Billy Kilmer to attend Sonny Jurgensen’s number retirement ceremony
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Fifty years after he formed what would become a lifelong friendship with the Hall of Fame quarterback competing for his job, Billy Kilmer still has Sonny Jurgensen’s back. Kilmer will be at FedEx Field for the Washington Commanders’ regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, when Jurgensen will become the fourth player in franchise history to have his number retired.
“It should have been done about 40 years ago,” Kilmer said in a phone interview this week. “But now it’s good and he deserves it. He’s an icon there, not just on the football field, but as a broadcaster and for what he means to that community.”
Jurgensen, 88, played 11 seasons in D.C. after being acquired in a 1964 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Norm Snead. He threw for 22,585 yards and 179 touchdowns in 135 games with Washington and led the league in passing three times during that span. Jurgensen ranks second on the franchise’s all-time list in completions, passing yards and passing yards, and his 31 touchdowns in 1967 remain a franchise single-season record. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Critics questioned the addition of Sonny Jurgensen to the radio booth. It turned out okay.
When his playing days were over, Jurgensen spent six years as a color analyst with CBS before joining the Washington radio broadcast team in 1981. He kept that role — forming a memorable trio with Frank Herzog and Sam Huff for more than 20 years – until he announced his retirement before the 2019 season.
“From hanging up the cleats to hanging up the signs and headphones decades later, my time in Washington meant the world to me,” Jurgensen said in a statement after the team announced plans to retire his No. 9 in August .
Jurgensen and Kilmer played against each other five times from 1967 to 1969, but they didn’t get to know each other until 1971. That’s when George Allen, in his first trade after being hired as Washington’s head coach, acquired Kilmer from the New Orleans Saints. The 31-year-old Kilmer was initially disappointed, as he wanted to move to a team without an established quarterback.
“I consider Sonny Jurgensen to be probably the best quarterback in football, but I hope to play,” Kilmer told reporters at the time.
Jurgensen and Kilmer became friends during minicamp in 1971, and they spent many late nights together at DC spots like Maggie’s, The Dancing Crab, and Duke Zeibert’s. After playing most of their careers on losing teams, neither quarterback allowed the competition for the No. 1 to thwart Allen’s efforts to turn Washington into a winner. (Jurgensen won an NFL title with the Eagles in 1960, but he played sparingly that season as a backup to Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin.)
“We knew we had a winning team and we wanted to be a part of it,” Kilmer said. “As Sonny always said, it was hard to keep a healthy body between us. We liked each other. When I was inside, he helped me and when he was inside, I helped him. We didn’t have any big rivalry. The press always tried to build it up.”
With Jurgensen limited by injuries, Kilmer started 43 of Washington’s 56 regular season games from 1971 to 1974. Kilmer led Washington to its first Super Bowl appearance after the 1972 season, having the best game of his career his in a 26-3 victory over Dallas in the NFC Championship.
Fans made their quarterback allegiance known with bumper stickers that read “I like Sonny” or “I like Billy.” Jurgensen and Kilmer got a kick out of it, too.
“A lot of times, I’d be in the car with him, going somewhere to have lunch, and we’d see a bumper sticker,” Kilmer said. “I’d stick my head out and yell, ‘Take that sticker off Sonny.’ People would look at us and almost wreck their car. He’d do the same thing if we saw an ‘I Like Billy’ sticker.”
Kilmer called Jurgensen the best pure passer he’s ever seen. He praised Jurgensen’s touch and ability to anticipate receivers’ openings. He also credited her for teaching him to use his legs and hips to throw. Both quarterbacks live in Florida now, and Kilmer said they meet for lunch about once a month.
Kilmer doesn’t follow the commanders as regularly as he used to. He wasn’t aware that Washington had been eliminated from playoff contention last week, or that early fifth-round pick Sam Howell was set to start against the Cowboys. (In the spirit of the rivalry feel of Sunday’s festivities, it’s only fitting that Howell will make his debut. He played at North Carolina, while Jurgensen, who will join Sammy Baugh, Bobby Mitchell and Sean Taylor among the Washington players to have their number drawn, went to Duke.)
“I wish him well,” Kilmer said of Howell. “I am happy that they are honoring Soni. I wouldn’t miss it and hope Washington wins. I know it’s going to be a big day for him and he’s looking forward to it.”