MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

The Washington Commanders will officially retire the jersey number 9 of Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen Sunday during halftime of their game against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field; which, of course, means there will be more Cowboys fans in attendance to see it than Commanders fans.

Jurgensen, now 88 years of age, was widely believed to be the best pure passer of his time and retired following the 1974 season with 32,224 passing yards, 255 passing touchdowns and 189 interceptions in his 18-year NFL career during an era when quarterbacks really didn’t pass that much.

So, once more, the question begs: What took so long for Washington to retire his number?

Jurgensen’s No. 9 becomes the fourth number in franchise history to be officially retired, joining No. 33 Sammy Baugh, No. 49 Bobby Mitchell and No. 21 Sean Taylor.

As many teams have, Washington has long kept certain numbers of its great players in franchise history out of circulation, such as No. 27 Ken Houston, No. 28 Darrell Green, No. 42 Charley Taylor, No. 43 Larry Brown, No. 44 John Riggins, No. 65 Dave Butz, No. 70 Sam Huff and No. 81 Art Monk.

Joe Theismann’s No. 7 had been out of circulation until 2019 when, with Theismann’s blessing, it was issued to quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

Jurgensen came to Washington from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1964 in a trade for quarterback Norm Snead and immediately became the face of a really bad team. The Redskins could score at will, but just couldn’t stop anybody, as witnessed by their 72-41 win over the New York Giants in 1966, which still stands as the record for most points scored in a game by a Washington football team.

Jurgensen, with his unorthodox cranking throwing style in which be brought the ball up from below his waist before releasing it, along with Joe Namath, threw the most beautiful ball of any quarterback in the game. His arm was so strong that he could pass a ball 60 yards from behind his back. He was a thing of beauty to see perform, though it can be said his physical fitness did not approach such beauty.

Sonny liked the night life, he liked big fat cigars and he liked his cocktails, and when the size of his middle was brought to his attention by a reporter, Sonny just shrugged it off by saying, “You don’t throw with your belly.”

His chance to play for a winner finally came in 1969 when Vince Lombardi came to Washington as general manager and head coach of the Redskins, and Jurgensen whipped himself into the best shape of his career and led Washington to a 7-5-2 record.

There was finally hope in old D.C. for its beloved football team, but Lombardi would soon die of cancer and the Redskins found themselves in the abyss once more for two years before George Allen came to town to run and coach the team.

Unfortunately, Jurgensen was not the quarterback Allen wanted, despite his brilliant play until a midseason Achilles injury in 1972 sidelined him for the rest of the team’s first Super Bowl season in which they lost to the undefeated Dolphins.

Jurgensen had his moments in the two years that would follow, but he and Allen did not get along and Allen preferred Billy Kilmer to manage the offense to complement the defense, rather than a quarterback of Jurgensen’s enormous natural talent and powerful passing arm to make the offense an aggressive weapon.

Jurgensen did some NFL TV work for CBS when he retired and was one of the Redskins’ famed radio broadcasters for 38 years along with play-by-play guy Frank Herzog and his former teammate Sam Huff. It was must-listen radio and the three-man team was absolutely brilliant and entertaining. They worked together beautifully and fans found themselves having the same fun listening that “Frank, Sonny and Sam” always seemed to have in the booth, usually accompanied by, as Huff once admitted, “our old friend Jim Beam.”

Unless Pat Summerall and John Madden were calling the game on TV, Redskins fans religiously listened to Redskins radio as they watched the game on television with the sound turned down.

Sonny came to Frostburg with the team in the mid-1990s when the Redskins held their training camp at Frostburg State University, but unlike every other member of the Washington team, coaches and broadcasters, other than Darrell Green, Sonny was off limits to all – reporters and fans alike.

I once saw a small child, who was far too young to likely have an idea who Sonny Jurgensen even was, ask him for an autograph; and I watched Sonny take close to five minutes to explain to the lad why he didn’t have time to sign for him.

I also watched him blow off our old friend Tom O’Rourke of WCBC Radio when Tom asked him for 10 minutes to record three or four radio in-game promos as Tom’s station carried the Redskins games every week.

He stood alone on the sidelines smoking his big cigar watching practice, then left the facility every day without stopping to speak with the media or the fans.

He is who he is, but it goes without saying he remains and will forever be a Washington D.C. icon, for his performance on the field and in the booth. He remains one of the most beloved professional athletes and personalities in D.C. history, so it’s nice to finally see him be honored by the franchise in a manner that is fitting and decades overdue.

Hopefully, there will be plenty of Washington fans on hand this Sunday to remind Sonny Jurgensen how much they have always cared.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT