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Redskins Hall Of Famer Sammy Baugh Dies At 94

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the first great pro football stars has died. Sammy Baugh, a former quarterback in the NFL, was 94 years old. He was a member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and when he was on the field, he did everything, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: One of the great quarterbacks in NFL history died in Texas on Wednesday night. And on the same night, the NFL lost the top defensive back and perhaps its best punter. This was no triple tragedy, however; all those skills were embodied in the same man, Sammy Baugh. He was known as Slingin' Sammy during an era when slingin' was not a sought-after skill.

Mr. JOE HORRIGAN (Vice President, Pro Football Hall of Fame): The passing play was one more of desperation than it was of strategy.

PESCA: Joe Horrigan is vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He says before 1937, the NFL had never seen an arm like Baugh's.

Mr. HORRIGAN: But, with his tremendous accuracy and his arm's strength and just his great all-around athleticism, it became a first option as opposed to an action of desperation.

PESCA: The impact of the lanky farm boy from Sweetwater, Texas, was immediate, says Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films.

Mr. STEVEN SABOL (President, NFL Films): He took the Redskins to the world championship as a rookie. He beat the Bears in a snowstorm, and it was the first time he ever even saw snow.

PESCA: Sabol went down to Rotan, Texas, to interview Baugh, who rarely traveled after he left football. It was there that he encountered a colorful storyteller, who personified a kind of easy wisdom, so much so that Robert Duvall studied Baugh is the basis for his character Gus McCrae in "Lonesome Dove," Casey Gus explaining ranching the way Baugh described what it takes to be a good quarterback.

Mr. SAMMY BAUGH (Retired Quarterback, Washington Redskins): When you're on the field, you've got to feel like you're the best son of a (beep) out there.

PESCA: Baugh was, and not just as a quarterback; he was a top-flight defensive back, and to this day, holds the mark for most yards per punt in a single season. Every sports fan knows that baseball and horseracing have triple crowns, but football has one, too, and Baugh was the first player ever to lead the league in an offensive, defensive, and special teams category. Since players no longer play both offense and defense, this will never be achieved again. But in case anyone wants to try, here's the punting philosophy that Baugh shared with NFL Films 10 years ago.

Mr. BAUGH: You make yourself a good punter by doing it on your own, because most damn coaches don't know too damn much about punting if you get right down to it.

PESCA: It was Baugh's reinvention of the passing game that was his greatest contribution. When he first started, forward passes were so rare that the rules had not been invented to protect passers. As Baugh told Sports Illustrated in 1969, those linemen could hit the passers until the whistle blew. If you completed a pass out there, and somebody's running 50 yards with the ball, that punch could still hit you. So, Baugh struck back in kind, administrating what Steve Sabol calls frontier justice to a Bears defensive end.

Mr. SABOL: And Ed Sprinkle(ph) came rushing in, and Sammy just took one step forward and threw the ball as hard as he could, right - and hit Sprinkle right between the eyes and knocked him cold.

PESCA: An effective play in the days before face masks. Baugh's precision was such that he could waste a few throws disciplining an opponents and still lead the league in passer accuracy nine times. Other numbers that the defined Baugh's career were 33, the only uniform number ever retired by the Redskins; the six times he made the Pro Bowl; the five children and 23 grandchildren and great-grandchildren he was responsible for; and the 94 years he lived before passing away Wednesday in Rotan, Texas. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Mike Pesca writes a weekly column on football on npr.org.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Pesca
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.