There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When Sonny Jurgensen retired from professional football in 1974, he was the NFL’s all-time leading passer and held the league’s single season marks for pass attempts, completions, and yardage. He had another distinction not listed in the record books: fastest post-game dresser in history.
Ask any reporter covering Washington’s football franchise at the tail-end of Jurgensen’s remarkable playing career. There was always a 10-minute “cooling off” period from the time the final gun sounded until the media was allowed into the team locker room for post-game interviews.
And by the time those doors swung open at RFK Stadium, anyone hoping to get a few quotes from Jurgensen almost always came up as empty as Jurgensen’s locker stall. While virtually all of his teammates were still pulling off their pads and tearing off the tape from various body parts, Jurgensen had already showered (maybe), dressed (for sure), and dashed out a side door to his car parked in a tunnel underneath the stadium.
One year, my late, great colleague, Washington Post columnist Ken Denlinger, had discovered the escape route. He often met Jurgensen at his vehicle for a very quick comment or two before the quarterback got behind the wheel and headed down the road to his Mount Vernon home.
A few years after he retired, I asked Sonny why he rarely stuck around for the post-game media sessions. He told me he simply wanted to get his head straight and analyze what had just happened on the field before he felt comfortable enough to talk about it with some clarity. No disrespect to the writers, he said. He just wanted to get it right.
Starting in 1982, eight years after his final playing season, Jurgensen spent the next 36 years almost always getting it right about the football team for a much larger audience—the legion of fans who listened to game broadcasts on the radio.
Jurgensen, who turns 85 on August 23, announced last week before a preseason game that he was retiring from the broadcast booth, severing the beleaguered franchise’s last link to those glorious pre-Daniel Snyder years when the team under head coach Joe Gibbs won three of its four Super Bowl appearances over a ten-year span.
Teamed with play-by-play-man Frank Herzog and former teammate Sam Huff, that trio became the beloved sound track of the franchise. It was Frank, Sonny, and Sam, and be sure to hit the mute button on your TV remote and turn up the sound on the radio broadcast.
Herzog, who was employed by the radio station, not the football team, sadly was jettisoned at Snyder’s insistence in 2004, replaced by Larry Michael, a team vice president. Huff left the booth because of health reasons in 2015. But Jurgensen stayed on, curtailing his appearances to home games only last season before finally cutting the cord last week.
Truth be told, Jurgensen’s role in the broadcast had diminished in the years since Huff left the booth. Former tight end Chris Cooley now dominates the analysis, with a little help from his old teammate, Rick “Doc” Walker, and Jurgensen seemed almost an afterthought the last few seasons.
In the Frank, Sonny, and Sam days, few would ever accuse that trio of being unabashed homers for the home team. Of course they all wanted the local NFL team to succeed, but when it came time to tell it like it was, they never hesitated.
And Jurgensen often told his listeners what to expect on the very next play, and was not often wrong. When a Washington receiver zigged instead of zagged, Jurgensen had no hesitation pointing it out. When a Washington quarterback threw into coverage, there was a polite scolding from the booth.
Essentially, Jurgensen quarterbacked the broadcast just as he’d done the football team on the field so many years before.
One of the enduring images in my own personal memory bank is a photo of Jurgensen taken in 1969, the one year when Vince Lombardi coached the team. He’s crouched in the huddle, and looks to be diagramming a play in the dirt, back in an era when quarterbacks called the shots, not the coach with the headset on the sideline barking out instructions to the man on the field.
Jurgensen was always in charge no matter who was listening, both on the field and in the broadcast booth. And thanks for so many memories, post-game showers not included.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.