Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I was never much of a sports fan, probably because my father was not into sports. Neither my brother nor I had any desire to participate in organized sports. I was especially unsuited for it: chubby, awkward, poor hand/eye coordination, etc. The only sport I ever held a life-long interest in was football. As a child growing up in Baltimore during the late 60s, Johnny Unitas was a god. My family worshipped Unitas and the Colts in front of the t.v. every Sunday afternoon. My mom could take on the histrionic behavior of a revival tent show regular, particularly when the Colts scored a touchdown. She’d leap off the couch, stomp, scream, and clap her hands like she had just seen Jesus. I was some times worried that she might throw herself out the living room window. Thus was the power of football in Baltimore back then. Those from outside the city can marvel at the amazing performance of the underdog Jets during the 1969 Super Bowl. Baltimore fans from that era only feel heartbreak.

I relate all this only to introduce the next action figure that loomed in my early life, Johnny Hero. This 13-inch entry into the action figure world was designed to capitalize on professional sports the same way G.I. Joe capitalized on the armed services and Captain Action capitalized on the super hero craze. Johnny himself was a bulky figure made of foam rubber molded onto a wire frame. He was dressed in a generic track uniform and his plastic head was shaped into a rather bland countenance, sort of like G.I. Joe meets the early Ken doll. His hands were giant, flat things with small points sticking out of them, designed to be inserted into the balls and bats sold separately. The accessories came as part of the outfit sets. Each set was a football or baseball uniform based on the 1965 or 1966 uniforms of Major League Baseball or the National/American Football Leagues.

As shown in this picture, I had a Baltimore Colts uniform to adorn my Johnny Hero. In fact, I had no knowledge that this was really a generic action figure with multiple uniforms available. I thought he was specifically made to be Johnny Unitas. Why not call him Johnny Hero, since Johnny Unitas was a hero and more to those of us in the town of crab cakes and National Bohemian beer. Johnny was another one of those figures I lugged around everywhere, and I do mean lugged since the guy weighed a ton to a three year old. I often took him into the bathtub with me; not a good idea for a toy made of foam rubber. He would lay on a towel for days drying out.

That’s what brought about the demise of my hero in blue and white. The foam rubber body eventually dry-rotted, turning my beloved Johnny U into something from George Romero’s nightmares. He eventually entered the action figure hall of fame in Trash Can, U.S.A.

A few years ago, I got the bug to create a new Johnny Unitas action figure for my collection. I managed to nab an old Johnny Hero Colts uniform on eBay. Of course, any authentic Johnny Hero figure would be rare and expensive, and most likely dry-rotted all to hell, so I purchased a figure from Cotswold Collectibles that kinda sorta looked like Johnny U, and also bought a figure that had flexible hands. I swapped the hands on the figures, put the Colts uniform on the figure, and stuck the football into the flexible right hand with a toothpick. My uniform didn’t come with shoulder pads, so I invented some makeshift pads with some strap-on armor pieces from a G.I. Joe ninja figure. As a final touch, I created some stick-on numbers so that the uniform would be emblazoned with the famous number 19. Here is a picture of the final results:

Although I am now a Ravens fan, I will always think of the Colts as Baltimore’s team. Robert “Darth” Irsay may have bought the franchise and smuggled it to Indianapolis during the dark of night, but the heart and soul of what the team once was still exists in all fans old enough to remember.

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