BALTIMORE -- Johnny Unitas was in the midst of a Hall of
Fame career when he walked off the field and handed his helmet to a
young member of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band.
The white helmet, with a blue horseshoe on each side and the
numbers 1 and 9 on the back separated by a blue stripe, became a
treasured item in John Ziemann's personal memorabilia collection.
And now, it's gone.
The helmet will go to the highest bidder at a sports memorabilia
auction in Exton, Pa. on Friday and Saturday. Also up for auction:
The first contract Unitas signed with the Colts, a sterling silver
tea service presented to the quarterback after the Colts won the
1959 world championship, and the belts Unitas received in 1959 and
1964 as a finalist for the S. Rae Hickok Professional Athlete of
the Year Award.
But the prized piece is the helmet, a relic from the 1960s which
could fetch between $20,000 and $30,000.
Ziemann, now 59, was a teenager when he got the helmet. He can't
remember the exact year, but will never forget the moment.
"Back in those days, the players and the band made appearances
together. Everybody knew each other," Ziemann recalled. "After
the last game that year, Johnny told me they were getting new
helmets next season, so he gave me that one."
Ziemann never treated the helmet as a valuable commodity. It was
a gift from a friend. And so, it was with great reluctance and much
regret that he sold the helmet to a private collector.
"Believe me, it was tough. It was agonizing," Ziemann said.
"It saddened me to sell it, but I'm not a rich person and a
charity needed money. I made a choice. It had to be done."
Ziemann figured the helmet's new owner would cherish the
keepsake. It has instead been put up for auction, and will probably
receive a bid equivalent to the price of a new car.
"I didn't get nearly that much," Ziemann lamented.
Unitas retired in 1973 and died of a heart attack in 2002 at age
69. Memorabilia associated with the old-school quarterback becomes
more valuable with each passing year. So David Hunt, president of
Hunt Auctions in Exton, Pa., expects some impressive bids this
Unitas' rookie contract should draw at least $5,000. It might
even fetch what Unitas earned that season: $7,500.
The four-page contract, an original copy signed by Unitas and
his mother on Jan. 31, 1956, is being sold by the family of the
late Don Kellett, then the Colts' general manager who kept it in
"The contract is unique. It's like a historical document,"
But the helmet, which has the original two-bar faceguard
securely in place, is expected to receive far more attention.
"Because it's game-used, it's of interest to collectors and
historians. Those are the kind of things you just can't get
easily," Hunt said. "The rarity is significant."
Some people collect memorabilia to make a profit. Others are
"There are times when the original owners have tears in their
eyes when putting items up for auction," Hunt said. "Some
collectors, the object takes them back to a place where they were
in the past. There is no right or wrong. But almost always, people
who buy these things cherish them."