Washington was a sports backwater 50 years ago today. The Redskins hadn’t made the playoffs since 1945 and hadn’t had a winning season since 1955. The Senators hadn’t been to the World Series since 1933 and hadn’t had a winning season since 1952. The nation’s capital didn’t have NBA or NHL teams and its college sports programs were lackluster.
One hundred and forty miles up I-95, Eagles quarterback Sonny Jurgensen was munching a Reuben at Day’s Delicatessen in Center City Philadelphia after having a chat with his new coach, Joe Kuharich, about the team’s direction.
“I was eating when a guy said, ‘I just heard on the radio that you’ve been traded to Washington,’ “Jurgensen recalled in an exclusive interview for this column. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I’m not kiddin’ ya.’ It was April 1 so I said, ‘You’re just fooling me. It’s April Fools Day.’ But I went back to the Eagles’ offices and sure enough they had traded me.”
That trade for fellow quarterback Norm Snead was the best thing that ever happened to Jurgensen and a turning point for Washington sports.
After four years as a backup, Jurgensen led the NFL in touchdown passes and interceptions as Philadelphia’s starter in 1961 as the defending champion Eagles went 10-4. But Jurgensen was tops in picks again in 1962 as Philly slipped to 3-9-1. And in 1963, he went 2-6-1 in nine starts with 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. So Kuharich preferred to start over with Snead, who was five years younger than the 29-year-old Jurgensen.
“It was such a shock to me, but it gave me a chance to start over again,” Jurgensen said. “I didn’t know the city very well, but I liked being traded to Washington because it gave my family the opportunity to see me play since they got the Redskins’ games [in Wilmington, N.C.]. I was happy living in Philadelphia. It took a while to get comfortable here.”
That might have been true off the field, but Jurgensen was always comfortable with a football in his hands. In just his fifth game with Washington, Jurgensen passed for 385 yards and five touchdowns – two to Bobby Mitchell and two to Charley Taylor — in a 35-20 victory over Philadelphia. The Redskins would finish 6-8 during each of his first two seasons. Those 12 victories were just one shy of their total from the previous five years.
“People rooted for us because we laid it out there and because we scored points,” said Jurgensen, a longtime Hall of Famer like Mitchell and Taylor. “We were entertaining. And once we got settled in Mount Vernon and I got used to the city, it was fun playing here. The Redskins have been very special to so many people for so many years.”
From 1964 through the summer of 1971, the Jurgensen-triggered aerial attack was Washington sports along with the towering home runs clubbed by Senators slugger Frank Howard.
“When it comes down to pure passers, there’s no question Sonny was [the best],” Dallas Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Renfro once said.
Taylor claimed that Jurgensen, who had been an outstanding high school pitcher, could throw a slider with a football. While playing for Duke, Jurgensen had completed a pass behind his back for 37 yards.
“It didn’t matter what the coverage was, Sonny could get that ball in there,” Mitchell said. “You always had to be ready for the football.”
When Jurgensen led the league in touchdown passes and passing yards in 1967 – the season that Taylor, tight end Jerry Smith and Mitchell finished 1-2-4 in catches — he was only the third quarterback to do so in 24 years. Jurgensen won his third and final passing title in 1974 when he was 40.
Ranked third alltime with an 82.8 passer rating but unhappy playing for defensive-minded coach George Allen, who preferred the more conservative Billy Kilmer, Jurgensen retired and went to work for Channel 9 while also analyzing games for CBS Sports.
In 1981, Jurgensen began analyzing Redskins games on the radio, a job that has endeared him to two generations of Washington fans who never saw the Ol’ Redhead work his magic on the field.
Walter Johnson, the peerless pitcher who starred for the Senators from 1907-27 (including their lone World Series title in 1924), managed them from 1929-32, and retired to Montgomery County after three years as Cleveland’s skipper before dying in 1946, has long been known as Washington’s favorite athletic personality, topping Sammy Baugh, the Redskins’ Hall of Fame quarterback from 1937-52 including the only championships of their first 45 seasons.
But Jurgensen has been a part of this area’s fabric for longer than Johnson and Baugh combined. As he turns 80 this summer, he’s now our ultimate sports hero.
“I love the uncertainty of living here, the international environment, the fact that there’s always something happening,” said Jurgensen, who has remained in the area along with such teammates as Mitchell, Taylor, Pat Fischer, Carl Kammerer, Ray Schoenke, Brig Owens and Ron McDole. “It has been neat that so many of us have stayed in Washington. There’s just something about the city.”
Jurgensen, who has endured through nine Presidents and has outlasted every Supreme Court justice and all but one member of Congress – retiring Rep. John Dingell — is not just a small part of that special something. The man who was so surprised in that Philly deli has become a Washington institution.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.