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NFL legend Sammy Baugh given cowboy send-off

ROTAN, Texas -- Sammy Baugh, the NFL's original gunslinger, was given a cowboy send-off.

The last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class of 1963 was remembered by family and friends Monday, five days after he died at age 94.

Baugh's saddle and chaps were draped over his coffin at the front of First Baptist Church in Rotan, where Baugh's life was celebrated through the memories of those closest to him.

He was taken by hearse to a nearby cemetery where a horse-drawn wagon awaited for the slow procession to his grave site.

As the hearse slowly approached the wagon, about a dozen black Brangus cattle sauntered to a nearby fence corner, almost as if the bovines Baugh loved to raise and ranch came to say their farewells.

Two of Baugh's friends -- one wearing a referee's uniform and the other dressed as a cowboy -- stood with their hats off and heads bowed as the wagon made its way to the gave site.

Baugh was laid to rest beside Edmonia Baugh, his wife of 52 years, who passed away in 1990.

At the funeral, family members remembered Baugh more for his skills as a father and a cowboy than anything connected to football. They recalled him as kind and amiable.

Son David Baugh told how his father frequently opened up his home near this small West Texas town to folks -- strangers sometimes -- and always made them feel like they were the most important people in the world.

"That's the kind of man he was," David Baugh said. "It could be the poorest guy in the world and Sam made you feel like a million dollars. People would come back to see him all the time."

Grandson Brant Baugh said sometimes he'd find some of those strangers sleeping in the bed he used when he'd come visit his grandfather. The first time his grandfather told him it was a friend. The next time, though, the grandson was more dubious.

"What's his name?" Brant Baugh asked his grandfather.

"Well," Brant Baugh recalled the elder Baugh responding, "I just met him."

One of those who came to visit wasn't a stranger. Robert Duvall visited Baugh as the actor was preparing for the role of Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Baugh was known to be very animated with his hands.

"Those hand movements that Robert Duvall uses in that movie he really got from Sam," David Baugh said.

Friends he made after retiring and those he golfed with spoke of what a good man Baugh was. He and longtime friend Bob O'Day started a benefit golf tournament a few years ago, the Slingin' Sammy Baugh Tournament, at Western Texas College in Snyder.

So far, the tournament has raised enough money to help 57 young adults earn college degrees.

"Sam was a man's man," O'Day said. "He never met a stranger and he could talk to anyone. When you were around, Sam made you feel good."

Baugh was generous always, and loved Dairy Queen, talking on the phone, reading newspapers and Western novels, and watching Westerns on television.

"Sam enjoyed the simple things of life," O'Day said. "He had a heart of gold."

Baugh's reputation blossomed as a star high school athlete in football, baseball and basketball in Sweetwater. It began to grow during his college days at TCU.

It was there that he picked up the nickname "Slingin' Sammy" -- but it wasn't for his passing. It was for the blistering throws he fired to first base as a shortstop and third baseman.

Starting in the 1930s, Baugh turned the sparingly used forward pass into a potent weapon for the Washington Redskins. The former TCU star was also a standout punter and defensive back.

He not only led the league in passing six times from 1937 to 1952 but he also punted and played safety on defense.

In 1943, he led the league in passing, punting and interceptions.

In one game, he threw four TDs and also intercepted four passes. He threw six touchdowns passes in a game twice. His 51.4-yard punting average in 1940 remains the NFL record.

Baugh guided the Redskins to five title games and two championships, playing his entire career without a face mask. His No. 33 is the only jersey Washington has retired.

His high school in Sweetwater has done the same, retiring No. 21. TCU also retired his jersey, No. 45; the Horned Frogs will wear "45" stickers on their helmets to honor Baugh when they face Boise State on Tuesday night in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.

After his NFL career, Baugh retreated to his large West Texas ranch about 110 miles southeast of Lubbock. The Hall of Fame and the Redskins tried to lure him east for ceremonies over the years, and he always turned them down.

He never got lost in the accolades heaped on his athletic skills and if forced to choose, Baugh would have always picked the ranch over football, returning to his thousands of acres after each season.

There he'd raise cattle, practice his roping skills and train horses. He also had numerous pets whom he doted on.

For years he drove to Snyder three or four times a week to play golf, until sore knees and searing heat made the 100-mile round trip too difficult.

Several years ago he went into a nursing home in nearby Jayton as dementia and Alzheimer's ravaged his mind.

"He was a great dad to me," David Baugh said. "I enjoyed him. I'm going to miss him."

So will millions of others.