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Baugh: The Texan Who Gave Birth to Redskins Fanaticism

Legendary Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh, 94, died Wednesday night. He was the last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class.
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Thursday, December 18, 2008; 1:24 PM

Sammy Baugh, a man whose face is almost completely forgotten but whose legend is still vivid generations after he retired, is the single star that created the Redskins brand.

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When 90,000 people gather in FedEx Field on Sunday to see Washington play the Eagles, please think of Baugh, who died yesterday at 94, as the founder, the inspiration and the symbol of everything that is burgundy-and-gold.

The five world championship games, and two world titles, in '37 and '42, to which he led the Redskins began the NFL epidemic in Washington. Baugh is the root, everything else is branch, or more recently perhaps, twig.

For the current Redskins, who think they get the most out of themselves, this is perhaps all they need to know about Slingin' Sammy and what was meant by the word "work" in the 1930s when he emerged: Baugh would not leave practice until he had completed 100 passes in a row. Now the Redskins nag "stars" to come to practice at all.

My father arrived in Washington in Baugh's rookie season and caught the Redskins fever. To me, he embodied the local mania, the way one star athlete and the teams he led can define the habits of a family for decades. My dad cared for no other sport, yet was a Redskins fan 57 seasons. I never heard him curse except when he hit his thumb with a hammer or a Redskins quarterback, some Jurgensen or Rypien, someone not named Baugh, threw an interception.

Whenever anybody tells me that Vince Lombardi's one-year arrival in 1969 or George Allen's one Super Bowl team or Joe Gibbs's dynasty gave birth to this city's Redskins fanaticism, I know better. The late Shirley Povich didn't have to tell me (though he did). It was Baugh. He brought not just victories but thrills and ignited Washington with a passion even the worst Redskins periods can barely diminish.

In my father's house, all Redskins quarterbacks had a place of respect, yet none were ever compared to Baugh -- this unseen but vividly imagined man who wore No. 33, averaged 49 yards a punt for years, passed more accurately than any human and once intercepted more than a pass-a-game for a full season.

To this day Baugh remains, even in Washington, that purest of legends, the player who exists only in the retelling of his deeds from parents to children. How many have even seen him in the flesh? Compared to Baugh, Joe DiMaggio was a publicity hound. Better, perhaps, that he retired quietly to his 7,600-acre ranch in Texas, to his five children, 11 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren, and almost never showed up back here in his "second home" to take bows.

Still, Baugh's enormous stature, as the last living member of the NFL's first Hall of Fame class, contrasts with his near invisibility in a celebrity age. Every decade or so, reporters would seek him out for an update-on-Sam story. They always found him a gentleman, a fellow with an anecdote punctuated by a single "hell" or "damn" and a delicious demonstration of restraint.

In my basement, I have 20 sports pictures. My friends recognize Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and the rest. But one face is a complete mystery to everyone. The black-and-white photo is of a football bench with four players in uniform intently watching the action. Behind them is a packed grandstand. Sitting on the bench among the players, dressed in a classy camel's hair coat, wearing a string tie and an elegant white cowboy hat, sits a man with a lean chiseled face and a big cigar in the center of his mouth.

"Who's that?" I ask. There's never even a guess. "He's the greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century," I hint. Silence. "He's the greatest Redskin ever."

Oh, Sammy Baugh! They all say instantly. Everybody still knows the man who did not invent but unleashed the potential of the forward pass, transforming the National Football League.


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