Washington Redskins legend Sonny Jurgensen was one of the most prolific quarterbacks of the 1960s.
Ironically, Jurgensen, who had 32,224 passing yards and 255 passing touchdowns during his iconic 18-year NFL career, almost never made it to the NFL.
Had it not been for a Duke Blue Devils assistant coach’s timely intervention, Jurgensen would not have led the NFL in passing yardage for five years and become a five-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
Jurgensen and wide receiver Charley Taylor became a formidable duo during their time together with the Redskins from 1964 to 1974. They accounted for 53 touchdowns during that ten-year stretch.
In the summer of 1983, Jurgensen finally took his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is Sonny Jurgensen’s fascinating gridiron story.
Christian Adolph “Sonny” Jurgensen III was born in Wilmington, NC on August 23, 1934.
Jurgensen told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website in 2010 his favorite team growing up in North Carolina was the Washington Redskins.
By some ironic twist of fate, Jurgensen eventually suited up in Redskins gold and burgundy from 1964 to 1947.
Jurgensen was with the Redskins organization as a player and broadcaster for a combined 55 years.
Sonny Jurgensen attended New Hanover High School in his hometown. He suited up for New Hanover Wildcats head football coach Leon Brogden.
Brogden led the school to a combined six championships in football, basketball, and baseball. Jurgensen was a versatile athlete who played for all three New Hanover teams.
In Jurgensen’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, he attributed Brogden’s success to his emphasis on building his players’ character.
For that reason, Brogden always has a special place in Sonny Jurgensen’s heart.
@AGoldFan @AlecCampbell5 on a happier note it’s also Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen’s 87th birthday. He played at Duke as you know as well as at New Hanover HS in Wilmington pic.twitter.com/1Zuxec2ma7
— Dan Tejas (@DanSmit27845702) August 23, 2021
When Jurgensen was in high school, he got his first job as a delivery man for the Coca-Cola Company.
Jurgensen told ProFootballHOF.com some 70 years later that he and his co-workers delivered approximately 1,200 cases of Coca-Cola to nearby beaches every Fourth of July.
The versatile Jurgensen decided to remain in-state and accepted a football scholarship from the Duke Blue Devils.
He told GoDuke.com’s Chris Mitchell in the summer of 2000 that he had chosen the school because it was the most impressive among those he considered.
Sonny Jurgensen eventually became a reliable and versatile player during his three-year stint with the Blue Devils from 1954 to 1956.
However, it wasn’t until Jurgensen’s fifth NFL season that he evolved into one of the finest quarterbacks of the 1960s.
College Days with the Duke Blue Devils
Sonny Jurgensen attended Duke University in Durham, NC from 1954 to 1956.
Jurgensen played on both sides of the ball. He played quarterback and defensive back for Duke Blue Devils head football coach Bill Murray.
Jurgensen was on Duke’s freshman team in 1953.
When Jurgensen took the field with the varsity as a sophomore in 1954, he recorded an interception in consecutive games against the Tennessee Volunteers, Purdue Boilermakers, Army Black Knights, and North Carolina State Wolfpack.
Behind Jurgensen’s exploits, the Blue Devils won two league titles and made it to the 1954 Orange Bowl against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Jurgensen’s Blue Devils prevailed in lopsided fashion, 34-7.
Murray made Jurgensen his starting quarterback in the 1955 NCAA season. With Jurgensen passing for 536 yards and three touchdowns, Duke had a 7-2-1 record that year.
Heading back to the 1950s for our first look into #Duke sports.
HOFer Sonny Jurgensen played Cornerback about as much as Quarterback for @DukeFOOTBALL, played baseball, and turned down an offer to try out for basketball.
He would go on to become the best quarterback of his era. pic.twitter.com/CEIX2YMoUa
— North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (@NCSHOF) April 20, 2020
Jurgensen injured his knee against the Virginia Cavaliers in the second game of his senior season in 1956.
That, plus the fact Duke faced four Top 20 teams in 1956, played a part in the Blue Devils’ mediocre 5-4-1 season.
Jurgensen finished the 1956 NCAA season with 371 passing yards and two touchdowns in Murray’s run-oriented offense.
Sonny Jurgensen finished his three-year stint with the Duke Blue Devils with 1,119 passing yards, 243 rushing yards, six touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
Pro Football Career
The Philadelphia Eagles made Sonny Jurgensen the 43rd overall selection of the 1957 NFL Draft.
Jurgensen had serious doubts he would make it to the National Football League during the lead-up to the draft festivities.
Jurgensen felt the Duke Blue Devils’ run-oriented offense (they passed the ball just 59 times in his senior season in 1956) seriously hindered his chances of playing quarterback in the NFL.
Fortunately, Blue Devils assistant football coach Clarence “Ace” H. Parker reached out to a Philadelphia Eagles scout to size up Jurgensen at team practice in 1956.
The scout left the Duke campus impressed. His meeting with Parker and Jurgensen paved the way for the latter’s entry into the NFL ranks several months later.
Had it not been for Parker’s timely intervention, Jurgensen might not have entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame some twenty-six years later.
On the other hand, Bill Murray, Jurgensen’s head football coach at Duke, told scouts his protege would become an NFL safety.
However, that scenario never played out. Instead, Sonny Jurgensen became one of the NFL’s most prolific passers of the 1960s.
Jurgensen confided to ProFootballHOF.com in 2010 he had a simple pre-game ritual. Instead of joining his teammates for the pre-game meal, he ate a bologna sandwich with the equipment personnel in the locker room.
Jurgensen wore No. 9 in the National Football League because it was half of the No. 18 he wore with the Duke Blue Devils during his college days.
A Slow Start
Jurgensen had a slow start to his legendary NFL career. He played behind starters Bobby Thompson and Norm Van Brocklin in his first four seasons in Philly from 1957 to 1960.
The Eagles were a below-average team that won just four games per season from 1957 to 1959.
Sonny Jurgensen won the nfl championship as a back up in the eagles in 1960.
(18) years @kobebryant born in Philly
18 in rv is (81)
Sonny played for (18) years and (9) coaches pic.twitter.com/k5b2qxSVUE
— Martin Brian Ansah (@DaAnsahonSports) April 15, 2021
Fortunately, Philly turned the corner in 1960. The Eagles won ten games and secured their third NFL championship that year.
It was also the lone NFL title Jurgensen would win in his 18-year pro career on the gridiron.
The turning point in Jurgensen’s career occurred in 1961. Van Brocklin retired from playing and accepted the expansion Minnesota Vikings’ offer to become their head coach.
Consequently, new Eagles head coach Nick Scorich made Jurgensen his new starting quarterback.
Jurgensen responded in spectacular fashion. He set a new league record with 3,273 passing yards.
His 32 touchdown passes tied also tied an NFL record. It was an Eagles franchise record that would stand for the next fifty-six years.
Jurgensen’s resurgence helped him earn the first of his five career Pro Bowl nods. He also earned his first and only First-Team All-Pro selection in his NFL career.
With Jurgensen under center, Philly won 10 games for the second consecutive year. Unfortunately, the Eagles did not qualify for postseason contention in 1961.
Although Sonny Jurgensen played lights-out football in 1961, he earned just $14,000 per season.
Consequently, he told ProFootballHOF.com that he found employment in the construction sector and at a sporting goods store in the offseasons to pad his income.
Nonetheless, football took center stage in his life for years on end.
“My life was all football, really, for so many years,” Jurgensen confessed to The Washington Times in September 1981. “You never got away from it. It dominated you, and you let it.”
Football may have dominated Jurgensen’s life. However, he knew how to have fun.
According to a 1981 article in The Washington Post, Jurgensen and his roommate Tom Brookshier stole a drugstore Indian statue from Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.
The two took the statue to their dorm room and placed it on Brookshier’s bed to make it appear to the Eagles’ coaches he was sound asleep during a bed check.
However, it was Jurgensen who left the dorm room first and inadvertently placed the Indian on his bed. A Philly assistant coach soon busted both Jurgensen and Brookshier.
Jurgensen’s shenanigans were a recurring theme during his pro football career. He had a busy nightlife and slept just three or four hours nightly, per The Washington Post.
Sonny Jurgensen Eagles vs the cardinals (1962)
5 touchdowns and still lost
Not his fault he played on average teams pic.twitter.com/RJC6sXqlNs
— Martin Brian Ansah (@DaAnsahonSports) August 23, 2019
Jurgensen proved he was not a one-trick pony by racking up a league-leading 3,261 passing yards in the 1962 NFL campaign. However, he also had a career-high 26 interceptions that year.
Despite Jurgensen’s inspired play, the Eagles stumbled badly in 1962. They won just three games in Skorich’s second season as head coach.
Jurgensen limped through an injury-ravaged campaign the following season. He had just 1,413 passing yards and 11 touchdown passes in nine games.
Before long, Jurgensen’s days in the City of Brotherly Love were numbered.
The Eagles traded Jurgensen to the Washington Redskins for quarterback Norm Snead and defensive back Claude Crabb in the spring of 1964.
Traded to Washington
Jurgensen’s trade to Washington came as a shock, to say the least.
He felt good after he met with first-year Eagles head coach Joe Kuharich. The two discussed his future in Philly, which seemed secure at that point.
To Jurgensen’s surprise, several strangers told him the Eagles traded him to the Redskins while he was having lunch at a Philadelphia deli. The men apparently heard the news on the radio.
The shock eventually wore off. Jurgensen considered the trade a blessing since it gave him a fresh start in Washington.
Jurgensen would spend the final eleven seasons of his legendary pro football career in the nation’s capital.
When Sonny Jurgensen reported for Redskins training camp in 1964, head coach Bill McFee considered him a rare quarterback who tackled well, showed composure, leadership, and intelligence, and exemplified fierce determination.
McFee was right on all counts. Jurgensen personified those traits in his eleven-season tenure in Washington from 1964 to 1974.
#TBT to April 1964 when the @Redskins stunned the NFL by making a trade for Sonny Jurgensen! pic.twitter.com/QtvgC1Iv9I
— Washington Salute (@WasNFLSalute) April 14, 2016
Jurgensen proved to his former team that he was far from washed up when they squared off in Week 5 of the 1964 NFL season.
Jurgensen torched Philly for 385 passing yards and five touchdown passes. The Redskins won easily, 35-20.
Sonny Jurgensen was a classic drop-back passer who made a living inside the pocket. He knew this was his strength as a quarterback and never strayed away from it.
“I try to stay on my feet and not be forced out of the pocket,” Jurgensen said (via ProFootballHOF.com). “I beat people by throwing, not running. I won’t let them intimidate me into doing something which is not the best thing I can do.”
That belief produced one of the most iconic stretches among NFL quarterbacks in the 1960s.
It also seemed Jurgensen got better with age as he approached his mid-30s. He and wide receiver Charley Taylor combined for 53 touchdowns during their time together in Washington from 1964 to 1974.
Jurgensen led the NFL in passing yardage as a member of the Redskins for three more seasons in 1966, 1967, and 1969.
His 31 passing touchdowns led the NFL in 1967. It was the second time he accomplished this impressive feat in his pro football career.
Jurgensen’s 87.3 passer rating also led all NFL quarterbacks in 1967. His 59.9 completion percentage three years later was the best among the league’s signal callers.
Jurgensen earned four of his five career Pro Bowl selections when he played for the Redskins from 1964 to 1974.
Although Jurgensen had become one of the more prominent quarterbacks of the 1960s, his personal life took a massive hit.
Football continued to dominate his life and eventually compromised his first marriage.
After Jurgensen parted ways with his first wife, his two sons, Greg and Scott, rarely spent quality time with him.
With Jurgensen’s domestic life in shambles, he turned to his second family: his Redskins teammates.
Working with the Legendary Vince Lombardi
Jurgensen, an 18-year NFL veteran, singled out the 1969 NFL season as his most memorable.
Jurgensen was a 35-year-old quarterback who was in his sixth season with the Redskins. That point of his iconic career coincided with the great Vince Lombardi’s first and only season as Washington’s head coach.
Jurgensen recalled in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech that he worked harder than he ever had in his first twelve NFL seasons.
Consequently, Sonny was in the best shape of his life. He also enjoyed playing for the mercurial Lombardi.
Jurgensen considered Lombardi the most influential coach in his career. Among the nine head coaches he played for, Lombardi was the only one who simplified various schemes on both sides of the ball.
Prior to working with Lombardi, Jurgensen received word from Green Bay Packers legends Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Max McGee that he was going to love working for the legendary head coach, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Jurgensen soon found out they were right. He, too, loved playing for Vince Lombardi.
For his part, Lombardi gave Jurgensen high praise. The latter considered Sonny Jurgensen the best quarterback he had ever seen.
“Jurgensen is a great quarterback,” Lombardi said (as quoted by Washington Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams). “He hangs in there under adverse conditions. He may be the best the league has ever seen. He is the best I have seen.”
Sadly, Vince Lombardi passed away due to colon cancer in 1970. He was 57 years old.
Jurgensen moonlighted as a real estate agent in 1969. He discovered a dilapidated house in Potomac, MD.
Jurgensen bought the four-acre property for more than $500,000. He transformed it into a mansion that had a swimming pool, tennis court, and boat pier, to name a few.
The newly-renovated house produced a profound change in Jurgensen, a bona fide night owl. He no longer snuck home at dawn. Instead, he began waking up at 6:00 on most mornings.
Jurgensen’s tenure in Washington ended on a sour note when he feuded with head coach George Allen in the early 1970s.
Their fallout began when Jurgensen injured his shoulder in preseason play. Allen consequently handed the quarterbacking reins to Billy Kilmer.
When the Redskins hired Allen in 1971, Jurgensen had his own local TV show.
That did not sit well with Allen, who felt it was a distraction. He asked his players to stop them immediately.
Ironically, when Washington won more games with Allen at the helm, he and the other Redskins players except Sonny Jurgensen had their own television shows.
Time to Hang It Up
Jurgensen filled in for an inefficient Kilmer during the 1972 NFL season. The former led Washington to wins over the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Cardinals, and Dallas Cowboys.
Unfortunately, Jurgensen tore his Achilles tendon in a game against the New York Giants that year.
Kilmer took over at quarterback and led the Redskins to Super Bowl VII. Alas, they lost to the Miami Dolphins, 14-7.
@Super70sSports I doubt too many QB-Head Coach combos had as much swagger than Sonny Jurgensen and George Allen! Gotta love a ginger QB with a gut & a head coach with the best combover in NFL history and who wore maroon polyester slacks pic.twitter.com/CPQ0LVvGNY
— Mike Malnicof (@MarvelousMike94) June 9, 2019
Allen told a hobbling Jurgensen, who walked on crutches, that he did not want him on the Redskins bench during Super Bowl VII.
A disappointed Jurgensen watched the game from owner Jack Kent Cooke’s suite instead, per SI.com.
Although Jurgensen was already 40 years old when the 1974 NFL campaign kicked off, he felt he still could have been a major contributor to the Redskins’ cause that year.
Jurgensen still resented the way Allen handled his last season in Washington when he worked in sports media in the early 1980s.
Jurgensen retired from the National Football League following the 1974 NFL season.
He had 32,224 passing yards, 255 passing touchdowns, and 189 interceptions in his legendary 18-year NFL career.
The Redskins averaged seven wins per season during Jurgensen’s tenure in Washington from 1964 to 1974.
They made four postseason appearances—all during the George Allen era—during that ten-year time frame.
According to The Washington Times, Jurgensen’s highest salary was $150,000 per season.
Jurgensen considered Yankee Stadium his favorite venue when he played against the New York Giants in the National Football League, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Jurgensen singled out the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Dallas Cowboys of his era as his toughest opponents.
In terms of Sonny Jurgensen’s greatest accomplishment off the gridiron, being a good husband, father, and grandfather topped his list, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Sonny Jurgensen currently resides in the Washington, DC area.
He has two sons from each of his two marriages. Greg and Scott are his sons with his first wife. Jurgensen and his second wife, Margo, have two sons: Erik and Gunnar.
Jurgensen ventured into a successful 38-year sports broadcasting career after he retired from the National Football League in 1974.
He served as a CBS football analyst for six years before becoming the then-Washington Redskins’ radio analyst for the next thirty-eight.
Jurgensen also worked at Washington television station WDVM-TV in the early 1980s.
To the shock and horror of many viewers, Jurgensen looked gaunt. He was so frail, people rang up the station and asked if he had cancer,
Fortunately, he did not. It turned out Jurgensen had cut down his drinking considerably and became more conscious of his nutrition habits.
Little remembered fact: Early in his broadcasting career, #HTTC legend Sonny Jurgensen was a color commentator for NFL games on CBS, alongside Vin Scully #RIPVinScully pic.twitter.com/IP7ZQk57dS
— T M (@reshmanuel) August 3, 2022
Despite his thinner frame, Jurgensen told The Washington Times in the fall of 1981 he was happy and content in his retirement years.
One of Jurgensen’s friends thought otherwise. He told the publication he still resented former Redskins head coach George Allen for the way his pro football career ended.
The friend told The Washington Post that Jurgensen had wanted to end his career on his own terms and not Allen’s. Unfortunately, the opposite scenario transpired.
Jurgensen had his share of shenanigans during his early days covering the Redskins.
According to The Washington Post, Jurgensen loitered near the Redskins’ dormitory at 4:00 a.m. after a binge drinking session sometime in 1979.
Jurgensen woke up Redskins defensive tackle Diron Talbert in the wee hours of the morning to munch on some chili dogs and drink beer.
It turned out Jurgensen broke into the premises via a secret route. Nobody also knew how he smuggled food into the Redskins’ dorm.
Jurgensen’s weight ballooned in the early 1980s. He binged on copious amounts of food whenever he went on the road to cover NFL games on weekends.
Before long, Jurgensen’s weight had climbed to 235 pounds.
An exasperated Jurgensen went on the Scarsdale Diet and stopped drinking to help him lose weight.
He eventually lost 52 pounds and reduced his waistline from 40 to 34 inches.
Jurgensen felt good when he tipped the scales at 189 pounds. However, people kept telling him he looked so frail. That prompted Jurgensen to add 10 more pounds so he would not look so haggard.
Jurgensen never considered himself an alcoholic.
“I was never addicted to it,” he insisted to The Washington Post in 1981. “It was just a habit—a bad habit. It was something I enjoyed but I’d let it get out of hand.”
Jurgensen’s drinking got him into trouble on several occasions. Authorities arrested him three times for driving under the influence. They even suspended his license twice, per The Washington Post.
An embarrassed Sonny Jurgensen could not bear the effect his run-ins with the law had on his second wife Margo and their two sons.
A low point came when his son told him he heard about his arrest on the radio when he got home.
Jurgensen thought he could get away from trouble when he purchased a boat at the turn of the 1980s decade. He was wrong.
The Coast Guard pulled him over when he set sail on the Potomac River on his boat’s maiden voyage.
Jurgensen, who earned more than $100,000 yearly as a sports broadcaster, reached out to a Catholic University speech coach during his sports media career.
The said coach helped Jurgensen work on his accent and intonations. Although Jurgensen was not perfect in his subsequent performances, he improved by leaps and bounds.
Jurgensen eventually worked in the Redskins’ radio booth when they won the Super Bowl in 1982, 1987, and 1991.
His weekly schedule included taping a coach’s program on Fridays, flying out to cover the weekend game, returning on Monday to record more local afternoon and evening programming, and finally, going home.
Jurgensen showed his versatility when he worked as an analyst of Washington Bullets and ACC basketball games in the 1980s.
It also wasn’t until 1981 that Jurgensen appeared in his first television commercial: a TV ad that promoted Natural Light beer.
#TBT @Redskins legend Sonny Jurgensen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. #HTTR pic.twitter.com/WxPIFzDWzR
— Washington Salute (@WasNFLSalute) August 4, 2016
Hall of Famer
Sonny Jurgensen became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Washington Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams was his presenter.
Part of Jurgensen’s enshrinement speech reads:
“… in a team game—and football is the ultimate team game—everybody depends on one another. Everybody contributes to the success.”
Sonny Jurgensen is also a member of the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame, the Washington Commanders Ring of Fame, the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
The Commanders will retire Jurgensen’s No. 9 jersey in January 2023.
“I am very humbled by this recognition,” the 88-year-old Jurgensen told the Washington Commanders public relations department in the summer of 2022. “It is an honor of a lifetime to have my jersey retired with a franchise I spent 55 years of my life with.”
Jurgensen’s hobbies include reading books and playing golf and tennis, per The Washington Post.
Sam Vaughan says
I enjoyed watchinf Sonny play for Washington in the 60s and early 70s while growing up in Va. Deepest respect and love for the his game and the Redskins
Rex Jones says
I met sonny on his way home to Mt Vernon in 1993 at a gas station. He always had a big cigar. He was a great broadcaster and QB
M Britto says
The Redskins head coach was named McPeak, not McFee. My dad gave up his season ticket because they were so bad under McPeak.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sonny once after a taping of Redskins Sidelines and another time at his “office” at Redskins Park.