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RobJanis

Whatever Happened to ... George Izo

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Whatever Happened To... George Izo

by

Robert Janis

(I interviewed George Izo by phone on March 5 and March 8, 2004)

Three Washington Redskins’ quarterbacks hold the record for the longest touchdown pass (99 yards) in National Football League history: Andy Farkas on October 15, 1939; Sonny Jurgensen on September 15, 1968; and George Izo on September 15, 1963.

Izo played for the Skins from 1961 through 1964 and was the back up for Norman Snead and Sonny Jurgensen.

Born on September 20, 1942, Izo started in sports while in fourth grade at a Catholic grade school in Barberton, Ohio. He played basketball, baseball, and football. When it came to football, he was always a quarterback. “I was on the streets every day throwing the ball. I found out I could throw a little bit,” he said. His dad, who attended Notre Dame for two years and played for Knute Rockne, encouraged him.

He made a reputation for himself as a quarterback for Barberton High School from 1954 through ‘56. “I started the second game of my sophomore year and never looked back,” said Izo. In his junior and senior years he was named All-American. He was also All State, All Summit County and dubbed Player of the Year by the Akron Beacon Journal, the local paper for that region of Ohio.

He was heavily recruited by some of the top college football programs in the country. Pursued by the University of Southern California, the University of California Los Angeles, Ohio State, and Purdue among others, Izo committed to Notre Dame University. He considered Purdue University long and hard but finally decided on Notre Dame as a result of encouragement from his dad and older brother.

He played very well at Notre Dame. He still holds the school record for the most yards per completion. Moreover, he led Notre Dame to major upsets over Oklahoma, Iowa, and Southern California. He also played defensive back for the school and his senior year intercepted six passes.

He played so well, in fact, that he was being considered for the Heisman Trophy at the beginning of his senior year at Notre Dame. The week before the first game of his senior season, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, the Tuesday before the game he hurt his knee in practice. As a result he missed the first three games of that season and lost out on the Heisman. Still, that year he was named to the Coaches All-American Team and started in the game that pitted the college all-stars against the National Football League champion Baltimore Colts. Don Meredith was the other quarterback on that team. By the way, Billy Cannon of Louisiana State University won the Heisman Trophy that year.

The Chicago Cardinals drafted him in the first round of the National Football League Draft in 1960. That year the upstart American Football League held its first draft and Izo was selected by the New York Titans in the first round. “Harry Wismer was the owner of the Titans and he also was the announcer for the Notre Dame football games,” recalled Izo. “He always told me that he would make me a millionaire.”

Izo signed with the Cardinals. “I didn’t want to take a chance on a new league,” he said. “Also, Julius Tucker, a Notre Damer, who served as my agent and was also the agent for Paul Horning and Ralph Guglielmi pushed the NFL. He was the driving force who got us drafted and made the deals with the owners,” said Izo. He actually signed the contract at Soldiers Field in Chicago during the Chicago Cardinal-Chicago Bears game. “Harry Wismer was really mad at me,” volunteered Izo. The contract with the Cardinals was for $15,000 and included a $2,000 signing bonus. “Meredith and I were the highest paid players that year,” said Izo.

A month after Izo signed the contract, the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis. “I was really upset because I had a job offer from WGN radio in Chicago. I had to give up that job,” lamented Izo.

He won the starting job for the Cardinals on the third game of the season. Pop Ivy was the head coach of the Cardinals at the time. “We were playing the Cowboys and we had a play in the double wing set up where the quarterback pitched the ball to John David Crowe and then had to be the lead blocker. Well, I called that play and I was the lead blocker for Crowe and I was hit on the bad knee -- the same knee I had hurt my senior year at Notre Dame. I should have had the knee operated on but I didn’t. I missed eight games and that really affected my progress my rookie year.”

At the end of training camp with the Cardinals in 1961 Izo was traded to the Redskins for Ralph Guglielmi. That same year the Redskins drafted Norman Snead in the first round of the NFL draft. Abe Gibran was an assistant coach with the Redskins at the time. “Gibran told me that I wouldn’t play, that I was insurance,” said Izo. He was Snead’s back up for three years.

Bill McPeak was head coach of the Redskins at the time. “McPeak always took care of me. He gave me raises every year at a time when teams were tight with their money. Linemen were only paid $7,000 to $8,000 a year,” said Izo. “And Preston Marshall was tight with the money too. He loved the Redskin band more than the team.” His contracts with the ‘Skins ranged from $25,000 to $27,000.

It was while Izo was serving as a back up for Snead that he threw the longest touchdown pass in NFL history. “The Redskins were playing the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland,” explained Izo. “My home town, Barberton, isn’t too far from Cleveland so a lot of my friends and family came down for the game.” The pass was completed to Bobby Mitchell.

And anyone who thinks that quarterback is a glamour position should talk to George Izo. On December 15, 1962 the Redskins were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in D.C. Stadium. “Snead started the game but was hurt within the first few minutes and I went in to play,” recalled Izo. “It was cold that day.” Izo played the rest of the game. “I was so sore after the game. It was the last game of the season so we all packed up our things and headed for home. I was driving back to Barberton. I stopped overnight at a motel in a small town off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I intended to stay just overnight and continue the drive to Barberton in the morning. The next day I was so sore I couldn’t get out of bed and I stayed at the motel an extra day.” Izo credited his lack of playing time and the meanness of the Pittsburgh Steeler defense for his condition.

In 1964 the Redskins traded Snead to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sonny Jurgensen. Izo was Jurgensen’s back up for one year. It looked as though he would have more playing time. Back then the teams played six exhibition games. Jurgensen was hurt early in the exhibition season and Izo played most of the exhibition games that year. But Jurgensen came back and started the first regular season game.

After the ‘64 season Izo was traded to the Detroit Lions. The other quarterback for the Lions was Milt Plum. Harry Gilmer was head coach of the team and Sammy Baugh was an assistant coach. “It was wonderful to be coached by Baugh,” commented Izo. “He was a real character.” Alex Karras was Izo’s roommate on the road.

Izo recalled that the Lions won six games in 1965. And he got to play some. He quarterbacked the Lions past the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams and then started against the San Francisco 49’ers. “I started 0 for three passing and Gilmer took me out for Plum. I got very down, lost my confidence. The players backed me and thought Gilmer should not have taken me out. It got to be pretty nasty.”

He was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers where he played for one year then he retired.

Izo volunteered that Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams tried to convince him to return to the Redskins for the 1967 season. He was offered a $50,000 contract. But he didn’t want to back up Sonny Jurgensen again.

Instead, Izo went to the Bahamas and built condominium high rises. He also coached one of two high schools on the Island -- Freeport High School. Freeport and the other high school played against each other seven times and Freeport won all seven games. The following year, said Izo, Miami Military Academy flew to the Bahamas to play Freeport and lost.

Despite his record with Freeport High School, Izo did not want to pursue coaching especially in the NFL. “I didn’t want to coach in the NFL. You worked 20 hours a day and back then would only get paid $30,000 a year.”

All told, George Izo played seven years in the National Football League. He played in a total of 26 games and completed 132 passes in 317 attempts for 1,791, 12 touchdowns and 32 interceptions.

Izo worked for the Military Division of Hidden Valley Ranch when he was living in California after his retirement. He organized trips with former NFL players to U.S. military bases in Asia. These trips included Paul Hornung, Earl Morrell, Billy Kilmer and Ken Stabler among others.

Izo and his second wife, Deborah, now live in Richmond, Virginia. They adopted a baby girl from China in 1998.

He also has two children from a previous marriage. His son Erik is an account executive with J. Walter Thompson in New York. And his daughter Amy is married and has one son and lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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This is great stuff Rob. Keep 'em coming. George Izo was a name I had only seen in the record books and never knew anything else about him other than he'd played QB at Notre Dame.

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