- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The newlyweds were sitting down to their first breakfast together at a hotel in the Poconos when the husband opened a newspaper, turned to the sports section and cried, “Oh no! This is horrible!”

The wife, not a sports fan, was understandably startled. Had the Russians or Chinese dropped a nuclear bomb? Had a terrible storm devastated some unfortunate region? Had a famous person died?

“Sonny was hurt last night — his shoulder! There goes the season! Oh no!”

Probably most other fans of the Washington Redskins felt that way, too. The previous night — Sept. 4, 1971, 35 years ago yesterday — longtime Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen had torn up his left shoulder in Miami trying to make a tackle following an interception in a preseason game. That left his immediate future at age 37, and that of coach George Allen’s first Redskins team, very much in doubt.

The anguish was understandable. Jurgensen was one of the best pure passers in NFL history, and for seven seasons he had flung the football with deadly effect for mostly mediocre Washington teams. In 1969, a glimmer of hope appeared as the fabled Vince Lombardi took over and booted the Redskins to a 7-5-2 record. But colon cancer claimed Lombardi the following September, and under Bill Austin the team slipped back to 6-8 in 1970.

Now Allen, a big winner with the Los Angeles Rams, was in charge and rousing Redskins fans with his slogan, “The Future Is Now.” But with Jurgensen on the sideline, it seemed there might be no future — at least not a winning one. One Las Vegas bookie opined that Sonny’s absence would cost the Redskins a touchdown a game.

Ironically, newly arrived backup Billy Kilmer jumped into the breach with both feet, running Allen’s conservative offense masterfully as a strong, veteran defense known as “The Over the Hill Gang” powered the Redskins to a 9-4-1 record and their first playoff berth in 26 years. At the time of Jurgensen’s injury, though, it did indeed seem that all was lost.

Jurgensen was injured late in the third quarter of the fifth exhibition game — teams played six in those days — and all these years later it boggles the mind why he was on the field at all. Shouldn’t Sonny have yielded much earlier to Kilmer or Sam Wyche, the No. 3 quarterback? But on the field he was. When Dolphins defensive back Dick Anderson swiped one of his passes, Jurgy hustled over to make the tackle. Then, obviously in pain, he was escorted to the locker room.

Why bother to risk injury in a meaningless game the Dolphins were winning easily (ultimately by 27-10)?

“I can’t ever recall trying to get out of anybody’s way in football,” Sonny told reporters after the game. “You’re supposed to tackle them, aren’t you?”

The following day, he underwent 1 hours of surgery in Oklahoma City to repair a broken shoulder, news so disheartening that it was the lead story on Page A1 of the Washington Evening Star. The attending doctors were Dan O’Donaghue of that city and P.M. Palumbo, the Redskins’ team physician. Palumbo described the results as “very good,” and the prognosis was that Jurgensen would return to action in six weeks.

He might have, too, except that Allen and Kilmer stood in the way. After a sputtering preseason, the Redskins startled the NFL by winning their first five regular-season games, and suddenly the scatter-armed but feisty Kilmer was everybody’s hero.

All coaches tend to stick with a winning formula, and Allen had another reason to embrace Kilmer. George wanted his quarterback to throw safety-first passes, hand the ball off to running backs Larry Brown and Charley Harraway and let the defense do the heavy lifting. Jurgensen, a gambler who had made his reputation by heaving long tosses downfield, did not fit the mold.

So Kilmer remained the quarterback even after Jurgensen returned and sat disconsolately on the bench. Sonny got into only five games that season, completing 16 of 28 passes for 170 yards and no touchdowns.

Although he and Kilmer would trade the job back and forth over the next three seasons — at one point when both were hurting, they were known as “Hobble and “Wobble” — never again would Jurgensen loom as the heroic figure he had been. From 1972 through 1974, he threw just 233 passes. But he went out with something of a flourish in 1974, completing 107 of 167 attempts for 11 touchdowns and just five interceptions to win his third NFL passing title.

If Allen and Jurgensen never quibbled publicly, neither were they a mutual admiration society. Jurgensen reportedly was irritated when the coach didn’t take him to San Francisco for the 1971 playoff game against the 49ers, and the following season he was relegated to garbage time after Kilmer and the Redskins’ offense failed abjectly in a 14-7 loss to the unbeaten Dolphins in Super Bowl VII.

Beginning with that 1972 season, fans divided into two camps: those who wanted to stick with the successful if unexciting Kilmer and those who wanted Jurgensen to regain his starting job with a good team in front of him for a change. Frequently spotted in those days were bumper stickers stating “I Like Billy” or “I Like Sonny.”

Or, for those true nonconformists, “I Like Sam” for the genial Wyche, later a wisecracking coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.

When Jurgensen went down, the Redskins said all the right things about their confidence in Kilmer, although the loss of their brilliant quarterback must have shaken many of the players.

“We’re going to pull together, work together and win,” All-Pro tight end Jerry Smith insisted. “We’re a 40-man club. We don’t think in terms of individuals.”

Kilmer himself had no doubt he could do the job, four seasons with the sad-sack New Orleans Saints and a near-fatal auto accident earlier having failed to destroy his self-confidence.

“I relish the pressure,” he said. “I thrive in these situations. … I’m sorry Sonny got hurt, and I hope he’s back quickly, but this is my chance and I want to win.”

And so he did, taking the Redskins to their best record since 1955 and thereby earning affection and respect from many fans that endures to this day. “Old Whiskey Face” they called Kilmer because his face would turn deep red in the heat of combat. And he feared no man on the field, as evidenced by the fact that a single horizontal bar served as his facemask.

Sonny Jurgensen, now 72, continues to be visible on the Redskins scene as an analyst on their radio broadcasts and with sports director George Michael on WRC-TV. To many longtime fans, Sonny is the Redskins, no matter how many owners, coaches and players come and go.

The day after he retired in 1974, somebody wrote these simple and eloquent words on a huge roadside rock at the start of the George Washington Parkway south of Alexandria, on the way to Jurgensen’s home near Mount Vernon: “Thanks, No. 9.”

True, so true. But in the early 1970s, Billy Kilmer deserved some thanks, too.

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