Sam Huff is 78 years old, and a linebacker still. “I’m a pretty tough guy when you mess with me,” he said this summer, his eyes widening enough to show he meant it. When Huff says, “This is what football is,” as he did in that same conversation, it’s worth listening, because he was a significant part of the humbler beginnings of America’s most popular sport. He’ll slam the table to make that point — “Wham!” he yells — because that’s how he played, and that’s what he relishes now: violent, tough football, part of his life for more than six decades.
Yet when the Washington Redskins open the season Sunday at New Orleans, Huff won’t be in the broadcast booth, where he has sat for Redskins games for 37 years. Sonny Jurgensen, Huff’s former teammate and a friend he says he’s still “closer to than I am my own brother,” will serve as the analyst alongside play-by-play man Larry Michael. Doc Walker, another former Redskin, will provide commentary from the sideline.
Linebackers, over time, lose a step. The proof shows up on game film: Tackles are missed, yards are gained, games are lost. Radio announcers, too, wear down, and the proof is right there for fans to hear. Such inevitable drop-offs are almost imperceptible from game to game or even season to season. Yet at a certain point, they are undeniable.
Huff will still join Jurgensen and Michael in the booth for the Redskins’ eight home games as well as two on the road, against the rival Giants and Cowboys, but his curtailed schedule is an acknowledgment, in a roundabout way, that he has lost a step in recent years. “Everything ends in sports,” he said recently, and lowered his voice. “Everything ends in sports.”
That doesn’t mean he’s at peace with the decision. “I don’t understand it all,” he said one July day, not long after the Redskins’ flagship radio station, ESPN 980, announced his reduced schedule.
He sat behind a desk in his Middleburg office, just a few miles from his farm and stables, smack dab in the center of Virginia horse country. From here, he still runs a business: He is chief executive of the West Virginia Breeders Classics, the October thoroughbred races in Charles Town he started 25 years ago with Carol Holden, his longtime domestic and professional partner. This is where he reports most days, normally after breakfast at the Red Fox Inn, the downtown standby where patrons approach him and he approaches patrons, talking so frequently about football.
“I have a listening audience that other people don’t have,” Huff said. “They say, ‘We love you and Sonny.’ ”
Sonny and Sam. The Redskins open a new era Sunday, when rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III makes the first start of his highly anticipated career. For three decades, such a development would have been overseen by Sonny and Sam, who have served as judge and jury of the Redskins since Jurgensen first joined Huff in the radio booth at WMAL for the 1981 season. The pair worked first with play-by-play man Frank Herzog, and since 2004 they have been paired with Michael. Though each began his playing career in another city — Jurgensen in Philadelphia with the Eagles, Huff in New York with the Giants — they arrived by trade in 1964, and are so closely linked in team lore that two years ago the franchise produced a documentary on them and called it, “Brothers of the Legacy.”
“Sonny and Sam are special,” Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen said this week. “They’re audio monuments in this area, and I probably wouldn’t be surprised if some person didn’t name their son ‘Sonny Sam Blank.’ Clearly, they’re two Hall of Fame players and two Hall of Fame people.”
Through this prism, Sunday’s opener and the upcoming season, the first since 1975 in which Huff won’t be calling all the Redskins games, will seem so different. Huff’s position with the franchise, and in the history of professional football, is secure. He played just five of his 13 pro seasons in Washington, yet was named one of the Redskins’ 80 greatest players. The team has named its defensive player of the year award after Huff. One afternoon at his office, Huff, a nostalgic sort, was feeling nostalgic. He pulled a letter from a drawer and began reading.
“Dear Sam,” he said, and the words of the late Jack Kent Cooke came forth. In a note dated April 22, 1996, Cooke wanted to let Huff know that he intended to name one of the concourses at the yet-to-be-opened FedEx Field the “Sam Huff Concourse.”
“You deserve this honor,” Huff said, reading Cooke’s words. “I do this to ensure that your career with the Redskins will never be forgotten.”
The broadcast with Huff and Jurgensen has always had an informal, folksy feel, with Huff standing up for the defense, and Jurgensen often poking fun at Huff, who then would poke back. Each brought his own flavor: Jurgensen, from the North Carolina coast, and Huff, from the West Virginia mountains.
But over the past few seasons, Internet message boards have buzzed over occasional gaffes in the broadcasts, many of them committed by Huff. The list, compiled bit by bit on the Web, is painfully public.
Lots of them are small. Against Philadelphia in the final game of the 2010 season, when tight end Fred Davis scored, Huff said, “I mean, he hasn’t caught a touchdown pass, so they didn’t cover him!” Michael responded immediately, “Well, he caught one last week.” Huff has struggled with rules, such as those for intentional grounding and overtime.
No one episode is particularly egregious. None is of the sort that, on its own, could threaten a career. But as they mounted, Chuck Sapienza, a lifelong Redskins fan from Silver Spring who is now the executive producer of the Redskins Radio Network, ended up in that same office in Middleburg, across that desk from Huff, this spring.
“Sam and his family, they weren’t sure he wanted to do all the games,” Sapienza said. So they talked. Eventually, after more meetings, they settled on the arrangement that began in the preseason, when Huff stayed home from trips to Buffalo and Chicago, and will continue with the first two weeks of the regular season, trips to New Orleans and St. Louis. At various points over the course of the summer, Huff has clearly felt forced to the side.
“How could you have a better broadcast than we have?” Huff asked one day. Sapienza — who grew up listening to Huff and Jurgensen and emphasized, “This is really a decision Sam made with his family” — did some research.
“I listened to all the games last year;” Sapienza said. “Is Sam the same as 20 years ago? No. But in 1 p.m. home games, he was fine. He really was. When he got fatigued, that’s when some mistakes showed up. But at home, he was good.”
Home for Huff is Middleburg. It seems to be where he is comfortable, where his meals out are social events and the faces are familiar and friendly. He can sit with Holden on the front porch of his house and look out past the barn and the fields, over the hills toward his native West Virginia and say, as he has, “I never dreamed I’d ever have a place like this.” Unlike Jurgensen, who uses a black couch in the lobby of Redskins Park as his de facto office, Huff rarely goes to the team’s Ashburn headquarters, more than a half-hour east.
Still, there can be despair in his voice when he considers the upcoming season and his role in it. “I don’t know what the hell happened,” he said one day. Shortly thereafter, Holden walked in. Huff looked up. She was told about his frustration about the radio situation.
“Well, he’s doing it, and that’s what he wants,” she said, with Huff listening on. “And they’re paying him to do it, so it can’t be too frustrating.”
So here he is, approaching his ninth decade, still with an obvious passion for football, tugged in two directions. People around him want him to slow down, and at times he agrees. People involved with the radio broadcast, most of whom would not speak for this story, worry about him constantly. He is part of the Redskins’ fabric. He’s missing just six regular season games. But he seems to wonder, as Jurgensen and Michael and Walker march on without him: Will the lesser schedule lessen his position with the franchise?
“He’s the type to go somewhere and waits to come home,” Holden said. “But he loves traveling with Sonny, with the team. And part of his argument has been, ‘I’m a team player. I should be there.’ That’s really where it comes from. And yet, he’s gotten tired. He complained every time he had to go away, yet he still wants to go.”
Told that some longtime listeners — and even some people who are involved in the broadcast — have argued that his performance has slipped, Huff shot back, “That’s [expletive]! . . . I pay attention to what I do. I ride on the back of London Fletcher’s shoulder pads.”
He is, at that moment, a middle linebacker again, seeing the game from the perspective of Fletcher, who mans an inside spot for these Redskins. During Huff’s playing days, after he grew up as the son of a West Virginia coal miner and became the first in his family to graduate high school and then attend college, he was the subject of a groundbreaking Walter Cronkite piece called “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” part of CBS’s series, “The Twentieth Century.” It is fascinating viewing, with Huff miked up for sound, barreling through the offensive line, and Cronkite booming, “That was Sam Huff, doing what he’s paid to do: knock the other guy down.”
These are, to this day, Huff’s richest moments, reliving his days in Edna Gas, W. Va., or at West Virginia University, and especially in New York, where he turned middle linebacker into a glamorous position with the Giants. He was the first professional football player on the cover of Time. That cover hangs on the wall in his office, part of a sea of memorabilia, each photo more fascinating than the last.
“Tom Landry. You see him?” Huff asked one day, pointing up at the wall at his old assistant coach with the Giants. “There’s Lombardi,” his finger moving to another photo. “The two greatest coaches. They coached me. They loved what I did.”
He rolled right from that to a discussion about the penalties issued to the New Orleans Saints in the wake of their bounty scandal (“It’s ridiculous! What are you trying to prove here?”); to pointing out a picture of him with Mickey Mantle, with whom he shared a locker at Yankee Stadium; to an oft-told story about the paltry $500 raise Giants owner Wellington Mara gave him after his rookie season, when he was the league’s defensive rookie of the year and the Giants won the NFL championship. When Huff asked why just $500, Mara said, “Well, Sam, I think you’re worth it.”
He laughed heartily at the memory. Telling those stories, time and again, from the days when pro football was only beginning to take hold of America are when Huff is at his best, when he’s clearly having fun. Then he turned to the wall again.
“That’s Tom Landry,” he said. “And over there’s Lombardi.”
Upstairs from Huff’s desk is Holden’s office and a radio studio. For a quarter-century, Holden and Huff have broadcast a weekly show called “Trackside,” dedicated to any and all issues in the horse racing industry. The entrance to their Middleburg property is marked by signs on either side of the driveway, “Huff Farm” and “Sporting Life Stable.”
“Sam has always been good about letting me have my own identity,” said Holden, who took her part of the name from an old British sports magazine.
Holden and Huff have bought and sold horses time and again, grown attached to them and moved on. Their late filly Bursting Forth won multiple graded stakes races more than a decade ago, and Huff was rarely as happy in his post-football life as he was watching her win. Now, they have scaled back, and the farm is home to a few old horses and a couple of donkeys.
“Trackside,” though, is still produced every week, even as some of the stations on which it was broadcast have disappeared. Holden is the host, and Huff plays her sidekick. Holden’s mastery of the thoroughbred industry is on display. One broadcast, she harkened back to a development decades ago.
“Well, 1966, I can’t remember that far back,” Huff said. Holden deadpanned, “You have a hard time on yesterday.”
They laughed uproariously. “You’re right there!” he said. And the show rolled forward.
Horse racing, though, “is just part of my life,” Huff said later, “just like football is.”
The NFL season will begin Sunday, and Sam Huff will be at home. Might he flip on the radio and listen to the broadcast that he will be a part of again Sept. 23, when the Redskins open their home schedule? Might he watch the team on television, a completely new experience?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure.”
Then the old linebacker leaned back in his chair and started another story. “You know, Wellington Mara . . .”
And he was off.
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