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Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen Not Afraid to Speak His Mind

Concussions? Sonny Jurgensen chews on his cigar and keeps laughing. “They didn’t have concussions in my day,” Jurgensen said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “You were dinged. You went to the sidelines, and the doctor would hold up three fingers and say, ‘How many fingers do you see?’ You always said ‘three’ because that’s how many he’d always hold up.” Without fail, the doctor sent the players back onto the field after answering the question correctly. “Do you know how many times I had my lights put out?” Jurgensen says. “It’s just a different game. A completely different game.”

And boy, did he love playing that game. For 18 seasons from 1957-74 with the Eagles and Redskins, Jurgensen became known as one of the purest passers in NFL history. He made five Pro Bowls, completed 2,433 passes for 32,224 yards and threw for 255 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and has seen the many changes to the game first-hand as both a TV and radio commentator. Jurgensen obviously isn’t one to sugarcoat how he feels. “It was a privilege to be able to play professional football,” he says. “I played 18 years and did something I enjoyed doing. It isn’t that way anymore. It’s an entitlement now. Guys come in the league, they get more money showing up for camp than I made in 18 years.”

Back in Jurgensen’s era, players weren’t allowed to go in motion. Defensive backs were allowed to hit receivers at the line of scrimmage, and offensive linemen weren’t allowed to block with their arms extended. If only those rules existed when he played . . . So what does Jurgensen like least about the “new” NFL? He believes it has become way too much of a coach’s game. He can’t stand that coaches call the plays for quarterbacks. When Jurgensen played, he made all the calls. “To give an example, it’s third-and-10,” Jurgensen says. “I need to make a play. What play am I going to call? I am going to call a play that I have confidence in. What is the coach calling? Is he calling something he likes? “This is the crucial part of the game and this guy up in the booth having a hot dog and a Coke is calling the play instead of me? I don’t like that.”

As you would well imagine, Jurgensen has plenty of opinions about drug use, too. There was not prevalent use of steroids when he played, but there was plenty of speed and players took it. “The guys would congregate in this locker in the back,” Jurgensen says. “I knew what they were doing. I’d see a guy walking to the water fountain with his hand cupped, and I’d go over and hit his hand and they’d come out on the floor. I’d go, ‘Have a good game!’ ” Sports medicine has changed, too. Jurgensen remembers getting injections in his aching knee to deaden the pain so he could keep playing. He has had 18 operations, has bad knees and shoulders. But he still can shoot a few rounds of golf whenever he wants.

Unfortunately, many retired players of his era can’t, and are trying to get the NFL Players Association to help them financially. Mike Ditka and several others have been outspoken on the topic. Jurgensen believes the NFL owes the older players who sacrificed their bodies playing in a different era of the game, when nobody could retire off the money they earned in the league. He wants to talk to Redskins owner Dan Snyder about an idea he has: What if individual teams set aside money to help out their retired athletes? That would at least be a start. “They should figure out a way to increase our benefits,” Jurgensen says. “The pensions are too small. “They should figure out a way to take care of the players that are suffering dementia. Take care of them first.”

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