- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The radio birth of Sonny Jurgensen, Sam Huff and Frank Herzog in 1981 coincided with the birth of what is wistfully recalled as the Joe Gibbs Era.

Gibbs, the little-known assistant from the San Diego Chargers, became Washington’s coach that year and lost his first five games. Then great things happened. The Redskins over the next decade reigned as one of the supreme organizations in the NFL. The only thing treated like a Super Bowl victory was a Super Bowl victory, not a win over Seattle in early November.

All that seems like a long time ago.

Actually, it was. With 23 seasons calling Redskins games together since starting on WMAL (630-AM), Sonny, Sam and Frank are believed to be the longest running radio team in the NFL.

“Most marriages don’t last that long,” said Andy Ockershausen, the former WMAL general manager who added Jurgensen to what was then a two-man crew of Herzog and Huff.

Things are a little different now. The Redskins have not gone to the Super Bowl since the 1991 season. In the five years since Dan Snyder bought the franchise from the Jack Kent Cooke family, mediocrity has exploded into periodic bursts of chaos and dysfunction that recently became the talk of the league. But amid the losing and changes in ownership, coaches and players, the familiar, even reassuring voices of Sonny, Sam and Frank (they are always “Sonny, Sam and Frank”) have endured. They share the occasional joy and provide comfort to those who suffer along with them.

“We’ve outlived everybody,” Huff said.

Viewers still turn down the TV and turn up the radio tuned to WJFK (106.7-FM), now the flagship station of the Redskins radio network. They overlook the one-second delay between the picture and the broadcast, as well as the occasional misidentified ballcarrier or tackler. Herzog still calls the action and eggs on Huff and Jurgensen, who still analyze and criticize and argue and exhort and feel a lot of pain. Your pain.

Redskins fans might need these guys more than ever. Sonny, Sam and Frank are hurting right along with everyone else in radio land. You think you’ve been upset? Jurgensen, the old quarterback, and Huff, the former middle linebacker, are both members of the NFL Hall of Fame and have been part of the Redskins family going back to 1964, when they joined the club via trades two weeks apart.

They vent, they emote, they provide company for your misery. They become more entertaining as their angst and ire increases, proving yet again that comedy is rooted in tragedy.

“I love those guys because they say it the way it is,” said longtime listener Rich Eig-Tassiello, a private chef who lives in Gaithersburg. “They take something that could be really depressing and turn it into a humorous situation.”

Sonny: Are the Redskins getting better or worse?

Sam: I take the Fifth Amendment.

The recent broadcasts have been marked by some recurring themes, such as the lack of pass protection and how mass substitutions hurt continuity.

“A guy makes a good play, and they take him out,” grouses Huff, who was an every-down defender back when everyone was an every-down defender. The confusion on offense and quarterback Patrick Ramsey’s apparent inability to call an audible without something bad happening drove them crazy. Whenever Ramsey backed up and checked to a new play, Sonny and Sam joined in unison, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”

During a loss to Buffalo a few weeks ago, Huff threatened to jump out of the press box window if the Redskins committed another false start penalty. Which, in fact, they did (he didn’t jump). In the Cowboys’ loss, Huff’s mounting exasperation bubbled up when the Redskins came out in a three-man defensive front.

Sam: They do it and they do it and they do it. They get beat on it every time, and they don’t get tired of doing it. (Pause). I get tired of seeing it.

Speaking of the Redskins’ situation in general before the Seattle game, Huff said off the air, “This is very discouraging. Very, very discouraging. It’s frustrating to see them do silly things. We’re hurting for them. We’ve been there. We know you don’t win every time, but you do give your [darnedest] every minute you’re out there. You almost feel sorry for them.”

After the Seattle game, Huff, like the Redskins themselves and all their fans, brightened a bit. “They did some things they should have been doing for a long time,” he said.

Sonny: The quarterback does not have the luxury of calling his own plays. It’s a coaching game. They’re choreographing it on the sidelines. And they’re not the ones getting knocked on their fannies.

Jurgensen is close with the owner. Sonny, in fact, is one of Snyder’s “consultants.” But he said that does not alter what comes out on the air, which reflects the way the Redskins are playing.

“It’s the frustration,” Jurgensen said. “It really is. It’s so frustrating when you see what they’re doing. I watch practice all the time, and I see what they’re capable of. It really is hard. There’s no continuity, no consistency in what they do. … You just say what you want to say.”

Huff, whose voice is curiously high-pitched for a tough guy, and Jurgensen, who goes about a half-octave higher, get so involved in the game they sometimes talk at the same time like two guys arguing at the bar. So you knew things were bad when the Redskins rendered them speechless, perhaps for the first time, during the Dallas loss. After the Cowboys made it 21-6, Herzog, a veteran D.C. sportscaster who works at WUSA-TV (Channel 9) and is known for his local charity work, asked his partners, “OK, Hall of Famers, where do the Redskins go from here?”

Sam said nothing. Sonny said nothing.

“That’s what I thought,” Herzog said.

Later, off the air, Huff said, “We want to take it to the edge, but we know not to take it over the edge.”

Huff usually argues on behalf of, or against the defense. Jurgensen mostly handles the offense. Their on-air demeanors reflect their playing personas. Huff is all emotion, quick to react. A linebacker’s mentality. Jurgensen is more cool and analytical. “A quarterback has to be in control of what’s going on,” he said. “A linebacker wants to hit somebody over the bench.”

Sam (loudly): You know what? You send all those guys in there, three or four guys, and what happens? They don’t know what defense they’re in!

Sonny (quietly): They were in a three-man line, a prevent defense. They prevented them from throwing, so you run for the first down.

“I’m riding on the back of [linebacker] LaVar Arrington’s shoulder pads, so to speak, and Sonny is looking at [quarterback] Patrick [Ramsey],” Huff said. “But we cross over a lot. When you’re an offensive guy, you have to attack the defense. And the defensive guy has got to attack the offense.”

The chemistry of the Redskins might be questioned, but there is no question it exists in the radio booth. It’s both obvious and real. And the chemistry isn’t simply there because these guys have been together for so long. “There’s a real affection,” Herzog said.

“There’s no jealousy whatsoever,” Ockershausen said.

“Sam and I are so close,” Jurgensen said. “He’s like a brother. I know what Sam’s thinking and vice-versa. I can finish a sentence for him. And Frank has been there to keep us sane all these years.”

Asked why it sounds like the three are having so much fun, even when the Redskins stink, Herzog said, “Listen, that’s a no-brainer. How can you not have fun? I’m sitting with two guys that played the position better than anybody and getting the advantage of their expertise.”

Said Huff, “We have the highest respect for each other. I’ve never seen anybody who knows more about quarterbacking than Sonny. He’s more than a beautiful mind. He has a brilliant mind.”

Huff isn’t shy about touting his own expertise, either.

“Nobody knows the game better than us,” he said. “Nobody.”

Jurgensen tries to make it sound like “we’re sitting around, talking about the game [as] if we weren’t on the radio,” he said. “I think that’s why people like it. They know if things are not going right, we’re gonna criticize it, and if they’re going well we’re gonna get on the bandwagon.”

Huff helped spur the NFL’s growth in the 1960s while playing for the New York Giants. He agreed to be part of a CBS documentary called “The Violent World of Sam Huff” and was Jurgensen’s rival before they became teammates. When that happened, they hit it off immediately. “I have respect for quarterbacks,” Huff said. “I hit ‘em and I hurt ‘em, but I never lost respect for them.”

Both were among the vanguard of professional athletes to get involved in broadcasting while still playing, mainly because they were smart. When Vince Lombardi became coach of the Redskins in 1969, he immediately sought counsel from Jurgensen and made Huff a player-coach in what would be the linebacker’s final season.

As a marketing executive for Marriott, Huff made an easy transition from football. He now owns and breeds horses, puts on races in his native West Virginia and owns a studio that produces racing-related programs. He started doing Redskins games on the radio in 1973 with Len Hathaway, then Dan Lovett and then Herzog, who also called Washington Bullets games years ago.

Jurgensen retired from the Redskins in 1974, and worked for CBS until someone decided to put him in a booth with Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. “But Brookie didn’t want it,” said Jurgensen, who was subsequently fired.

Huff recalls Ockershausen telling him he had a chance to get Jurgensen to join the radio team. How did he feel about that? Huff said he told him, “Andy, I think Frank and I have a good broadcast. If you put Sonny on with us, we’ll have a great broadcast.”

Naturally, not everyone loves the trio, which comprises one of the oldest broadcast crews in all of professional sports. Huff and Jurgensen are 69 and Herzog is 58, and some in the business wonder whether they are out of touch with newer, younger listeners. Herzog is decidedly old-school — down, distance and formation. His call when the Redskins score — “Touchdown, Washington Redskins” — is unfashionably low-key in a time when play-by-play announcers are trying to get their touchdown calls on ESPN’s SportsCenter. But for some listeners, Herzog and Huff sometimes get a little tangled up with identifying players, requiring Jurgensen, a stickler for accuracy, to step in.

Rumors of change have popped up, especially with Herzog in the final year of his contract. He said he has been told nothing about next year. Huff and Jurgensen would seem to be an entity, given the relationship between Jurgensen and Snyder, who grew up listening to the crew and is said to be a big fan. But no one is saying what will happen. WJFK general manager Alan Leinwand did not return several telephone calls.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the booth. Regardless of how their technical proficiency is assessed, Sonny, Sam and Frank are an institution. To Huff, the supreme compliment came a few years ago from noted WMAL radio personality Ed Walker, who is blind. Walker told Huff, “You guys make me see. When you guys broadcast, I can see the game.”

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