A Tribute to Redskins Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen
Sunday was an odd day; it always feels strange when the Redskins have their scheduled bye week. With the 2019 Redskins only enjoying a single victory thus far, I found myself thinking back to my days as a kid watching Sonny Jurgensen.
Sonny was my first sports hero; my earliest Redskins memories dating back to the 1969 season coached by Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi. Jurgensen thrilled many a Redskins fan from 1964-1974.
Jurgensen was honored by the Redskins organization October 20, moments before the Redskins 9-0 loss to San Francisco.
The Redskins contacted Jurgensen’s family, asking how to honor him. It was suggested that a golf cart would be good for Sonny, now age 85, residing on a golf course.
The Redskins purchased a golf cart for Jurgensen and he was thrilled. For those unfamiliar: You might ask, “How good was Sonny Jurgensen”?
Sonny led the NFL in passing yards per game and total passing yards in five seasons.
He led the NFL in completions in four seasons.
Jurgensen had nine seasons in the top-ten in passing yards and completed passes.Sonny had ten seasons in the top-ten of the NFL for touchdown passes. Jurgensen racked up eight seasons in the top-ten in yards per passing attempt and comeback wins.
The Redskins legend had 12 seasons in the top-ten in completion percentage index.
No. 9 had ten seasons in the top-ten in touchdown passes percentage index.
Sonny once held the NFL record for most completions in a season (288) in 1967, which shows you how much the game has changed over the last 50 years.
Jurgensen is tied for the NFL record for longest completion of 99 yards to Jerry Allen in 1968.
Redskins’ fans can thank Sonny’s father for bringing them many great Redskins moments. When Sonny was in high school he played football, basketball and baseball. He was very good in basketball and actually liked it more. One day following a grueling football practice he came home and determined he would tell his dad how he felt, “I think I am going to quit football. I’m better at basketball anyway.”
To which Sonny said his father responded, “You quit football, you quit eating here, too." Thank you, Mr Jurgensen.
Growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, Jurgensen was recruited by Duke and he recalled University of North Carolina (UNC) fans in Wilmington telling him he should go play at UNC, because they would all give him a hard time when UNC beat Duke.
Jurgensen usually liked to remind those that engaged him, that during his time at Duke, the Blue Devils never lost to UNC. UNC fans from Wilmington never raised the subject to him again after his time with the Blue Devils.
Jurgensen was drafted by Philadelphia in round four of the 1957 draft, the fifth quarterback taken. Len Dawson, Milt Plum, Ronny Knox and Bobby Cox were all drafted ahead of Sonny.
He was the backup for fellow Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin; a part of the Eagles team that won the 1960 NFL Championship by defeating the Green Bay Packers.
The very next season (1961) it was Jurgensen's turn to take over the Eagles offense. The Eagles finished 10-4 as Sonny led the NFL in completions (235), passing yards (3,723) and touchdowns (32).
After leading the NFL again in passing yards in 1962 with 3,261, Jurgensen played injured in 1963. The Eagles finished 2-10-2 and Nick Skorich was fired and replaced with Joe Kuharich.
The new Eagles head coach met with Sonny and the two discussed the Eagles future and Sonny left the meeting feeling better regarding the upcoming season.
Walking a few blocks to a Philadelphia delicatessen, Jurgensen met some friends and ate his lunch.
A few minutes later a couple of guys entered the door, saw Sonny and informed him they had just heard on the radio the Eagles had traded Jurgensen to the Redskins for QB Norm Snead.
Sonny was shocked; but years later said, “It was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it gave me an opportunity to start fresh again.”
When the Eagles came to Washington October 11, 1964 for the first meeting of the division rivals since the trade, all Jurgensen did was throw five TD passes in a 35-20 Redskins win.
“You didn’t like me then; how you like me now?”, Jurgensen later dead-panned.
Sonny led the NFL in completions and passing yards in 1966, 1967 and 1969, despite his offensive line giving up the most sacks in 1969 (40).
The Redskins had their first winning season (7-5-2) since 1955, when they were (8-4).
However, Lombardi began to experience abdominal pain, and died from cancer just prior to the 1970 season.
Jurgensen led the NFL in completion percentage in that 1970 season, but the Redskins were (6-8) and looking for a new head coach to replace a legend.
George Allen (you know that name!) became that new head coach, a defensive master-mind who had been the defensive coordinator for the 1963 champion Chicago Bears, and the inventor of the "nickel" defense.
Jurgensen, however, broke his shoulder in a preseason game and Allen began to prefer the ball-control offense of Billy Kilmer.
When the offense sputtered with Kilmer in 1972, Sonny led the Redskins to victories over Philadelphia and St Louis. Dallas came to RFK Stadium and led the Redskins 13-0 and 20-7 but the Redskins rallied to win 24-20.
The next week in Yankee Stadium against the Giants, Sonny, dropped back and stepped into an uneven spot on the turf and tore his Achilles tendon.
Kilmer played well enough to keep the ‘Skins winning all the way to Super Bowl VII.
Jurgensen, now age 38, was missing his one opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.
Allen made him feel even worse, when before the game, The Redskins on-field general informed Jurgensen (still using crutches) he did not want him down on the sideline. Sonny was crushed, wanting to be there to converse with Kilmer during the game. Allen had him sit up in Jack Kent Cooke’s suite at the LA Coliseum, unable to be a part of the team.
Sonny was 6-2 in games he started in 1973 and 1974, including a thrilling last-minute drive down the field, connecting with Larry Smith at the end zone line to defeat the Miami Dolphins 20-17 in RFK.
At age 40, Jurgensen retired after the season concluded.
Sonny quickly was hired by CBS to broadcast NFC games and would work with announcers Lindsey Nelson, Vin Scully and Pat Summerall.
In the DMV, Sonny was hugely popular working for WTOP TV 9 and later WRC TV 4, providing Redskins analysis.
There was also "Redskins Sidelines" a Monday night television show during the regular season that Sonny co-hosted with Warner Wolf and then Glenn Brenner.
No. 9 became part of the Redskins radio broadcast team in 1981, joining Frank Herzog and fellow Hall of Famer, Sam Huff.
Sonny was ultra prepared for the job, as he played in an era where the quarterback called his own plays, and for nearly 40 years, he displayed the ability to still understand and dissect NFL offenses.
After spending 62 years in football and 54 with the Redskins organization, with all of the success, fame and popularity, you might ask what kind of man was Sonny Jurgensen?
While Allen preferred Kilmer to be his new QB, Jurgensen did not cause friction on the team, but rather chose to befriend Kilmer and the two remain friends to this day.
Chris Cooley, who traveled and worked with Jurgensen on Redskins radio broadcasts said, “Sonny is honest, and I love that about him. He never took himself too seriously.”
After a Redskins training camp practice in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Sonny was walking around and saw this young boy (Steve Buckhantz nephew) with his Nerf football. Sonny approached the boy and began playing catch with him.
After a few passes, the boy completely unaware of who Sonny was, declared, “Hey, you have a pretty good spiral.” To which Sonny smiled and replied, “Thanks I’ve got a little experience.”
Editors Note: Information from Andy Pollin - ESPN 630 AM (Aug. 9, 2019), Andy Ockershausen - 'Our Town' interviews 2016, NFL Reference Statistics & Larry Michael, Washington Redskins Chief Content Officer/SVP were used in this tribute.
Ivan Lambert is a lifelong die-hard Washington Redskins fan, raised in Berryville, Virginia. He is married and the father of two fine young men. He is currently a sports correspondent for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida and can be found on Twitter @IvanLambert18