As the 44th anniversary of Vince Lombardi’s death was noted this past week, I couldn’t help but think of Sonny Jurgensen. It was only one season, 1969 that they were together, but it remains etched in the minds of those of us who remember it – Sonny in particular.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of conversations over the years with Sonny, both on and off the air. The subject of Lombardi remains near and dear to his heart. He’s said he never got to play in a Super Bowl, but feels that his career reward was getting to play that one season with what many consider the greatest football coach of all time.
Sonny was turning 35 the year Lombardi was hired by Edward Bennett Williams to turn around a losing team. Asked about his veteran quarterback, Lombardi said Sonny’s arm would probably fall off before the Redskins won a championship. But after watching Sonny throw in training camp, Lombardi remarked to an assistant, “If we had him in Green Bay, the NFL would have declared us a monopoly.”
Realize Lombardi had a Hall of Fame quarterback in Green Bay – Bart Starr.
Lombardi was correct about it taking time to build a winner, but Sonny was terrific in ’69. He led the league in passing yardage (3,102) and completion percentage (62%). The Redskins finished 7-5-2, their first winning season in 14 years.
Then Lombardi died of cancer at the age of 57. Sonny went on to play another five years – four of them for George Allen, who hated to throw. Nobody threw it better than Sonny. Had he and Lombardi stayed together another few years, you wonder if the Redskins wouldn’t have had to wait until 1983 to win their first Super Bowl.
Anyway, here it is 50 years since the Eagles foolishly traded him to the Redskins for Norm Snead – 40 years since Sonny played his last season in the NFL. He was 40 years old, had been through multiple surgeries, but still led the NFC in passing percentage at 64.1%. His last game was a playoff loss to the Rams. In 18 years in the game, he’d never quarterbacked in a winning playoff game. Of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks who played in the Super Bowl era, Sonny is one of only three to never play in the big game. Dan Fouts and Warren Moon are the others.
And yet, he remains a local treasure. Sonny is now in his 34th season broadcasting Redskins games on the radio. Last month he celebrated his 80th birthday – working of course. The Skins had a preseason game that night in Baltimore.
His analysis is as strong as it’s ever been. The local television work ended in 2008, but he is a go-to guy for everything Redskins.
We always look back on a great career when it ends, but sometimes it’s a good idea to appreciate one while it still going on. And hopefully Sonny’s career will keep going on and on. Thanks for a great half century. The first one.