by MELODIE DAVIS
“Hiiiii, I’m Sonny Randle!” is the trademark opening radio line Sonny says in his sing- songy rural Virginia twang. He goes up high on the “I’m” that is easy to recognize, hard to imitate. A lot of NFL professional football players in the 1960s would have loved to imitate his ability as a wide receiver to fly down the field to catch yet another touchdown pass. What was his secret?
Sonny keeps it simple, quipping, “I ran real fast, and if guys were chasing me, I ran even faster.”
For a number of years, playing for the Chicago/St. Louis Cardinals (1959-1966), the four-time Pro-Bowl player held the NFL record for most touch down passes in a season. That record was eventually broken by Jerry Rice, who is now considered the greatest wide receiver of all time. In Sonny’s second year with St. Louis, he hauled down 62 passes, gaining 895 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.
As a college athlete at the University of Virginia, Randle competed in football, basketball and track. He attended Fork Union Military Academy for all of his elementary and high school years, at one point clocking a 9.6 second 100-yard dash.
Now living between Verona and Staunton, Sonny (real name, Ulmo Shannon) is set to retire at the end of December from his also noteworthy broadcasting career. He began broadcasting in the 1960s while playing for the Cardinals, the first such player/radio broadcaster in the NFL. In fact, his wife Gail adds, “On air he reported his own departure from St. Louis to go to San Francisco.” After playing for the 49ers two years, he played a final year for the Dallas Cowboys with Tom Landry coaching, a savored opportunity. “He was just a great coach,” Sonny summarizes. After Dallas he was traded to the Washington Redskins but was injured in a preseason game and retired after that year on injured reserve.
Every weekday morning Sonny still gets up at 5 to prepare his daily live radio “Sports Update” at 7:55 a.m. for WKDW-AM (900) Staunton and WCYK-FM (99.7) Charlottesville on “anything and everything in the world of sports,” according to Sonny. Once a week, he also records his “Sports Minute” radio broadcasts at Robby Meadows’ Alive Recording Studio in Harrisonburg, sent to about 25 stations.
After playing in the NFL for ten years, Sonny also coached for 13, including stints at UVA, East Carolina, Marshall and two years at Massanutten Military Academy.
By far the worst and most poignant memory was the day he coached his East Carolina team as they beat the visiting Marshall “Thundering Herd” from West Virginia. In traditional fashion, his team shook the hands of the visitors as they departed, and then were stunned, along with the nation, when 37 members of the team, eight coaching staff, 25 boosters and five flight crew perished in the plane crash on the way home. Sonny was offered a cameo appearance in the movie made from the tragedy, “We Are Marshall,” but he turned it down feeling the memories of the trauma would be too emotional.
Sonny grew up on a horse farm with one brother near Culpepper where his father was much involved with all that is horses. As Sonny began his academic life at Fork Union, he lived with a guardian family, who became his substitute parents, who were loyal followers as he played through college and the pro years.
Sonny’s wife of five years, Gail, who recently retired from a cardiology office in Charlottesville as a nurse, notes that in all his years around a football field, Sonny never once sat in the stands as a regular fan, either college or pro. He was either playing or doing color commentary in the press box.
What was life like in pro football? He and first wife had four children, two sons and two daughters. Sonny recalled the traveling in private planes to games, and arriving back home where “his daughters would come out and hug him and his boys would throw rocks,” Sonny said, jesting. He also recalled one year in St. Louis when they had a terrible record at home, and wins on the road. “We joked that we needed to go up and fly around St. Louis several times [like we were going somewhere]before a game, so maybe we’d win.”
On a personal level, Sonny felt “really happy after a game if I played well, and when I played poorly, I wasn’t happy. You carry it with you.” Sonny’s work in football and sports broadcasting was recognized in 1991 as he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. Not only was he a well rounded athlete in football, basketball and track, he coached baseball players in sprinting to steal bases, perhaps most notably St. Louis Cardinal base-stealing pro Lou Brock.
But out of his remarkable career, Sonny most savors the years spent playing football, even though as with most pro football players, he’s paying the price in his body.
While he played varsity basketball beginning with 9th grade, and competed in track at Fork Union, his guardian and athletic director there wouldn’t let Sonny play football until his senior year because they were afraid he’d get hurt. Which of course he did, breaking his collar bone. But eventually he earned an athletic grant-in-aid as a walk on at UVA. Sonny became more of a threat in his junior year as they changed their offense to include more passing as they saw Sonny’s prowess in receiving.
Still, there was a price to pay for the fun and glory. “Ten, 20 years down the road, you will have repercussions in your body,” he says without spite. So many hard driving passes smashing into his hands and arms gave him scar tissue, according to Sonny’s doctors. He has severe stenosis of the spine and arthritic knees. At one point he went to a neurosurgeon who had only seen a MRI of his back. The neurosurgeon said he fully expected his patient would be in a wheelchair. Sonny has had surgery for carpal tunnel and has neuropathy from his elbow to his hand, wearing special gloves to help the pain. But Sonny said his NFL insurance has been very adequate since he played for them for more than five years.
Sonny and his wife credit regular exercise with keeping him mobile at 78; he walks and sometimes jogs the track at nearby Robert E. Lee High School. No 9.6 second dash of course, and some days he’s doing well to take three passes around the track with feet that appear to “barely lift off the ground,” according to one reporter in the Staunton News Leader. Sonny counts himself lucky to be as healthy as he is, crediting an overall healthy lifestyle. “I don’t drink and I never smoked a cigarette,” he notes. He lives near a golf course and enjoys putting there—and around town. If he happens to speak to a random customer in a convenience store, they frequently recognize his distinctive voice.
So sometime around the end of the year, Sonny will sign off with his well worn radio line, “Until our next visit … this is … Sonny Randle sayin’ — [long pause]— sooo long ev-ry buddy.”
Melodie Davis, national editor of Living, is the mother of three young adult daughters, and lives with her husband near Harrisonburg, VA. She also blogs at www.FindingHarmonyBlog.com.