WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, SONNY JURGENSEN?

The author turns his lonely eyes to those heroes of yore, quarterbacks, and belittles today's snap-takers
September 04, 1984

Probably the Age of the Quarterback officially began the first time the position was used as a verb. That's very rare, the ultimate honor; very few positions ever get verbed. Nobody ever said: Nelson admiraled or Alexander emperored. But to quarterback—a meeting, a campaign, a battle, a heist. Ah, one sees it right away, the ultimate personification of intelligence, leadership and action. What boy didn't aspire to be a quarterback? What girl didn't dream that one would love her? The quarterback was to America as the warrior to Prussia, the sailor to Portugal, the tenor to Italy, the gigolo to France.

As you know, the Age of the Quarterback has ended. Oh, to be sure, there are those who still play quarterback—play at quarterback—but they are mere mortals assigned the task of taking the snap. Someone must perform that function. No, there are no more quarterbacks. Only snap-takers.

Remember, once upon a time, all the talk about how Terry Bradshaw might not be smart enough to quarterback? Remember that? Remember when quarterbacks were supposed to have brains and arms and personality, all three? Nowadays, the bland dullards who perform as snap-takers need only possess enough intelligence to go over to the sideline and have computer bytes jammed into them by coaches decked out in earphones.

Also, the fact that quarterbacks don't have to be able to think these days doesn't matter to people anyway, which tells you even more. Unlike the halcyon days of yore, nobody expects snap-takers to be a special breed anymore. They might as well be golfers. And what with 14 wideouts and six tight ends going into the seams on every play, snap-takers don't even have to possess what used to be called (reverently) "accurate arms."[1] But never mind limbs. The last quarterback who could actually say anything interesting was Meredith, and, alas, he has been saying the same thing now for 15 years. Indeed, according to television analysts, snap-takers no longer talk as we know football talk; instead, they do something that is called audibilizing. And even that, of course, is a pale version of what quarterbacks used to do. As you surely recall, quarterbacks BARKED SIGNALS!

Quarterbacks have become so devalued that football factories don't even bother hiring them anymore. It has been years since Georgia, Oklahoma or Texas owned a valuable snap-taker. As God is my witness, they would prefer to have quick rovers or down linemen. (Imagine being called a down lineman.) As a consequence, all the best snap-takers can only go to Brigham Young or Stanford or something known as Division I-AA. The others drift off into the Atlantic Coast Conference, where they serve as a lounge act for the basketball season.

When did we stop believing in quarterbacks? It ended with Namath—effectively on Jan. 12, 1969. That was the last time he amounted to anything. Staubach lasted longer than Namath, but I don't think you can count him. I mean, yes, technically, Staubach played quarterback for Dallas for a number of seasons, but it was the other Staubach, from another era, from the Navy, that we remembered as the quarterback. For goodness' sakes, Staubach won the Heisman Trophy the year President Kennedy was killed. The past was when he quarter-backed. Staubach the Cowboy was foremost a surrogate Landry. So, you see, Namath was the last quarterback.

By the way, do you know what I found out watching television last Thanksgiving Day? There is a guy named Something Hippie who starts at quarterback for one NFL team. It's come to that: Hippie, QB.

Actually, here is the complete official certified history of quarterbacks:

1) Sid Luckman
2) Slingin' Sammy
3) Otto Graham
3a) Frankie Albert[2]
4) Bobby Layne
5) Yelberton Abraham Tittle
6) Johnny U
7) Sonny Jurgensen
8) Joe Namath
9) No more quarterbacks

It didn't even get into double figures. All things considered, it was a short age. Sometimes, when I go down to the barbershop, or over to the filling station to kick tires, there is a grizzled oldtimer hanging around, telling stories about how he personally remembers a Heisman Trophy winner being a quarterback, remembers quarterbacks actually winning the coveted pigskin honor three straight years. The young wiseacres hoot at these tall tales. They snort and guffaw even louder when he tells them the story of Jane Russell, the gorgeous movie star, she with the most fabulous breasts [3] in the world, who actually fell in love with and married a quarterback.

The terrible thing is that we're going backward, like from the Renaissance into the Dark Ages. You see, before there were quarterbacks, there were Triple Threats, and, all things being equal, I think you would have to say that Triple Threats were every bit as romantic as quarterbacks. The Gipper, for example. He was a Triple Threat. So was Jim Thorpe. Wasn't Red Grange, too? See, I'm not saying all the glorious stuff didn't start on the gridiron until Sid Luckman. I'm just saying that we sure miss it now.

It peaked with Johnny U. Sonny had too much girth and Broadway Joe had too much hype, so Johnny U was the high-water mark of quarterbacks. Why, here was the very essence of America rolled into one man. The work ethic: high tops, black, regular issue; crew cut. All business. But Horatio Alger. Johnny U was cut by a losing team. People foam at the mouth when they talk about Joe D hitting in 56 straight games. Well, Johnny U threw touchdown passes in 47 games in a row, and tell me, even with all those snap-takers nowadays who throw for 800 yards on any given Sunday, will anyone ever again chuck TD passes in 47 straight?

Here are some reasons why quarterbacks don't exist anymore and have been replaced by snap-takers:

1. THE CURSED MARK OF TARKENTON. Imagine anybody of consequence "scrambling." That was bad enough, and then, one Sabbath afternoon, scurrying around back there like a prairie dog, Tarkenton broke Johnny U's career passing yardage record. After that it was hard to put your faith in anything real.

2. EQUALITY IS NEXT TO PARITY. "We will draft the best available athlete irregardless of position," the general managers began to say. You would actually choose an athlete over a quarterback? It was never quite the same after this pitiful revelation of substance over style.

3. ANTI-COLONIALISM. As Professor Harry Edwards observed recently, most pro football games now resemble national match-ups "between Ghana and Nigeria." All the receivers and runners are black, while the quarterbacks are white. It's as if the snap-takers should have pith helmets on instead of the ones with face masks. Until a USFL expansion franchise goes into Johannesburg, the quarterback is in the wrong century.

4. UP LINEMEN. When scouts started saying many quarterbacks were too short to pass over the tall linemen, the whole image of the quarterback changed. It never bothered anyone that Bobby Layne was short, did it? He could reach the bar, couldn't he? Ever since this business about quarterbacks not being able to see over and pass over, most people have come to assume that quarterbacks are Lilliputian, like the coxswain in a crew.

5. THE ONLY FRACTION LEFT IN TOWN or WHEN DID HALFBACK BECOME A DIRTY WORD? There used to be fullbacks, halfbacks and quarterbacks. As long as there were two fraction-backs around, the one running and the other passing, it was all right, very democratic. But now halfback has disappeared and by comparison with full back, quarter back sounds like a real cheap, dumb thing to be. This is all the more so because the other backs have glamorous names: tailback, cornerback, wingback, ace back, free safety, and whatever the other safety is. Also, a quarter doesn't mean as much as it did in the days when you could get a whole good meal with one.

6. THE TIME IS OUT-OF-JOINT When people die, it is said, well, he was too good for this world. Right now, that is true of quarterbacks. When quarterbacks ruled the gridiron and our hearts, quarterback-type people existed in all walks of life. But now the world is full of lackluster snap-takers. For example, think of quarterback types from the recent past, and then think of their equivalents today. Here is a sample list.

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QUARTERBACKS

SNAP-TAKERS

LYNDON JOHNSON

HOWARD BAKER

CARY GRANT

BURT REYNOLDS

CHARLES LINDBERGH

SALLY RIDE

JOHN L. SULLIVAN

BILLY MARTIN

AL CAPONE

ROBERT VESCO

KISSINGER

WHATSHISNAME

JOHN L. LEWIS

GENE UPSHAW

HENRY FORD

KIYOSHI KAWASHIMA

MAE WEST

PIA ZADORA

UNCLE SAM

SAN DIEGO CHICKEN

EVA PERÓN

MARY CUNNINGHAM

GEORGE WALLACE

JESSE HELMS

TARZAN

MR. T

TOOTS SHOR

RONALD MCDONALD

RIN TIN TIN

BENJI

JIM BROWN

JIM BROWN

7. NICKNAMES. Quarterbacks were always referred to as "field generals." When was the last time you heard that? But it's just as well the phrase has gone out of fashion. Otherwise we'd have field corporals or field spec fours.

8. THE TWO-MINUTE DRILL RUINED IT FOR EVERYBODY. Once we found out that all quarterbacks can lead all teams 87 yards in the last two minutes, everybody wanted to know why they didn't do that stuff during the first 58.

Oh, well, wake me up when the quarterback is back. Football needs him more than ever, because there are all these hordes of people playing, interchangeable parts on every play, uniformed Cabbage Patchers. At least, if there aren't any quarterbacks left, I'll settle for a Triple Threat for a while.

1 From the same school of etymology that brought us "educated toes."

2 Lefthanders are never fully accepted as quarterbacks because, as you know, in the southern hemisphere the water spins down the drain the opposite way.

3 See also: accurate arm, educated toe.

ILLUSTRATIONANDY MYER ILLUSTRATIONANDY MYERThe snap-takers can't call the plays without a program. ILLUSTRATIONANDY MYERNo snap-taker can fill Johnny U's shoes. ILLUSTRATIONANDY MYERIf he can't throw over a lineman, how heroic can a QB be?

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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