He was a bullshootin' ol' son of a gun. Each story was more hilarious than the one before. This legendary player thought of himself as a regular guy, no more important than you or I.
As I drove four hours each way from Dallas to Rotan Texas (pop. 1,611) on Monday to attend Baugh's funeral, I soaked in the awe-inspiring prairie land Baugh loved as a youngster, prompting him in the early 1940s to buy a ranch consisting of thousands of acres and one half of the Double Mountains. The two peaks stand tall and majestic on the flat horizon, and though legend has it Cortez hid his famed gold there, they will always pronounce to the people of West Texas, "Sammy Baugh lived here."
Approximately 300 people gathered at the First Baptist Church to pay tribute. Baugh had a large family, including five children, 11 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. His son Bruce passed away two years ago, but the other three boys and one daughter were present.
They hosted a press conference before the service, and his two eldest sons, Todd and David, as well as one grandson, Brant, all spoke at the service. There was a lightness to20the memorial service. Although it was a profound loss for the family and for Redskins fans who have said farewell to the last living member of the 1937 World Championship team, it was not a shock. It seemed more of a relief amongst the family that Sam had moved on to a better place.
There was not a single representative of the Washington Redskins team or organization in attendance, though flowers were sent. I was repeatedly asked if I was with the team given I wore a Redskins winter coat over my suit in the cold Texan winter. High winds made it a lot colder than the stated 31 degrees.
Former Redskin end and linebacker Joe Tereshinski, whose locker was next to Baugh's from 1947-52, astutely stated in his testimonial I delivered to the family, "Humanity will miss him."
Twenty gray-haired athletes in their seventies showed up to pay tribute to the coach they loved. They were the players he coached at Hardin-Simmons University from 1953-59 (1955-59 as a head coach). John G. Jones, who played four years under Baugh, was the first of several players to echo Tereshinski's sentiment in a much more specific manner. He told me he would have never made it in life the way he did without Baugh. It was clear these players did not just love Baugh because he was a great coach, or for the reason everyone who has ever met the man loves him – because he was a truly great guy – but they all felt deeply indebte d to him for shaping their lives and their characters.
Early arrivals to the ceremony were treated to two big screen showings of the King of the Texas Rangers, the 1941 12-part serial Baugh starred in. Sporting full cowboy attire Redskins owner George Preston Marshall insisted Baugh wear when arriving in Washington in 1937, and playing a newly-anointed ranger intent on catching the men who shot his father, we marvel at the classic Baugh against four men in a saloon brawl, picking up a large football shaped vase and hurling it with full force at a bad guy's head, knocking him out, as he once did in real life to a violent, charging Bears lineman who had been hitting him after every play. "Knocked him out cold … I thought I killed him", Baugh once told me. Still, one can't help but feel that the great legend would have starved to death had he felt acting was his calling. Many other stirring images and film clips of Sam the man and Baugh the football player filled the screens for the remainder of time before and during the service.
The service was not a generic one focusing on religion, as Baugh was not a religious man. Instead, it was all about the stories, as was Sam. The stories were mostly humorous and we were constantly reminded Baugh's language could not be repeated in church.
Baugh often welcomed strangers into his home. I had the pleasure of staying with Sam at his house twice for when travel ing to Rotan with Baugh's biographer, Dennis Tuttle (who accompanied me to the funeral and expects to finish the book in 2009.) Sam would wake me up in the morning by coming and sitting on my bed and asking, "Well, how the hell are you?" I could relate to the story told by Baugh's grandson Brant, who lived with the granddad he called "Sam" for some time as a teenager and after high school.
Brant related in a thick southern drawl how the first time he returned home, he surprisingly exclaimed, "Sam, there's someone in ma bed!" Sam replied in his equally syrupy drawl, "Yeah, that's a friend of mine." Brant told the crowd, "I was a bit upset, cause, ye know, that's my BED! The second time I came home and found someone in ma bed, and I asked Sam, and he said, ‘That's a friend of mine,' and I said, ‘Yeah, but WHO exactly is that?' Sam said, ‘Well … I just met him today.' "
Both times when leaving Baugh's ranch, a sad time for us, Sam would plead with us to stay an extra night. He would then proceed to try and slip my friend Dennis a $100 bill just to help him out since he made such an effort to come and see him. Dennis would always tell Sam he had to use the restroom and then place the $100 on his dresser.
Sure, Sam had his vices. Not just cussin'. He was renowned for driving at outrageous speeds. His best friend since his wife's passing in 1990, Bob O'Day, who delivered the eulogy, marveled at Sam's driving skills, also in a heavy drawl, "He was one of the few people I ever saw who could chew tobacco, spit in a cup, listen to the radio, turn around and talk to you…and still drive."
I have the video footage to prove it. I felt the danger of a wartime photographer while holding my video camera in the back seat of Sam's Cadillac. He would be coming up on a sharp turn, turning his head back to me, spitting tobacco, and I filmed the speedometer, and we were over 90 mph.
In his eulogy, O'Day asked the audience, "How many of you have ridden in a car with Sam?" After I raised my hand with several others, O'Day quipped, "Well … I see God took care of you."
At Western Texas College in Snyder, The Sam Baugh Celebrity Golf tournament, which I had the fortune of partaking once, raised enough money to give college scholarships, based on need and merit, to 58 children. Amazingly, 57 of them graduated.
It wasn't just how much he helped people; it was also that he was so darn nice. He never said no to an autograph request, even though he received huge numbers of requests by mail each day. When we thankfully arrived at Sam's favorite restaurant, and best I could remember=2 0it was one of only two restaurants in Rotan, the Dairy Queen, we got Sam angry for the first and only time, when we tried to pay. We did not have a chance.
The service and burial were incredibly fitting for Sam. Blue jeans and cowboy hats boots for some. Lots of stories. Funny stories. Big family. And the coffin. Never have I seen such a coffin. A beautiful, rustic, cowboy coffin made of cedar with patterns carved in it that resembled the entrance to Midwestern saloon from days long gone by, adorned with Sam's big leather saddle and chaps. As the horses pulled the carriage past two friends and honorees, dressed as a cowboy and a referee, who stood still as statues with their hats on their hearts and their heads bowed, I couldn't help but imagine Sam asking, "Where the hell was that referee when the Bears, five seconds after the play ended, were throwing me on the frozen turf of Soldiers Field."
Having been moved so deeply after my first visit, as everyone was who was lucky enough to meet him, I wrote a tribute song to Sam. The last line is, "Out on the prairie in the days of old, when the Lord made Sam you know he broke the mold."
I still feel that way. Driving back on those flat roads, past nothing but endless expanses of red earth filled with mesquite trees, which coupled with that cold gray sky, lent to that eerily beautiful landscape, it started to sink in that I may never see that starkly magnificent part of the country that Sammy Baugh fell in love with again. That I never again will have the pleasure of sitting and talking to perhaps the greatest player of all-time, and be treated as if he was my best friend on earth.
Samu Qureshi is considered the leading collector of Redskins memorabilia. His column appears weekly on WarpathInsiders.com and each month in Warpath magazine.
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Sammy Baugh's Funeral
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