- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

The quarterback was biting into his sandwich at a Philadelphia deli when a man said, “Hey, Sonny, I just heard on the radio that you’ve been traded to the Redskins.”

Christian Adolph Jurgensen III smiled. “Look, I know tomorrow is April Fool’s Day but quit trying to kid me. I don’t know anything about it, so it’s not true.”

But it was. The date was March31, 1964, and the Eagles and Redskins were about to announce officially that they had swapped quarterbacks, with each tossing in a defensive back.

Most Redskins fans were elated. Despite injuries that had limited his production for two seasons, Jurgensen was widely regarded as one of the NFL’s best passers. Norman Snead, meanwhile, had put in three tough seasons as the quarterback of terrible Washington teams. His potential seemed unlimited, but that’s all it was — potential.

One man put it this way to a reporter: “Now we’ll have some mixed-up, high-flying football with Jurgensen in there. He’ll try anything.” But even so optimistic a supporter couldn’t have foreseen that No.9 would forge a Pro Football Hall of Fame career in burgundy and gold — and emerge, too, as possibly one of the three most beloved pro athletes in Washington sports history alongside Walter Johnson and Sammy Baugh.

Forty years later, as he nears his biblical span of three score and 10, Jurgensen remains a local icon. For years, he has worked on Redskins radio broadcasts as part of a popular trio with former teammate Sam Huff and the recently dismissed Frank Herzog. His regular gigs with George Michael on WRC-TV are interesting and informative. But for anyone who saw him play for the Redskins from 1964 to 1974, the enduring memory is of No.9 standing in the pocket in the face of a terrible rush and flinging lovely, devastating passes into the hands of Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor and Jerry Smith, et al.

True, Jurgensen never played regularly for a winner in Washington; by the time George Allen arrived to resurrect the long-dormant franchise in 1971, Sonny was 37, injury prone and reduced to a role as Billy Kilmer’s backup. But even the doleful fact that the Redskins went no better than 29-38-3 over his first five seasons under Bill McPeak and Otto Graham embellished his image as a valiant warrior battling to stay afloat amid a sea of mediocrity.

According to Redskins acting president Leo DeOrsey, the Jurgensen-for-Snead deal was first discussed in December 1963 after a season in which the Redskins (3-11) and the Eagles (2-10-2) were bottom feeders in the NFL’s old Eastern Division. But no rumors reached Sonny’s ears.

“It was a total shock to me,” Jurgensen recalled last week. “I had just come out of a meeting with [Eagles coach] Joe Kuharich — a good, comfortable meeting in which we discussed the coming season. I had no clue.”

But after getting used to the idea, Jurgensen liked it. The previous year, he had staged a brief training camp walkout with Eagles backup King Hill because Sonny was making just $19,000 a year. The club gave him a raise, although he says published reports that he was earning $30,000 by 1963 were “a little high.” The team had slipped badly three years after winning the NFL title with Norm Van Brocklin at quarterback in his final season and Jurgensen as backup. Sonny missed five games and parts of three others in 1963 with shoulder and wrist injuries, and he might have suspected that Philly’s famously fickle fans were clearing their throats for ‘64.

“Coming to the Redskins was an opportunity to start fresh,” he said last week. “And then, growing up in North Carolina, I had been a Redskins fan because their games were televised all over the South.”

A year earlier, McPeak — who doubled as Redskins coach and general manager — had been saying of his embattled third-year quarterback, “If Snead goes, I go.” But now, with his own job on the line after three seasons with a cumulative 9-30-3 record, McPeak wanted a man with more experience under center. At that point, Jurgensen had spent six years in the NFL, twice as many as Snead.

“It used to take two or three years to develop a quarterback,” McPeak said, “but that’s out. It takes five or six now.”

Snead took the news hard, saying the trade was “an indication that the Redskins and Coach McPeak have lost confidence in me. … Coach McPeak is looking for a quarterback along the lines of Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle or Bart Starr, and he thinks Sonny has that kind of potential. But I think I have the same potential.”

Potential yes, results no. Snead, just 24 at the time of the trade, spent seven seasons as the Eagles quarterback and then played for Minnesota, the New York Giants and San Francisco before ending a 16-year career in 1976. Always given to mistakes, his erratic arm resulted in just 196 touchdowns and 257 interceptions.

With the addition of Jurgensen, All-Pro linebacker Huff and Rookie of the Year Taylor, the Redskins doubled their victory total in 1964 by going 6-8. Oddly, Jurgensen passed for 106 fewer yards than Snead had the previous season, although his completion percentage was higher (55 to 49) and TD/interception ratio much better (24/13 to 13/27).

In their first head-to-head meeting, it was all Sonny; he threw five touchdown passes in a 35-20 victory at D.C. (later RFK) Stadium as his new constituents yowled their approval. Two were long-distance hookups with Taylor for 66 and 74 yards.

When Jurgensen limped off his final field after 18 seasons in 1974, he had completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 32,224 yards and 255 touchdowns, with a superb 82.6 rating. He won three NFL seasonal passing titles, had five games of 400-plus yards, 25 of 300-plus and five seasons of 3,000-plus. In 1983, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

During the Redskins’ 67 seasons in Washington, four quarterbacks have won NFL or Super Bowl championships: Baugh (two), Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. It seems unfair that Jurgensen isn’t among them, but football is a team game and too often his teams were mediocre. Yet on the worst of them, the redhead produced pure pigskin poetry when he unleashed his strong right arm.

But suppose the trade had never happened.

“My life certainly would have been different,” Sonny Jurgensen said. “I don’t like to think about that.”

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