SI Vault
Ron Reid
August 21, 1972
When Jurgensen was hurt, Billy Kilmer became the No. 1 Redskin quarterback. However, don't count Sonny out, he's counting calories
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August 21, 1972

When You're No. 2, You Diet

When Jurgensen was hurt, Billy Kilmer became the No. 1 Redskin quarterback. However, don't count Sonny out, he's counting calories

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Since the city is Washington, D.C., where the elected inhabitants adopted the expedient ways of the chameleon sometime during the first Whig administration, a reversal of form should be anything but suspect. Yet the phenomenon of a playboy coming on like a Trappist monk has generated both skepticism and excitement from Chevy Chase to Arlington. The reformed character is Christian Adolph (Sonny) Jurgensen, best known as a quarterback for the Washington Redskins and, as such, without peer in the art of throwing a football. Now in his 16th NFL season, Jurgensen has lost none of his skill at flipping a pass over or around a defender and into a teammate's mitts—an art which has resulted in 2,200 completions, 29,502 yards and 236 touchdowns. In brief, he is the NFL's No. 1 passer and, if that statement outrages fans of Johnny Unitas, think how the folks feel who sign Joe Namath's paychecks.

There is little argument, however, that at 37 Sonny is a changed man. A free spirit for whom training rules have, at times, been just too vexing, Jurgensen this year has been one of the hardest-working, cleanest-living members of the Redskins. Jack Armstrong, it would seem, has gone into the game for Hugh Hefner.

To appreciate the new Jurgensen, it is necessary to remember the old—the guy whose identifying mark was a six-pack gut. That Jurgensen, rumor has it, paid enough fines to meet the taxi squad's payroll and sneaked out of camp so often that his room in the players' dorm came with a sublease.

But that was before the Redskins' fifth exhibition game last year, when Sonny went down and out with a left-shoulder injury that sidelined him nearly the entire season. Like Namath, he got hurt trying to make a tackle, and the crushing blow to his athletic ambition may have stung his ego worse, since the Redskins rallied behind the quarterbacking of Billy Kilmer, who took the team to the playoffs with a 9-4-1 record, its best in 29 years. "The one thing I wanted to do was bring a winner to Washington," Jurgensen says wryly, "and I guess I did by getting hurt."

In his only 1971 start, which came in the 11th game, Jurgensen reinjured his shoulder and ended the year with but 16 completions for 170 yards and no touchdowns. Sonny, it should also be retailed, holds the NFL single-season record of 288 completions and has passed for 3,000 yards in five different seasons.

Nor was Sonny's existence blessed by any solace from George Allen, a coach whose approach to football precludes even cursory interest in Vietnam, busing, recycling or Fischer-Spassky—not to mention football players who can't play football. When the Redskins went off on a road trip, George left Sonny behind with, reputedly, the excuse that he didn't want him to get hurt on the sidelines. In Washington, Allen urged Sonny to sit in the stands with his family until Jurgensen convinced his coach that, like an injured Unitas and Namath, he could lend vocal support from the bench.

Thus, in 1972, Jurgensen has come to camp a new man. For the first time since 1966, he weighs less than 200 pounds and his belly is nearly fiat. Sonny's last drink was knocked back before Allen called his players to training camp. By then he had announced that Kilmer was still his No. 1 quarterback.

"That's the way it should be," Jurgensen says. "The fellow who did the job has it until someone takes it away, and you do that with performance."

So, as No. 2, Jurgensen may be trying harder, but there is nothing new about his lust to excel, as evidenced by his work in preseason routs of Baltimore and Denver. Playing in the second half after Kilmer worked the first, Jurgensen has given credence to Allen's claim that the Redskins have the best one-two quarterback punch in the game. Indeed, the competition has resulted in a dead heat; during their respective half-game stints, each quarterback has twice directed the team to a pair of touchdowns and a field goal.

Fortunately for Washington, Kilmer and Jurgensen are friends with great respect for one another. Says Jurgensen: "Billy's a very good quarterback. He knows his position and he's a leader. We try to help each other. This competition is going to make us better." Says Kilmer: "Sure, Sonny wants to play as much as I do, and it's going to help us because each of us can move the club. There's not that much difference between us that way. He's a better passer than I am, but we move the club in different ways. There's no animosity between us. We could split the team up if we let it get unfriendly. Winning is the objective, not who's going to play."

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