1975 when Colt owner Robert Irsay forced Coach Ted Marchibroda to resign after a poor preseason. Jones threatened to leave the team at the end of the season if Marchibroda was not reinstated. He was.
"Joe Smith who gains 250 yards a season is going to be put on waivers if he does that," said Ernie Accorsi. "Jones isn't. I think he was conscious of the fact that he was the only one who could get away with it."
Bert Jones is more "sivilized" than Huck Finn would ever have owned up to. He stopped dipping snuff eight weeks ago, though he still punctuates his statements with sreams of chewing tobacco. He doesn't like being thought of as "a little bitty hillbilly," which, he says, "I am to a certain extent. But I think besides living in a dung hill, I do a lot of things."
He owns 200 head of cattle, flies his own plane, and works in the family owned Ruston Lumber & Supply Co., which he intends to go into full-time when his football career is over, even if it means digging ditches.
He likes country music but also listens to jazz, and, even some semi-classical piano. He can also tell you that the frost in Burgundy, France, will drive up the prices on good wine this year.
If in the past his image has seemed one dimensional, it is in part because he was not always willing to talk about this other side. "In the past, I've refrained from saying some things...I'm pretty hard to pry things out of," he admits.
"Being written about can make you grow quite calloused," he added, "especially if you're not as articulate as you'd like to be. Consequently, you'll read things that speak your words and aren't wrong but don't necessarily express the truth of what you're saying."
Jones is still "protective of my inner self but a little bit more open" than he used to be. "I know how you can say things better nowadays," he said.
"I am very concerned about my image or I wouldn't hide it so much. I am very concerned about what people think about me because I don't care what anybody says, everybody has a certain degree of vanity and I have a great deal.
"I'm very proud and boastful of what I do and the way I do it. I think its an attribute to have. I don't think I would have excelled if I had not."
Often Jones goes hunting with his friend and roommate, left guard Bob Pratt. Once during the offseason, the two went duck hunting in Louisiana. "I haven't called much," said Pratt. "Bert's done it some but he wasn't very good, but it's better than it was." drove down the road practicing his duck call for an hour. He's still not very good, but it's better than it was."
Whether it is calling ducks, or calling plays, Pratt says, Jones is determined to be the best. That can be difficult when you are trying to fill the high-topped shoes of one John Unitas. CAPTION: Picture, Bert Jones, right, watches teammates. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post