By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 23, 2008 4:34 PM
Sonny Jurgensen had just signed up to join the news team at Channel 4 in 1994 when sports director George Michael asked him if there was anyone he'd always wanted to sit down with and interview on camera.
"Yes there is," Jurgensen said immediately. "Sammy Baugh."
"Well then go to it," Michael answered.
Not long thereafter, Jurgensen and former Channel 4 sports producer Joel Schreiber were on an airplane heading toward Baugh's sprawling West Texas ranch, landing in Dallas, hopping on another puddle jumper, then driving two more hours to tiny Rotan before arriving on the doorstep of the greatest player in Washington Redskins history.
Jurgensen, arguably the second all-time greatest player in team history, was not exactly certain what to expect. He wondered how much Baugh, then 80, would remember about his days in Washington when he was the face of the franchise from his much ballyhooed arrival in 1937 to his final season in 1952.
He did not have to wonder for long.
"It was the neatest trip in the world, one of the best things I've ever done," Jurgensen recalled earlier this week, adding that he had been "deeply saddened" when he learned that Baugh had died last week at the age of 94.
"He looked like this crusty old guy, but then you started talking and it was so enjoyable," Jurgensen said. "Not only could he talk about football in the 1930s and '40s, but he was still such a huge fan of the game. He would also talk about the modern game. He would go on about Michael Irvin (the Hall of Fame receiver then playing for the Dallas Cowboys) and how he was always pushing off to get open."
Over the course of three hours, Jurgensen said he was mesmerized sitting there with this living legend, but also just a tad concerned about how much of the tape he actually might be able to get on the air.
"Yeah, we had three hours of tape and we could use about thirty minutes of it," Jurgensen recalled. "He'd be saying 'gawdammit' or 'what the (expletive deleted)' all the time. We had a lot of bleeps in there when we finally got it on the air. He was just a hoot, and he didn't want us to leave. He wanted us to stay over and kept telling us 'I've got a bunch of meals in the freezer.'"
Baugh knew all about his interviewer's own brilliant career, but Jurgensen was far more fascinated talking with him about how the game was played in an era of no platoon football, when Baugh not only dominated at quarterback, but also manned a safety position on defense and handled much of the punting.
Baugh, in fact, still holds the NFL's single season NFL record for highest punting average, 50.1 yards for his 35 punts in 1940, and is second all-time in career average, at 45.1 yards, a record only recently eclipsed by Oakland's Shane Lechler (46.47).
"He talked a lot about his punting," Jurgensen said. "He said he worked harder on punting than he did throwing. He was great at getting the ball to roll, and he told me he did most of his punting on third down. Somebody else would come in and kick on fourth down. But on third down, if he saw the safeties were playing back in pass coverage, he'd call a crossing pattern for his receivers and throw a pass underneath the coverage. If the safeties came up to stop the run, he said he would just quick-kick it."
Jurgensen was curious to know how Baugh once led the league with 11 interceptions in 1943, the same year he also tied the NFL record with four interceptions in one game against the Detroit Lions.
"'Well,' he says, 'we got this guy on one side and we got this other guy on the other side, both of 'em real good defensive backs,'" Jurgensen said Baugh told him.
"'Where else would you throw it except at me in the middle? Hell, I was the weak link.'"
Jurgensen, who called his own plays for virtually his entire career, knew that Baugh also was in full command of the game and the huddle. "What I didn't know," he said, "was that the quarterback couldn't talk to the coach because it was a penalty. So he was in total control of the football game."
Baugh told Jurgensen about the first time he arrived in Washington after a brilliant career at Texas Christian University. Team owner George Preston Marshall had promoted his new star as a gun-slinging Texas cowboy with a rifle of an arm and provided him with a new pair of ill-fitting cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed Stetson hat when he got off the plane to join his new team.
"Sam said 'gawdamm, those boots were too tight and I could hardly walk,'" Jurgensen said. "He wasn't a cowboy and he really wanted no part of any of it, but he went along with it."
For most of the last fifty years, Baugh rarely ventured far away from his Texas ranch. In 1960-61, he did have a brief stint as the head coach of the N.Y. Titans of the old American Football League before their name was changed to the Jets. But after that, Baugh rarely came back to the Nation's Capital, despite many invitations from the team and a number of local sports organizations, preferring to tend to his cattle ranch and play golf at a nearby course several times a week.
"I don't think he liked flying very much," Jurgensen said. "He said he'd had a couple of close calls. It's funny, when we were walking around his yard, you were lucky you didn't sprain an ankle. There were these big divots in the grass. Sam was always hitting golf balls out there, and there were potholes everywhere.
"Going down there and talking with him is one of the neatest things I've ever done. When we were getting ready to go, he said 'Sonny, when you coming back down here?' I do wish I lived closer to where he was, to spend more time with him, maybe watch the games with him, but Sam was really isolated out there. We did stay in touch, talked on the phone every now and then. He really did love football, the college game, the professional game, and he loved today's game, he really did."
Before he left the ranch that memorable day, Jurgensen did something he'd never done before, or ever since. He pulled out an old picture of Baugh and asked Slingin' Sammy if he'd mind signing it for him.
"He said 'gawdamm, of course I'll sign that for you Sonny,'" Jurgensen said. "It's the only autograph I've ever gotten."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.