NFL puts its foot down on Unitas shoe homage

All Peyton Manning wanted was to do the right thing. As the quarterback of the Colts, Manning thought he should do something to memorialize the death of another Colts quarterback — one who wore a crewcut and a pair of dirty, black high-tops.

So the day after Johnny Unitas died, Manning called his shoe people at Reebok and ordered three pairs of black high-top shoes, size 13. He thought he would wear them in tomorrow's game with Miami. He thought everybody would be touched.

But, just to be sure, Manning called the Unitas family. He had heard that while Unitas loved the Baltimore Colts he was not too fond of the franchise after it moved to Indianapolis. He wanted to make sure that wearing black high-tops would not serve to bring more heartbreak.

The quarterback's son, Joe Unitas, told Manning the family would be honored.

Then the iron fist of the NFL came crashing down.

The Colts, you see, don't wear black shoes. They wear white shoes. And in the color-coded world of the NFL, where conformity matters, Manning wearing black high-tops would not be tolerated. If he chose to take the field with them on, he would face a "substantial" fine.

Nobody said how much the fine would be but apparently it would run well into the thousands of dollars. Manning decided not to challenge their edict.

Leave it to the NFL. It will crush the heart out of anything good as long as it protects the almighty rule book. As a result a great tribute lies in waste.

"I'm biased because I'm a quarterback, but he was one of the most influential guys at the quarterback position," Manning told reporters in Indianapolis yesterday. "Maybe every quarterback ought to wear black high-top cleats this week."

Of course that would be blasphemy, a mutiny beyond anything they have seen in the NFL offices. The league takes uniform indiscretions seriously, hiring people to sit in press boxes on Sunday afternoons with the primary responsibility of identifying uniform violations. Players have been ordered out of games if their socks are too low or their pants not just right. This is the way it is in the league that brought you television blackouts. There is no room for bending a rule to do the right thing. Only this time they might have gone too far.

They don't make quarterbacks like Unitas anymore, tough, resilient fighters who are decent, unpretentious men off the field. But if they did, Manning might come close. When he won the Unitas Award as the best college quarterback a few years back, it seemed too perfect that he was destined to become the Colts' first pick in the 1998 draft. There were so many similarities.

"Come on, Peyton's the one guy who never tries to bring attention to himself," said Seahawks cornerback Shawn Springs, himself a recipient of many uniform fines from the league. "He's a class act. Peyton is a good dude, man."

At least you can say one thing about the NFL, it's consistent when it comes to defying the decent tribute. In the days after Walter Payton died, several of the league's running backs said they wanted to wear his No. 34 the next Sunday in commemoration of the game's all-time rusher. The league shuddered at the very suggestion.

"On the league side we want to be able to create a uniform policy," said Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren, who is the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee and helps set the rules. "It was getting a little haywire there at one point. Guys had streamers hanging off and cutoff jerseys and decals on their helmets. There's good reason to (have these rules)."

And in perhaps the best explanation anyone from the NFL has given about the reasons behind the uniform rules, Holmgren talked about safety issues and making sure the players had all the right equipment, and that the game is so rough and physical that there needs to be continuity in the way players dress. He said the competition committee is asked to reconsider these rules every year, and every year the committee reaffirms its stance against individuality.

"I would let (Manning) do it if it was me," Holmgren said. "But that's how important Johnny Unitas was to me."

He was important to a lot of people. He might have been the greatest quarterback ever. But Peyton Manning can't pay a decent, subtle tribute to Unitas' memory. That would be too egregious a display of self-importance.

Instead the league of the overdone, 40-minute halftime shows, Up With People and Paul McCartney will honor Unitas in stadiums across the country tomorrow.

That will no doubt be decent and subtle.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or