By Mike Wise
Friday, August 24, 2007
Through the magic of radio, a sincere birthday wish went out to Virginia centenarian Evelyn Rosen.
"You know who else is listenin'?" Sam Huff says to Larry Michael, the play-by-play announcer for the Redskins.
"Edith Holden from Middleburg. She's 101. She loves listening to Sonny."
Sonny Jurgensen sucks on the stub of his unlit cigar. Grins through his teeth.
"She was a Redskinette when I played."
Saturday night. FedEx Field. Three hours till midnight. Do you know where your Hall of Famers are, Washington?
"Ben Roethlisberger -- is that how you say his name?" Sam asks.
Sonny: "For you, that's good."
Move along, kids. There is nothing hip here to see. This is a story about senior citizens -- about a man named Sam who thinks an egg timer is a "sundial" and a man named Sonny who thinks Sam is a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
It's about two pro football legends who rumbled out of the black-and-white celluloid of NFL Films -- their names echoed by the late John Facenda -- and ended up delivering more color than any blow-dried nothing could.
In the booth with Sonny and Sam, you forget about Michael Vick. You forget the Redskins franchise is a billion dollar colossus with one winning season since the start of the millennium. You forget the Redskins-Steelers game doesn't count.
Amid the storytelling, mixed metaphors, malapropisms and occasional analysis, you stop worrying about whether Jason Campbell's knee will be all right. You forget the present and take solace in two lovable grumps -- Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in headsets.
"In the era we played in, the players controlled the game on the field," Sonny says ruefully.
"How is the quarterback supposed to protect himself if he doesn't call his own plays?" Sam says.
Broadcasting has rewarded them financially much more than their playing days ever did. Sonny made $14,000 in 1961. He and his backup in Philadelphia staged a quarterback strike and walked out of camp, which resulted in a $5,000 raise.
"I was the defensive player of the year in 1959 and I made $9,000 for the New York Giants," Sam says. "Nine thousand! I was just trying to get where [Frank] Gifford and Sonny Jurgensen had been, that's all."
Jurgensen laughs. "Figures. A linebacker wantin' to make quarterback money."
They met in 1957, when Sam's Giants and Sonny's Eagles bumped helmets. They bonded in 1964, when they were stunned to be traded to Washington within two weeks of each other. On their way to resurrecting the Redskins, they played and, in Sam's case, coached for Vince Lombardi.
And one day in 1981, they became partners calling games. That's when hell truly broke loose, when the tales started to tumble through the microphones.
Sam appears charmingly fuzzy sometimes, like the family uncle who forgot whose birthday it was and why he was eating cake. Whether it's incorrectly predicting that Marcus Washington had a dislocated shoulder or just not quite following the play, he keeps strongly opining while Sonny and Larry Michael playfully scold him and the show goes on.
Sonny's persona is the thinking-man's quarterback who never understood why anyone would run downfield on a kickoff and knock himself out. Sam's persona is the hit-somebody linebacker who still wants to run downfield and knock someone out.
"There's a reason, Sam, you can't find your way back to Middleburg," Sonny says. "You went down on too many kickoffs."
They're heard on Triple X ESPN stations 92.7 FM (WWXT), 94.3 FM (WWXX) and AM 730 (WXTR), along with 100.3 FM, which was added as a Redskins game-day affiliate this year. Michael, the third man in, is less a play-by-play announcer than a family-court mediator. He brings the broadcast back to live action as much as he brings Sonny and Sam back from their detours through time.
Huff is not yet in the booth when the engineer checks the microphones for the Steelers game. "Why don't you turn Sam's off and don't tell him?" Sonny suggests.
When he enters, Sam brings in the egg timer, which reminds Michael to mention the score every three minutes. "Except Sam calls it a sundial," Sonny says. Huff also calls the transmitter in a quarterback's helmet a hearing aid, which causes Sonny to add, "Now I understand why they switched you to defense, because [Sam] wasn't smart enough to play offense."
Sam's smile, congeniality and squeaky voice belie the linebacker CBS News once miked up for a feature called, "The Violent World of Sam Huff." He is still gruff, tough and mean enough to drop a fan. Honest.
Two Octobers ago in Chicago, Sam says, a fan "was flippin' a towel around outside the booth. And he was drinkin'. " Sam asked the man, who was with two other inebriated louts, to abstain from obstructing the announcers' view. Michael remembered the guy calling Huff an "old man," prefacing it with a profanity.
"The other guy shoves a big jug of beer in my face and this guy starts climbing in the booth," Sam said. Huff responded the way he always has: he threw a roundhouse right. "I just missed him," he says. "If I had hit him straight on, I would have killed him."
At that point, Sam was informed by the enraged fan that he was from West Point, he had killed people and he had planned to kill Sam.
"Threatening me!" Sam says, incredulously. "I said, 'Come in the booth and we'll see who leaves alive. I could handle you. I don't care if you graduated from West Point.' "
The fracas lasted three full minutes, until the man pounded a glass partition with his West Point ring and bloodied his finger. When security arrived, they found Sonny soaked in beer, too. The fans were jailed and Sam was asked if he wanted to press charges.
"Aw, let 'em go," he said. "They're just fans."
They began rooming together on the road in 1964. Sonny went out at night. Sam stayed in.
"He would look after my bed," Jurgensen said, laughing.
Sonny was a carouser of great renown, often ending up at the Dancing Crab or Mr. Dave's with Billy Kilmer. He's not proud of his drunk-driving history, but Sonny says it wasn't all his fault.
Billy "was one of the reasons I got caught one time," he says. "When we left in the morning, he said, 'I will drive. You can drink.' So the last thing I remember is him throwing up in the alley outside of Mr. Dave's. And he says, 'You're going to have to drive.' So I drive home, but we get caught going down the parkway."
The officer said, "You've had some drinks."
"I said, 'Yes, but let me ask you a question. See that guy in the back seat there, passed out? It was him or me. Who would you rather have driving?"
"I didn't have accidents," Sonny says now. "I drove home. But in those days, the '70s, that's what you did."
He swore off booze in 1986 and hasn't had a drink since. "I had just decided I had enough. They were clamping down. It was embarrassing."
Jurgensen lives in a McLean townhouse. He turned 73 yesterday. He has been married to his wife, Margo, for 40 years. They have two sons and Jurgensen has two more sons from an earlier marriage.
Huff, who turns 73 in October, was divorced 21 years ago and remains single. "I ain't getting married again," he says. "I got three grown children and they're all divorced. Why in the hell would I do that twice?"
For all their banter and griping about one another on air, there is genuine affection. Sonny says Sam could play his linebacker position in 15 steps. Sam says he's never met a man who knew more about quarterbacking than Sonny, who in 1974 at the age of 40 -- his final season -- won his third NFL passing crown.
"He's like a brother I never had," Jurgensen said. "I mean, we fight and argue. But at the end of the day . . ."
"I get along better with him than my own children," Huff said. "I don't remember ever having a cross word with Sonny Jurgensen."
He might have come close once.
On a trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, four years ago, Sonny actually drove up to where Sam's ex-wife now lives.
"Isn't this where you get out?" he asked Sam.
"Get me the hell out of here!" a panicked Sam said.
"That's what he did to me," Sam says. "You believe that?"
"What?" Sonny says, through a conniving smile. "I just pulled up and stopped to let him out. Thought he'd want to visit."