I can still hear that familiar drawl emanating from a legendary radio booth. He's telling me what I missed if I didn't pick up the latest edition of The Washington Post or may have subliminally gotten me into cigar smoking with his famous ad reads for Old Virginia Tobacco. I listened to every word, good times and bad. Driving home from RFK and later FedExField, Sonny Jurgensen was the most respected voice of my favorite team, even if I wasn't old enough to know that his sharp insight was only topped by his perfect throws.
Sonny did something few are able to do: reinvent a legacy. For my father and his generation, he was by far, bar none the greatest quarterback in Redskins history. For my middle-aged group, Frank Herzog had the legendary Hall of Fame teammates and friends Sonny and Sam (Huff) guide us through the roller coaster of every Sunday. And they did it in a way that is hard to replicate, with acumen, humor, insight and gravitas.
I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, in the 1980s, when the Redskins were everything. When they won their first Super Bowl, the school systems shut down so the fans could come to Washington, D.C., for the parade. Joe Gibbs was set to become a football deity.
If Gibbs owned the town, Sonny was a close second. We turned the sound down on our televisions and turned up the radio call on game days. On Mondays and Fridays, Sonny joined the legendary News 4 Sports anchor George Michael to discuss the game, and it was his opinion that mattered most. Gibbs would sit on set with him, and you could tell there was an earned respect.
Sonny was a star on every platform. WUSA 9 anchor Glenn Brenner (my idol) used to host a program called "Redskins Sidelines" at the old studio location in Tenleytown. They brought in a studio audience for each taping, but getting tickets was beyond difficult. You had to know someone to get in. And it was raucous. I attended it once as a child. It happened to be a Dallas week, and the crowd was chanting "We Want Dallas" so loudly Glenn and the rest of the cast couldn't start the show because you wouldn't be able to hear the host and guests. That wasn't just about the team and its decade of wild success; it was about Sonny, the player who changed how we felt about the team on the field and became our link to what he hoped would be built upon after his retirement.
I can only recite the details of his playing career -- I wasn't alive for the majority of it -- but it goes like this: Sonny was a mid-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1950s. He served as a back-up for four seasons, including the one and only championship he'd be a part of in 1960. Norm Van Brocklin retired in 1961, and that's when Sonny got his shot. In that first season, he broke the NFL record for passing yards in a single season and tied the single season touchdown record. He was 800 yards better than Johnny Unitas that year. Only two quarterbacks had 20 or more touchdown passes. Sonny had 32.
Three years later, and for reasons not mainly associated with his ability on the field, Sonny was traded to Washington. It is singularly one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history. Over the next decade, Sonny broke Sammy Baugh's franchise record for passing yards. Norm Snead played six seasons in Philadelphia and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. In his final three seasons with the Eagles, he went 9-26-2. In the seasons between Sammy Baugh's retirement and the trade that brought Sonny to Washington, the Redskins had an aggregate record of 49-96-6. By the time Sonny's playing days ended, Washington attracted legendary coaches Vince Lombardi and George Allen and became an NFC power.
Sonny had a line of cigars: the SJ 9. Back in the early 2000s, when I was a Redskins beat reporter, host and eventually a sideline reporter on the broadcast team, Sonny would come to the training facility on Fridays to conduct the coach's interview that would air on the pregame show. He'd have an unlit cigar in his mouth that he'd chewed on for what looked like hours. He would then reach into his case and pull another one out, point it toward me and at the last second, Lucy-Football-Charlie Brown style, pull it away. It was a running joke….
He had no idea how badly I wanted him to give me that cigar.
This week, Washington plays Dallas. For Sonny, personally, the Eagles might have been a better fit to honor his legacy. He never forgot how they gave up on him and unwisely traded him to a direct rival. He beat the Eagles 13 of the 16 times he started against them after the deal. But Sonny became arguably the most prominent personality to come through this franchise for the past half century. And he knows better than anyone that it is Dallas that brings our blood to its highest boiling point. If Sonny is Washington football, then celebrating him on the day THE hated rival comes to town feels right to me, even if this season isn't going to end the way any of us want to. Truth be told, regardless of any game or season, Sonny was that reassuring voice that the next one, the next week, the next season, you just never know what might happen.
I'm glad we get to honor Sonny this week, a week after everyone is discussing choices at quarterback in the present and options for the future. Sonny was the answer for this team in the 1960's when few could have predicted that he'd even be made available. It's a reminder that you never know what can happen in an offseason. You never know who might end up changing your organization. And you never know when someone might come along and be a revered figure for generations of fans, some who saw him play and some who didn't.
There was a typical football Friday in my second season as a member of the broadcast team with Sonny and Sam. I was getting set to tape what was then known as Redskins Lunch. Sonny strolled in preparing to talk to coach Gibbs for the pregame show. He pulled out a cigar and pointed it toward me. I smirked. It's Friday, Sonny is going to pretend to hand me an SJ9, then everyone chuckles.
But this time, he let me keep it. I was stunned. I thought it was an elaborate joke. But it wasn't, and he didn't even say anything to me about it. He just did it. Picture being a child and running down the stairs on Christmas morning to see what is under the tree. That was me. And that was Sonny. He knew that was a big deal, but he didn't make a big deal of it. He was a master of being amazing but not making everyone acknowledge this fact.
I still have that cigar. It's encased as it is one of the most cherished items I have. And for Commanders fans, Sonny is someone worth cherishing for his effort, wit and loyalty. One day, someone will come along and be the answer under center. But that person can't wear No. 9. Playing is just the prerequisite to living up to Sonny's legacy.