October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

As quarterback of the Baltimore Colts from 1956-1972, Johnny Unitas was rarely sacked. He led the once laggard club to two Super Bowls, and along the way became Baltimore’s biggest hero since Francis Scott Key. But now the three-time Player of the Year has been blindsided by a paper line: the National Football League’s antigambling rule. Just three weeks ago Unitas, who was still listed by the Colts as a special consultant, began handicapping select NFL and college games in a weekly tip sheet called “Johnny Unitas’ The Huddle.” Some 2,500 subscribers pay $50 to read his ratings, and 600 of them pay another $75 for a “Hot Line” phone service that gives last-minute forecasts. Unitas insists, however, that his tip sheet does not encourage gambling. “I don’t gamble, but I enjoy making picks,” he says. “I may as well get paid for it.”

The NFL emphatically demurs. “We were surprised and disappointed,” League spokesman Jim Heffernan said when he heard of the venture. Stung not long ago by published charges that Houston Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler has been seen frequently in the company of a convicted bookmaker, the League seems particularly eager to disassociate itself from gambling. Two weeks ago Colts owner Robert Irsay informed Unitas that the NFL wanted him out, and last week a team spokesman tersely announced that Unitas’ courtesy title was being discontinued. Said Heffernan: “We’re satisfied.”

Unitas finds the League’s invocation of the antigambling rule hypocritical. “It’s a good rule but it applies to active players,” he says. “I have nothing to do with anybody.” Still, his insistence that he is not encouraging gambling seems disingenuous at best. A now-discontinued promotion for the weekly put it plainly: “Want to win big this year? Let John Unitas, the greatest quarterback of all times, show you how to beat the Las Vegas spread week after week.” Even the most recent sales pitch promises to help subscribers “make a decent living during the season.”

The Colts have not criticized their star openly. As one sportswriter put it, “If they blasted Unitas, it would kill ticket sales.” For his part, Unitas, 48, will survive. As the owner of a successful restaurant and an air courier service, Unitas does not have to rely on football for his income these days. Meanwhile, his latest venture has its ups and downs. Two weeks ago he picked only 3 out of 7 winners; last week he called 7 out of 8.

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