According to a source as esteemed and knowledgable as anyone could imagine, the Baltimore Colts are a five-star, bet-the-mortgage cinch to beat the spread against New England when the NFL begins its serious season Sunday.

Our expert's four-star choice is Buffalo plus the points against the Jets, his three-star pick is Atlanta over New Orleans and his hedging-a-bit, two-star selection is Houston and the points over Los Angeles. In the colleges, his best bets, in order, are: Mississippi over Tulane, Texas A&M over California and South Carolina over Wake Forest.

This is one tout who does not reside under a rock or hide in ads behind such as "Bailout Bill." To the potential customers he suggests will be sporting new Cadillacs by the Super Bowl, the man comes right out and identifies himself as . . .

John Unitas.

Yeah, it hit me hard, too. In middle age, we see the heroes of our youth with more tolerant eyes, that the saintly standards we often set for athletes are both unrealistic and unfair. But Johnny U. a brazen tout? The quarterback who set impeccable standards on the field feeding the swamp creatures of sport off it? Johnny U. reduced to pitches such as:

"I will knock down the Las Vegas point spread for you every weekend from now on up to the Super Bowl. And by that time I'm sure -- as you're driving around in your new Cadillac -- you'll know what real handicapping is all about . . .

"If you've never placed a wager before, I can understand if you're not too sure . . In that case (heck, I know you'll win and want to jump in for the full deal later), I'll give you two sample issues of 'The Huddle' for free."

Yesterday afternoon, neither Unitas nor anyone else was answering the 800 number the cover letter and brochure provided; he also was not at his Baltimore restaurant. But the fellow who eventually came to the office phone of one of Baltimore's most prominent touts gave out Unitas' first-weekend picks. He said Unitas' phones would be working shortly.

So fresh information about Johnny the T. was not immediately available. Although the fellow who passed on the picks said otherwise, it is very difficult to imagine Unitas making every pick himself. Who could imagine Unitas poring with monkish dedication over hundreds of statistical breakdowns and establishing a network of injury informers on each team?

Not that Unitas could not provide such a perfectly legal service. His forte, after all, was the ability to mentally dissect a defense and then hum the ball either to Raymond Berry on routes precise to the inch or so long and sure Lenny Moore need not break stride until he took it into the end zone.

It was Unitas, as a television analyst, who had the definitive line about Billy Kilmer's passes: they wobbled so badly a receiver could choose which end to grab. Few understood the game better, or were less bashful about being publicly critical of Colt strategy when the team finally ripped the uniform off him.

Unitas and the late-'50s Colts were religion in an area that included parts of Pennsylvania as well as Baltimore. So at least one pair of eyes danced in astonishment at the part of the cover letter, to "Dear Football Fan," that read: "From now on, I said to myself, if I'm going to be giving out betting advice, I'm going to have to start getting paid for it."

This may get the questions stirring again, the ones about Unitas' overtime strategy against the Giants in the '58 NFL championship game, how it not only won the title for the Colts but also beat the spread and allowed owner Carroll Rosenbloom to cash an enormous bet.

"(Unitas) isn't resting on his laurels," the brochure trumpets, "he's in a new turkey shoot. This time, it's against the Las Vegas spread. Wouldn't you like to be on a team that's got this kind of man calling the signals?"

To the Wall Street Journal this week, Unitas said: "I'll just be giving out information, not telling people what to do with it. If they want to bet, that's up to them." John's thoughts, at least 20 and perhaps up to 32 pages a week in "The Huddle," are going for $50 a season. For an extra $100, you can catch his late-breaking inspiration on the 800 number that is supposed to be working shortly.

Wonder if he wears those high tops while meditating?

Whether using that special mind in this new football venture will attract the attention of the NFL is uncertain. In the Colts' press guide, Unitas is listed as a "special consultant," although a team official said that meant nothing more than an occasional speech. According to the official, Unitas no longer is under contract to the Colts and the end-of-career contract that Rosenbloom gave Unitas was settled by the Colts about seven years ago.

I will leave the moral indignation about touts and the publications who accept their ads to others. Probably, it is time to legalize sports betting nationally, acknowledge that it exists on a grand scale and usually consumes people destined toward that fate, anyway.

Illegal nearly everywhere and unsavory as it might seem, sports gambling is so accepted that such as Unitas are willing to at least lend their names to a tout service, the way retired stars of an earlier generation allowed their reputations to endorse restaurants.

Decades ago, somebody probably fussed over an athlete opening a bar.

No sooner had the shock of the Golden Arm bleating about his Midas Mind started to wear off, than there appeared on my desk an ad announcing Jim Brown as the "newest member" of the National Sports Service Inc. ("For the best in football information from the best who ever played the game.")

It was not a good day.