Sonny Jurgensen is sitting in the corner of the Belle Haven Country Club Grill, eating lunch while trying his best to finish an interview. But every time he starts to answer a question, someone else asks for an autograph or stops to say hello and shake the famous man's hand.
"It's television," he finally says, laughing heartily. "It's kept me visible. It's kept my face in front of the public."
And that public's adoration for the most popular player ever to wear a Redskin uniform is overwhelming. Despite having been out of the game for seven years, Jurgensen remains one of the most admired and visible figures in this town of high-powered celebrities.
WDVM-TV, where Jurgensen now works, routinely receives requests for autographed Jurgensen photos--in his Redskin uniform. If he agreed to fulfill all the speaking invitations and personal appearance opportunities he attracts, he rarely would have a free night. It's almost as if he had never left the team or never thrown his final pass in RFK Stadium.
But Jurgensen, the Flingin' Redhead, has changed. There are some obvious differences. He has slimmed down considerably, so much that people called the TV station wanting to know if he had cancer. To stop the inquiries, he took on some weight. Other alterations, however, are more subtle, but more telling.
Jurgensen, a man searching for peace and fulfillment in those first bewildering years following retirement, now has found contentment. He has discovered happiness at home, in his job, with himself. He finally has severed the cord that kept him dangling precariously between what he calls the real world and the athletic kingdom that dominated his life for so long.
"I am as happy as I can ever remember being," he says. "I'm enjoying retirement, I'm enjoying what I'm doing, I'm content. I wouldn't want to change anything."
Jurgensen has changed from the fun-seeking, hard-drinking, heavy-eating maverick to a more domesticated sort who has modified his liquor habits while monitoring more closely what he shoves in his mouth.
And he has changed from a televison novice who had to be guided, step-by-step, through his job to a more confident professional who dreams of becoming a play-by-play announcer.
He wears his retirement well, earns a healthy salary, travels extensively, works infrequently and plays constantly. It is a life most ex-jocks might dream about, but only a handful realize.
For years, Jurgensen led a life of locker rooms and training camps and pampered wishes. It was a life he hoped would continue indefinitely, for it sheltered him from much of the bad and showered him with the glory and fame reserved only for the privileged few. Why would anyone be in a hurry to leave that world?
"My life was all football, really, for so many years," he said. "Even in the off-season, all you talked about and thought about was football. You never got away from it. It dominated you, and you let it."
It dominated Jurgensen so much that one marriage was ruined and two sons grew to manhood without much attention from their father. His teammates were his family. His most comfortable moments were spent not in an easy chair but behind a football center, waiting for a snap while 52,000 fans screamed.
He was not ready to leave this world when Redskin Coach George Allen exiled him, kicking and yelling all the way, during the spring of 1975. At age 40, when most men have settled into a routine lifestyle, Jurgensen found himself stripped of his security after having lived the role of Football Legend for more than a decade.
"I could have played some more, I could have contributed to the team--I'm convinced of that," said Jurgensen, who remains bitter about the way Allen handled his departure.
"I think Sonny stumbled around, searching for himself for a couple of years after George cut him off," said a friend of Jurgensen's. "He said he was okay, that he was having fun, but I don't think he was. It was a blow to his ego. He wanted to name his departure time, not have George do it for him."
Jurgensen moved from the football field to the television studio, but he really wasn't very good in front of the camera. His early years as a color man for CBS sports also were lifeless. He lived as much in the past as he did in the future, a kid entering middle age, trying to adjust to a grown-up world.
During the season, he'd continue to meet with some of his teammates every Thursday night, rehashing old stories and complaining about the present. As late as the 1979 camp, he was wandering the player dormitory at 4 a.m. after a lengthy drinking session, rousing Diron Talbert to share in chili dogs and beer. It was just like the old days, using his secret route to get inside, producing food that no one knew how he obtained.
A producer always traveled with him then to Carlisle, because he still wasn't confident enough to put together a polished camp report without help. Nor was he at ease with a microphone in his hand. A football felt so much more comfortable.
But not anymore.
The 1980 Super Bowl between Los Angeles and Pittsburgh was over and Sonny Jurgensen sat down to have dinner with his second wife, Margo, at a typical Southern California Mexican restaurant.
He stuffed himself with tacos and nachos and, at last, anger. Anger because he had weighed himself earlier and found he had ballooned from 215, his final rotund playing weight, to a hefty and not flattering 235. He could foresee a jump to 250, then who knows how much higher?
"I'd travel to the pro games on the weekends and eat and drink and eat and drink some more, and I gradually got heavier," he said. "I just let it get away from me. So I said to Margo, 'This has to stop. I've got to get some discipline.' "
Jurgensen went on the Scarsdale Diet the next day. He gave up drinking, and with it a lifestyle that had captivated a Washington audience since 1964. The man-about- town became Mr. Boring. He also lost 52 pounds, going from a size 48 coat to 42, from a 40- inch waist to 34. It was another year before he had his next drink.
"The more weight I lost, the better I felt," he said, "so I just kept losing. I got down to 183 pounds. I was born weighing 183 pounds. But when people complained I was too thin, I put 10 pounds on, just to stop looking so gaunt."
And the drinking?
"I was never addicted to it. It was just a habit, a bad habit. It was something I enjoyed but I'd let it get out of hand. What is it someone said? Life is too short to take it seriously. Eat, drink and be merry. I just eliminated the first two."
To understand the turnabout in Jurgensen, it's necessary to understand the depth of his dedication to food and spirits. Put him with his closest teammate friends, and they would produce some of the funniest, most outrageous parties, and stories, imaginable.
A classic Jurgensen late-night tale took place when he was a Philadelphia Eagle. He and his roommate, Tom Brookshier, wound up at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania after a stop at some watering holes, and they took a fancy to a cigar-smoking drugstore Indian. Somehow, they kidnapped the statue and took it back to their dorm room, where it was set to serve as a stand-in for Brookshier when he left on a past-curfew romp.
But Jurgensen slipped out first and left the Indian in his bed. Just before curfew, Brookshier pulled down the covers and turned on the Indian, who started to puff away on a cigar. Needless to say, the assistant coach making bed checks wasn't fooled.
However, all of Jurgensen's escapades were not as humorous. He was arrested three times for drunk driving andb lost his driver's license twice, the last time in 1980 for two months. Each occasion was more embarrassing.
The thing that bothered me the most was the affect it had on my kids and my wife," he said. "I came home and my 10-year-old said he had heard it on the radio. That's not nice. You don't like things like that to happen. You would like to set a better example. I would like to think I have, but if kids are going to look up to you, it's not a very good thing to have happen to Sonny Jurgensen. I have a responsibility, and I realize that now."
Jurgensen paused and smiled. "I was reading Sports Illustrated about Jim Plunkett's hard life, and it said the only time he had been out of line was three little drunk driving charges." He started to laugh. "Heck, that's all I've ever had too, but they don't excuse them for me like that."
His last offense cost him, besides the license suspension, a $350 fine and mandatory participation in driving school. Not long afterwards, a man came up to him and they talked for a while. ''I haven't seen him since school," Jurgensen said to his wife.
''High school or college?" she asked.
"No, driving school," he said with a straight face.
Soon after his last suspension, Jurgensen bought a boat. On its maiden Potomac River voyage, he was pulled over. "I can't even go on water with getting into trouble," he complained later.
In 1969, when Jurgensen was working for a real estate firm, he spotted a rundown house a long iron shot from Mount Vernon. The structure was on the Potomac, but it was in such bad condition that a contractor who was building a subdivision in the neighborhood was about to tear it down.
Jurgensen bought the place and has turned it into an elegant estate worth more than $500,000. Sitting on four acres and sheltered from the public by high hedges and fences, the villa has a swimming pool, boat dock, tennis court and other playthings that have caught the eye of its owner, once described as the man who "literally has everything.'"
"I'm constantly working on it," Jurgensen said. "It's such an old place; when I saw it, it didnt' look like it was worth saving. It always needs something. And I like to tinker. Right now, I'm trying to figure out a way to move 15 tons of rock from my driveway down a hill. None of my Rube Goldberg inventions have worked."
George Allen once was shown the outside of the house by a real estate agent without knowing it belonged to his star quarterback. 'I want it," Allen said.
"I always thought I'd be traded off immediately after that," laughed Jurgensen.
The home has become the center of Sonnny Jurgensen's new life. "Instead of getting in at 6, like I used to, I'm getting up at 6 doing things around here," he said. He has always thrived on three or four hours of sleep a night, but no longer. He once filled in the long days with his night life. Now his projects keep him busy.
"I've got to have something to do every day, a plan," he said. "I really try to live each day to its fullest. I think that is the smartest way to go about it. I don't like to sit around and be that idle."
Jurgensen has four sons, two by each marriage. Greg, 22, is attending North Carolina State. He played football before he got to college, but then gave it up, despite his father's warning that he would regret the decision later. Scott, 18, was a star prep school quarterback in North Carolina (his team won two state titles and lost only two games in three years) and will begin his freshman year at Wake Forest as a walk-on player for the Deacon football team.
"I never pushed either one of them," their father said. "If they wanted me to help, they came to me and asked. The first time I saw Scott play at school, I saw him throw and it really struck me. You really never realized how you threw the football when you played, but sure enough, he had mirrored my motion."
At one of the first games in which Jurgensen saw Scott play, the youngster pulled out the win in the final seconds with a lob touchdown pass into the corner. Friends say Jurgensen was so moved by that performance tears began streaming down his face.
His younger boys by his second marrriage, Erik, 12, and Gunnar, 10, are just getting involved in athletics. Erik attended Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell's camp this summer. "I wanted him to learn how to recruit," said his father. Gunnar is husky, "a linebacker already."
"I really enjoy the young ones," he said. "With the first boys, I had just been traded from Philadelphia to Washington and the divorce had just taken place. I wasn't around when they we growing up. It was tough being a part-time father. I didn't have much input; I never saw them mature.
"I didn't want that to happen again. I do as much as I can with Erik and Gunnar. We play catch out in the yard; I have them run post patterns and corners and the rest. I'll go to Scout meetings or we'll take trips. I have the time to be with them and I use it the best I can.
"Margo was looking for things to do with them this summer, like camps. I said, 'Don't send them away--I wont' have anyone to play with.'"
Jurgensen does have time to play. Thanks to lucrative television contracts that provide income of more than $100,000 a year and to investments guided by the Donald Dell financial empire, he has substantial income. And none of his commitments call for structured hours. He'll go days, often weeks at a time between assignments.
During the past few months, he has traveled to Florida for a fishing tournament, to a half- dozen major cities for National Football League alumni golf events and to Hawaii for a reunion of ex-NFL quarterback greats. It's almost a life too good to be true, and he admits wondering about it.
"How many guys play professional sports and then they are out of it and they say, 'What I do I do now? Do I go back to law school? Do I go into business, do I sell cars, do I coach? Where do I go from here? It's something you have to be concerned about. Fortunately for me, I've had television to fall back on.
"Not many professions end at 35, so you have to start all over again, like you are just coming out of school. I've taken a look at what I'm doing and I'm satisfied. Every time I ask myself if I should be doing something else, the answer is no. I want to keep things like they are."
Jurgensen is a prodigious reader and a mathematical whiz. He makes a highly recommended chile, he plays to a 12 handicap in golf and he is a better-than-average tennis player. And he remains a master story teller--usually accented by a large cigar--who still can laugh at his jokes even on the 100th go-around.
When he was on his diet, the state of his humor became a topic among his friends. One night he was leaving for a party near the Channel 9 studios. He told Margo he would take a house key because he would be in very late.
"No you won't, she said. "You are so boring, you'll be home by 11. They'll kick you out." And she was right.
"We used to give Sonny a hard time about how he had changed," said Ernie Baur, a director-producer at Channel 9 who has become a close Jurgensen friend. "We'd tell him he was boring. The man would always get funnier as the night wore on and suddenly he was going home when we were just warming up. But now, he really is still a great story teller. I can repeat the same stuff and it just doesn't seem as funny."
Not that Jurgensen has abandoned completely his 3 a.m. out-with-the-boys forays. But now, he can keep the car on the right side of the white line on the way home.
Only lately has his humor come across on the television. It has taken Jurgensen years to relax in front of the camera, to feel comfortable reading the TelePrompTer. In the process, he found the transtition from sports star to media star frustrating.
"I admire those people who can get in front of a camera and make it look easy," he said. "It's very, very difficult, more difficult than you can imagine. I knew I wasn't very good when I first went on. I would tape my shows and look at them later and wonder what was going on.
"I didn't want to embarrass myself. So I knew I had to work and get a lot, lot better."
Jurgensen studied with a speech coach at Catholic University to help him make friends with the TelePrompTer and to smooth out his North Carolina-accented voice. His peers at the station would praise him when he performed well, but they were just as quick to criticize him for blunders. He'd help ease the tension by swiftly admitting his mistakes on the air. "You dummy," he would blurt out.
"I think you can safely say Sonny is a professional now," said Frank Herzog, the No. 2 man on Channel 9's sports team. "At first he wasn't, no question about it. He was a person with a very important name. But he came in with the attitude he wanted to get better and that really helped. No one resented him. They could all see he wasn't flashing around his ego.
"For a long time, when we were covering events together, I would go with him when he started his interviews. I think he wanted me there and frankly, I wanted to make sure I was around if he needed help. Now he can go on his own. He knows what to ask. He is thinking of ideas, making suggestions"
No one is suggesting Jurgensen is the new Warner Wolfe. Nor is he an overachiever, begging for work. But as jocks-turned-announcers go, he isn't bad. He can handle the sports segments on Channel 9's news program with competence, even if the stumbles persist. And his presence at prestigious events such as the Master's and U.S. Open gives the station an edge, because other celebrities are at ease talking to him. He's comfortable discussing golf or tennis, and it shows.
When WDVM-TV won a biddng war with Channel 7 for Jurgensen's services after he retired, management wanted to capitalize on his name and his Redskin expertise. Sonny would get them a few scoops, he'd have an insight in the locker room and people would watch the station just to see him perform--management hoped.
For a long time, Jurgensen's contribution was limited to football. During the season, his schedule was heavy, especially because his wekends were spent fulfilling network televisions commitments. He'd tape a Redskin coach's show on Friday, head off to a pro game on Saturday, fly back Monday, tape more local programs that afternoon and night and then go home. But once the Super Bowl ended, so did most of his work. His name would come up in station meetings, but it was usually dropped because, "Sonny wouldn't want to do it."
As his confidence grew, so did his desire to branch out. He did some commentary on Bullets games, then at the ACC basketball tournment. He filmed some segments for "PM Magazine." He made it clear he was willing to work when the station called.
The calls don't come that frequently. His arrangement with the station always has been a puzzle to local media watchers: How could someone earn so much doing so little?
But Jurgensen didn't enter the TV business expecting to be a 9-5 man. "Just having Sonny on the staff was enough," Herzog said. "That was public relations benefit enough for the station. He was held in awe because he was a legend. He wasn't hired to be Glenn Brenner." Jurgensen purposely has an extremely light work load, so as not to overexpose him. He is an added attraction who would not wear well visiting his public in their living rooms nightly.
There always has been a special relationship between Sonny and his public. In his younger days, when he would drive through D.C. in a flashy Cadillac and hit the high spots, he became a star who could mingle with the masses. He even had the same weaknesses, the same naughty habits as the common folk.
I loved the people in this city, and I think they returned that love," he said. "We had a mutual respect, a special rapport. I think they realized that every Sunday they were receiving the best we possibly could do, even if it usually fell short. When I go out now, people still want to talk about those days. They'll ask me about a play in a certain game, and, most times, you know, I can remember what they are talking about.
"It was the fans' Washington Redskins then. But George Allen wanted it to be George Allen's Redskins. He tried to take them away from the people and have everything his own way. But I think that's changing now. This new coaching staff is returning the club to the people, where it belongs."
Jurgensen has delivered some important stories. His biggest probably was the night George Allen was fired by Edward Bennett Williams. Jurgensen had the information by the 11 p.m. news. He also did polished profiles on Len Hauss and Diron Talbert after both players were phased out by the club. But he has been protective of his Redskin tips. His top priority is to keep the confidences he has built up with the team and not blab everything he knows over the airwaves.
"I'm an events person, not a studio person," he said. "I like er, to get out where the sport is happening. I can't do what Glenn does, and I don't pretend I can. I don't want to do the 6 and 11 sports segment every night. But I think you benefit by knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are."
Now he'd like to grow in another direction. After losing his CBS analyst job this summer--"My star has faded. I've been out of the league too long. They want to go with fresher faces"--he is determined to get involved in play-by-play announcing.
"I think I have the background for it and the interest," he said. "The real smart people in this business have gotten out of color work and into play-by-play. But the problem is, how do you get in the door? I just wish Channel 9 did more local sports televising. When you have a lot of live events, you get a chance to be more involved. But as a network station, you can't afford to preempt too many shows. I don't believe we'll add that many more sports programs."
So Jurgensen will have to be content with his schedule, which will be augmented by Redskin game-day broadcasts this season as an analyst for WMAL radio.
"Funny," he said, "I might have been a lot futher along if it hadn't been for George Allen. When he came here, I had a television show and I really enjoyed it. But he said he didn't want any players to have that kind of distraction any more and asked us to cut them out. We did. Then we did well on the field and everyone, including George, got shows. Except Sonny Jurgensen."
The most money Sonny Jurgensen made on the field was $150,000 a year, certainly not pauper's wages, but also not a lofty figure in today's high-salaried atmosphere. Nor did he tap the lucrative national endorsement and advertising field. He might be a legend in Washington but nationally he has to compete for attention with a lot of other quarterbacks, some of whom--this is going to hurt, Redskin fans--are considered to have been better.
Ironically, Jurgensen had to wait seven years after his retirement to see his face flashed almost nightly over the airwaves; selling Natural Light beer as a straight man to Norm Crosby.
But even the Anheuser- Busch people hadn't heard about the new Sonny. When he arrived to do the commercial, they had a script ready, one that played off his formerly hefty stomach appearance.
"It'll never wash in Peoria," said Jurgensen, or words to that effect. So Crosby ad- libbed a script, tossing in the bit about the "old quarterhorse" that brought the house down and made the commercial appealing.
"I'll drink a beer now, a light beer," Jurgensen said, never missing a step. "It also keeps people from bugging me about my drinking habits."
But little else seems to bug him anymore.
"When you are in the game, you don't realize what kind of special life you lead," he said. "You are spoiled. Everything is done for you. You develop a very narrow view of life. But when you get out, you finally realize it was just a game, nothing more. I worked at it, enjoyed it, but I was playing a little boy's game as a grown man. It was a lot of fun, but it had to end sometime.
"Look at it this way. You put your reputation on the line every time you play. A lawyer loses a case and he goes on to the next one; a guy misses a car sale and he sells to someone else. But I stink up the joint and I could be gone. Life became different in football. You lived by a different set of rules.
"If you play long enough, you eventually realize why you are being held in esteem, why you are on a pedestal and how soon you can tumble. You realize it's all superficial."
Jurgensen paused and looked out the window of the grill, toward the golf course in the distance.
"I missed it, missed it terribly at first. But not any more, not at all. On the contrary. I find myself liking this life more and more all the time. This is more realistic. I am very contented. I know myself a lot better than I ever did when I played. It's nice to go this way, to live life as it is.
"It's almost as if someone was holding up a sign and saying to me, 'Welcome Back.'"
To the Real World. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, Sonny Jurgensen, who used to get home many nights at 6 a.m., now rises at that hour each day to putter around his palatial house on the Potomac River near Mount Vernon. Having given up most of the "eat" and "drink" in life, he concentrates these days on the "merry" brought to him by a new lifestyle centering on his family. Sonny and Margo in their Spanish style living room. Sonny cleans the pool. The Jurgensens begin work on a Mexican meal, a favorite speciality in their home. Picking fresh vegetables from their garden. The Jurgensens' villa, valued at more than $500,000 was once coveted by the quarterback's former boss, George Allen. Photographs by John Whitman; Picture 5, Margo, Erik, Gunnar and Sonny Jurgensen. He also has two other sons by a previous marriage.