Jurgensen was the lone holdover in the booth from those glory years after Herzog was unceremoniously ousted and replaced by Larry Michael in 2004, and Huff, 78 and in failing health, stepped away before the 2013 season. On Thursday, before Washington’s preseason opener at Cleveland, Jurgensen announced his own retirement, effective immediately, closing the book on the final remnant of the “Sonny, Sam and Frank” era.
“I’ve decided to hang up my headphones and my clipboard,” Jurgensen said in a recorded message during the pregame show on the Redskins Radio Network. “It’s been a great 55 years in Washington. I want to thank our Redskins fans for being so generous to me and our teams. We owe it all to you.”
Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker, began calling Redskins games on WMAL in 1975. Herzog, a local sportscaster who also called Washington Bullets games, joined the booth in 1979. Critics were initially skeptical about the addition of Jurgensen. He was a beloved figure in Washington after 11 years with the Redskins but was reportedly let go by CBS because he didn’t provide enough “inside” anecdotes during games.
“Usually, the first commandment in broadcasting is never put three men in the booth,” The Washington Post’s sports media columnist, William Taaffe, wrote in October 1981. “WMAL violated that and got away with it. Herzog — strong, tough and dependable — is the frame of the sleek new machine. The blunt, unpolished Huff is the crankshaft. Jurgensen, the high-octane fuel, is the ingredient that makes things move.”
Ockershausen got to know Jurgensen through his local television work, including a weekly Redskins recap show toward the end of his playing career and a “Redskins Sidelines” show with WUSA-9’s Glenn Brenner after he retired. Ockershausen said putting Jurgensen in the booth was an “easy, easy call,” especially given his friendship with Huff.
“What they did off the air was as important as what they did on the air,” Ockershausen told ESPN 630′s Andy Pollin on Friday, during a special three-hour Jurgensen tribute show. “They developed a chemistry. … It was an easier exchange for Sam and Sonny than it was for a normal broadcaster.”
It helped that Jurgensen and Herzog had a history before their first Redskins broadcast.
“Sonny and I had worked together at Channel 9 for about five years,” Herzog told Pollin. “We had done basketball games together, we’d done college football, so we knew each other and had worked together and were friends. Sonny and Sam, my goodness, they were the best of friends. Sonny used to pick Sam up on their way to home games. They were roommates under Vince Lombardi in training camp, so it was a natural fit. He stepped right in, and 10 minutes later it was like we’d been together for years.”
Two months into what would become almost a quarter-century of calling Redskins games together, Sonny, Sam and Frank were drawing rave reviews.
“They are about to make some TV-radio sports critics in this town eat some very tough crow,” Taaffe wrote in The Post. “No matter what their previous shortcomings, the troika of Frank Herzog, Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen can no longer be dismissed as house men. No homers here. The transformation of the crew into one of the hardest, yet fairest and most entertaining units in the league began in the preseason with the addition of Jurgensen."
Taaffe noted that Jurgensen scolded quarterback Joe Theismann for poor judgment and openly accused the Redskins of dogging it during a 30-17 loss to the 49ers in Week 5 of that 1981 season, which dropped Washington to 0-5 in legendary coach Joe Gibbs’s first year at the helm. The Redskins would improve immensely under Gibbs, and Sonny, Sam and Frank provided the soundtrack for the greatest years in franchise history.
Jurgensen demonstrated a propensity for predicting plays before they happened before Tony Romo was forming complete sentences, and his banter with Huff was both entertaining and informative. It was common for Redskins fans in the area, this reporter included, to mute the volume on the TV and turn up the radio to hear their familiar laughter and voices, along with Herzog’s simple call every time a Washington player crossed the goal line: “Touchdown, Washington Redskins!”
“Frank, Sonny and Sam were an institution. They were fabulous together,” former Post sports editor and columnist Leonard Shapiro, who covered Jurgensen as a player and a broadcaster, told Pollin. “They were not homers, although they obviously wanted the Redskins to win. If Sonny saw something going wrong on the offense, guess what, he pointed it out, much to the chagrin, occasionally, of some of the coaches. He was not afraid to give a strong opinion.”
Tony Kornheiser, who arrived at The Post a couple of years before Jurgensen joined WMAL, marveled at Jurgensen’s broadcasting career, which included regular appearances with Channel 4′s George Michael and came on the heels of a playing career that earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“In the golden age of sports television in Washington, D.C., Sonny Jurgensen sat in a booth with Frank Herzog, who is the best play-by-play guy ever, and then he sat on a set with Glenn Brenner — brilliant and funny — and then he sat on a set with George Michael, who, I think more than either of the other guys, made sports an industry in this city and was innovative in ways that the others weren’t. The three giants … and Sonny was a partner to all of them.”
Herzog, Brenner and Michael were among the many names Jurgensen, who will turn 85 this month, mentioned during his nearly two-minute farewell address on Thursday.
“We lived through the glory years together, the NFC East championships and five Super Bowls, all great memories,” Jurgensen said.
The Redskins radio booth hasn’t been the same since Larry Michael replaced Herzog before the 2004 season. While Rick “Doc” Walker has served as a sideline reporter for nearly a decade, Jurgensen was the broadcast’s main tie to the glory years after former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley replaced Huff in 2013.
“Being able to share a broadcast booth with a legend and Hall of Famer has been something that gives me chills to this day,” Cooley said Thursday. “Sonny, we love you. I’m so proud of everything you’ve accomplished in your life, as a father, as a husband, as an athlete. You’re a great man. We’ll be here for you, but we’ll miss you in the booth.”
Herzog told Pollin he was feeling melancholy Friday as he reflected on the end of a “rather historic era in Washington.”
“I just feel like this is it, this is the end,” he said. “It’s done. Wrap it up. What are they going to do, and how are they ever going to match that again?”
Read more on the Redskins: