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Thursday, December 26, 2002
Updated: December 27, 4:12 PM ET
Icons remembered

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

If we measure years in losses, this was a very big year. Johnny U and Teddy Ballgame are gone.

Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas feared nothing when he stepped on the football field.
We lost Johnny's feet. So much steady, unhurried calm in those high-tops, so much firmly-planted vision. The shoes would not be flustered; they would not fail. They walked quiet and cool from the huddle to the line, kicking aside dirt and doubt.

We lost Ted's wrists, cocked back like a hammer on a gun, all clean action and pop. Even years after he stopped playing, the hands couldn't stand to be idle and batless -- they had to swing, cut the air, feel the line, sense the moment, take a cut. They found their form, became useful, bundled at the knob of the bat. The bat, too, was somehow more its righteous, lyrical self when it sidled up to them.

Gone is the Unitas flat-top -- the sharp edge that seemed to cut back against a cutting wind, that seemed to be a dictionary sketch alongside the word "steadfast."

Gone are the Williams eyes. Could they really see the stitches on the ball in flight? Could they actually take a snapshot of the moment when leather meets wood? Could they see the flaws in another hitter's swing almost instantly? Could they stare into the soul of a pitcher, and spot the spot he wanted to hit before he did?

Ted Williams
No one personified perfection at the plate like Ted Williams.
The shoulders that lurked under that blue Colts parka. The ferocious, studied hunch of Unitas. The quiet rock of an arm at rest. The shrouded shape of will and determination. Gone. The torque, the turn in Williams' chest. His upper-body let loose, shot like an arrow chasing the ball it's just launched. Gone.

The thought and feeling -- the sense -- of throwing maybe the sweetest, tightest, most pointed and purposeful ball that's ever been thrown (over and over again, on big plays, insignificant plays and sidelines warm-up drills) is no more.

The idea (the ideal) that runs from the batter's head to his fingers, and comes bolting back on contact as a delicious shiver straight to the satisfied heart, is no more.

The quiet confidence has passed.

The brilliant bounce and strut is a thing of the past.

The Year in Review
Ted Williams and Johnny Unitas were the two most notable deaths in the sports world in 2002. Here are some others who created moments and memories for us but passed away this year.

SportsNation has also compiled our rankings of the best and worst of 2002. Check out our top 10 lists and then voice your opinion by voting in the polls.

Most memorable moment
Athlete of the Year
Best moves
Worst moves
Feuds of the year
Rookies of the year
Ugliest moments
Teams of the year
Flops of the year
Fantasy player of the year

Forty-seven straight TD-games, .406. Numbers in books, not flesh.

The Colt and the Kid are done.

They're not completely gone, of course, because they remain in us and for us as images and ideas.

Bum a ride in Baltimore this afternoon. Just wave your hand on a street corner. Odds are, some kind soul will pick you up and take you where you need to go. Along the way, he'll tell you Johnny U used to do the same for people all the time, even when he was a big-shot quarterback. He'll tell you that was the thing about Johnny: He was one of the guys, and at the same time, he wasn't; he was basic and basically great, like us and like no one we'd ever seen.

Stop a guy on the street in Boston today and he'll tell you a Splendid Splinter story -- one of his own, one his dad told him, one that's been making the rounds for years. Ask him to describe the swing and he'll stumble and reach for words that sweep upward, move quickly, seem perfectly timed and big enough to suit their occasion, whatever the occasion. He'll try for these words, then he'll smile quietly, just glad for the chance to think of Williams, and hopeful he'll get the chance again tomorrow.

These guys, and folks just like them all over Baltimore and New England, and all over the country, carry Unitas and Williams around with them. They have for years and will for all the years they've got left, and they'll pass their memories on to their kids and grandkids. The legends aren't going anywhere.

Still, there's an emptiness about heading into '03 without the men themselves.

Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas was one of the NFL's most enduring superstars.
We miss the men. We miss the gnarled hands that were once the hands that threw the ball downfield. We miss the prickly, bright voice that was once and always the voice of the Kid who slapped balls and galloped around the yard.

We have footage and photographs. We can watch Unitas shuffle back and peer ahead. We can look back on Williams going head-to-head with Joe D in '41, or going deep for the last time in his last AB in 1960. These things inspire. They stoke the fires of our devotion. They'll sustain our feeling for Johnny the hero and Ted the legend.

Still, even though it's been decades since either one took a snap or a swing, knowing they're gone gets us.

They were fixed stars and we gravitated around them. Without them, we float a little more untethered and anxious in the world.

We can remember coming into their orbits. We were young, they were invincible. We were who we were in relation to them: a Unitas man, the son or grandson of a Unitas man; one of the Williams tribe, as long as we could remember -- forever, it seemed. Who are we now, without the star at the center of our system? Will we hold together? What paths will we follow without them? If they're vulnerable, what kind of peril must we be in, what kind of time must be passing and taking its toll on us?

Ted Williams
Almost 40 years after his last AB, Ted Williams still draws a crowd.
Their presence, their bodies, meant something. Johnny U engineered the drive against the Giants in '58. He was the guy. He alone knew what it took, what it felt like. It was Teddy Ballgame who stepped in eight times on the last day of the '41 season, with .400 on the line. Didn't nobody else do that. Johnny Unitas was leadership. Ted Williams was great hitting, scientific hitting, hitting that had the perfect blend of intuition, intelligence and strength. Now, minus the men themselves, these are just abstract ideas, they're just whiffs and traces, shadows on a wall, ideal forms that may or may not exist, that may or may not mean anything. As long as Unitas and Williams drew breath, the ideas were embodied, material. You could point to them. Sure, you'd say, vision, fearlessness ... I know these things. I know Johnny Unitas. Yes, you'd say, I know what hitting is. It's Ted Williams.

And maybe what gets us as much as anything is the thought that icons -- the kind a league is built on and a city is fiercely loyal to, the kind major league players gather around on the infield grass at the All-Star game -- are a rare, maybe vanishing, breed. We still have Willie Mays. Jim Brown. Who else, really? We lose two like Unitas and Williams and we wonder, who will replace them, who will generate the feelings of awe and devotion we felt for them? Brett Favre is a marvelous player. Is he an icon? Will he ever be? Barry Bonds is a transcendent hitter. Is he an icon? Can we imagine it? We lose these two giants, and we wonder: Are there more coming? Will others feed our imaginations and bear up under the weight of our expectations in the same steady, spectacular way? Will we gravitate again?

And so, we miss the men.

Eric Neel reviews is a regular columnist for Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.