The Fork Union Military Academy family was saddened to learn that alumnus Sonny Randle, FUMA Class of 1954, passed away this week at the age of 81. He died in his home in Staunton, Virginia on the evening of Tuesday, May 23, 2017 with his wife, Gail, at his side. Randle had been under hospice care in recent days.
One of the top receivers in the National Football League for a ten-year career during the 1960s, followed by a dozen or more years as a coach, and in the decades since as a recognizable sports broadcaster and commentator, Randle was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, and was a member of the inaugural class of the Fork Union Military Academy Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. East Carolina University inducted Randle into their Hall of Fame in 2009.
Ulmo Shannon (Sonny) Randle, Jr. was born in Washington, DC on January 6, 1936 to Ulmo S. and Lillian D. Randle. He was enrolled by his parents in Fork Union Military Academy in the fall of 1942 and attended the Academy from the first grade through to his graduation in 1954. Randle returned to take postgraduate courses at Fork Union Military Academy before entering the University of Virginia in January 1955. Randle has the singular distinction of attending Fork Union Military Academy as a cadet for the longest time, more than twelve years. He was taken under the wing of longtime Fork Union administrator and coach, the late Evan H. "Gus" Lacy, Jr., who, with his wife Barbara, raised Randle as a member of their family.
Voted the Best All-Around Athlete his senior year at Fork Union Military Academy, Randle was a multi-sport player as an All-American in track and a member of the basketball team. Randle did not even play football until his senior year because Coach Lacy, who served as the school's track coach, did not want him to get hurt. Indeed, in his third football game of that senior year, Randle suffered a broken collarbone. During the spring track season of 1954, however, Randle had recovered well enough that he ran the 100 in 9.8 seconds, setting a school record that would stand unbroken from 1954 until 1982. He also held the school record in the 400 from 1954 until 1960 with a time of 50.8 seconds. In the 200, Randle ranked #2 in school history until 1955. Amazingly, these performances were achieved on cinder tracks, instead of the firmer, faster modern tracks. Randle qualified to compete in the Olympic trials as a sprinter.
At the University of Virginia, Randle walked on to the football team but soon earned a scholarship. In 1958, Randle led the Atlantic Coast Conference in receptions, receiving yards, kickoff yards, and all-purpose yards. He was second in pass receptions in the entire NCAA in 1958 with 47 receptions.
While he was still attending college, during the 1958 NFL Draft, the Chicago Cardinals football team drafted Randle as a "future draft choice" with the 218th overall pick. Randle graduated from the University of Virginia in 1959 and played with the Cardinals, who moved to St. Louis in March 1960, from 1959 through 1966.
In 1960, Randle's second season in the NFL, he made 62 receptions, the second most in the league, for 893 receiving yards, and was the league leader in touchdown receptions with 15, a Cardinals team record that stands to this day and still ranks Randle as tied for 21st in the all-time NFL records book for single-season touchdown receptions. The November 1, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of Sonny Randle and Cardinals quarterback Charley Johnson on the cover.
The speed shown by Sonny Randle did not go unnoticed by that other professional sports franchise in St. Louis during the 1960s. The St. Louis Cardinals baseball team enlisted Randle's help to work with their major- and minor-league baseball players on their running skills during spring training. Randle taught them his secrets for gaining explosive acceleration from a standing start. His lessons were not lost on one young Cardinals outfielder, Lou Brock. The Hall of Famer whose record 938 stolen bases was not broken until 1991 often gave much credit for his base-stealing ability to what he learned from Sonny Randle.
With his guardian at Fork Union, Gus Lacy, Randle founded the Sonny Randle Football Camp at Fork Union Military Academy during his playing days in the 1960s, and it quickly became one of the premier football camps in the country. Randle used his connections in the NFL to become one of the first camp leaders to bring well-known professional players like Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff to a boys sports camp to coach the young attendees.
Randle tallied a total of 60 career touchdown receptions during his time with the Cardinals, a team record that would stand unbroken until 1990 when Roy Green finished his Cardinals career with 66 touchdowns. Randle still remains 3rd in career touchdown receptions for the Cardinals behind only Green and current Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald with 104.
Randle was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1967, adding 33 receptions for 502 yards and 4 touchdowns to his career statistics that season. He caught the final touchdown reception of his playing career the following season on September 22, 1968 on a 29-yard pass from John Brodie in the 49ers 35-17 win over his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Randle moved to the Dallas Cowboys in October 1968 to play for coach Tom Landry, an opportunity he savored. He finished his playing career with the Washington Redskins in 1969 where he moved to play tight end under another legend, Coach Vince Lombardi, but Randle was injured in the preseason and retired on injured reserve.
A four-time Pro Bowl player (1960, 1961, 1962, 1965), Randle was a dominant receiver during his career, scoring more touchdowns in the decade of the 1960s than any other receiver in the NFL. During his ten years in the NFL, Randle played in 120 games, making 365 receptions for 5,996 yards and 65 touchdowns, and recording only 3 fumbles.
Following his playing career in the NFL, Randle went to East Carolina University as an assistant coach in 1970. Named head coach in 1971, he led the Pirates to Southern Conference championships in 1972 and 1973.
Randle then returned to his alma mater, the University of Virginia, as head coach of the football team. Those years, 1974 and 1975, were lean years for the Virginia program and following two disappointing seasons, Randle next spent a couple of years coaching at Massanutten Military Academy before being hired as head coach at Marshall University, where he served from 1979 to 1983.
It was while he was at Marshall that his talent as a broadcaster began to outshine his skills as a coach. The Sonny Randle Show each Sunday in the fall following Marshall games became a kind of "must listen to" entertainment, as the coach explained why the Thundering Herd had once again, as usually happened, found themselves on the losing side of a football game. His colorful turns of phrases as a commentator began to attract more positive attention than did his less impressive results on the gridiron as coach.
Soon, Randle had left coaching and was providing color commentary for games at Virginia, back in St. Louis, and, finally, back at Marshall. It was in 1991, his first year back at Marshall as a color commentator instead of coach that he founded S-R Sports and began syndicating his own sports talk show across a network of radio stations throughout the Atlantic coast region.
For many years, Randle would rise at 5 AM to prepare for his daily live radio "Sports Update" at 7:55 AM on radio stations in Virginia talking about, as he described it, "anything and everything in the world of sports." He would then record his weekly "Sports Minute" radio broadcasts that played on more than two dozen radio stations. Randle's distinctive voice and delivery was easily recognizable and he closed each broadcast with his enthusiastic trademark line: "Until our next visit....this is.... Sonny Randle sayin' ....(then a long pause) ...soooo long everybody."
Randle retired from broadcasting his syndicated show in late 2014, but local Staunton, Virginia radio station WKDW-AM (900) continued to seek out his commentary on the sports world on Friday mornings, until Sonny Randle's final broadcast came on December 30, 2016. Years of football hits had begun to display their toll on Randle as neurological challenges caused by so many blows began to become evident in his slowing speech and less frequent turns of a colorful phrase. In his final live broadcast, Randle gamely follows the lead of radio on-air personality Chris Wash, responding to the sports news of the day. Though his final broadcast seems more poignant than boisterous, Sonny still seemed to rally the energy to close the segment with a hearty, though somewhat less elongated "So long everybody."
Sonny Randle's Final Broadcast Sign-Off, December 30, 2016
This week it is we who will say "so long" to one of Fork Union Military Academy's legends.
“Sonny Randle was one of the all-time greats of Fork Union Military Academy Track and Field," said the Academy's head track coach, Winston Brown. "A school record holder for 28 years in the 100, Randle remained loyal to both the school and the track team. He was our fourth honoree at the annual Gus Lacy Track Classic, an event he attended every year until 2017. We have lost one of the greats, he will be greatly missed.”
Ulmo Shannon "Sonny" Randle, Jr. will return to the Fork Union community he grew up in and loved. His funeral service will be held in the Fork Union Baptist Church next Wednesday, directly across from the main gate of his beloved Academy. He will be laid to rest in the cemetery plot belonging to the Lacy family in the small community where he spent childhood and to which he often returned. Sonny Randle is coming home.