Billy Kilmer to attend Sonny Jurgensen’s number retirement ceremony

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Fifty years after he forged 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’ve been done 40 years ago or so,” Kilmer said in a phone interview this week. “But it’s good now, and he deserves it. He’s an icon there, not only on the football field, but as a broadcaster and for what he’s meant to that community.”

Jurgensen, 88, played 11 seasons in DC after being acquired in a 1964 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for fellow quarterback Norm Snead. He threw for 22,585 yards and 179 touchdowns over 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 touchdowns, 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 Sonny Jurgensen’s addition to the radio booth. It worked out okay.

When his playing days were over, Jurgensen spent six years as a color analyst with CBS before joining Washington’s radio broadcast team in 1981. He held 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 my cleats to hanging up my clipboard and headset a few decades later, my time spent 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 one another until 1971. That’s when George Allen, in his first trade after being hired as Washington’s coach, acquired Kilmer from the New Orleans Saints . The 31-year-old Kilmer was initially disappointed, having wanted to be dealt to a team without an established quarterback.

“I regard Sonny Jurgensen as probably the finest quarterback in football, but I hope to play,” Kilmer told reporters at the time.

Jurgensen and Kilmer became friends during minicamp in 1971, and spent many late nights together at DC establishments such as Maggie’s, the Dancing Crab and Duke Zeibert’s. Having played the majority of their careers on losing teams, neither quarterback let the competition for the No. 1 spot derail Allen’s efforts to transform Washington into a winner. (Jurgensen won an NFL title with the Eagles in 1960, but he played sparingly that season as the backup to Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin.)

“We knew we had a winning team and we wanted to be part of it,” Kilmer said. “Like Sonny always said, it was hard to keep one healthy body between us. We liked each other. When I was there, he would help me, and when he was there, I would help him. We didn’t have any big rivalry at all. 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, playing the best game of his career in a 26-3 win over Dallas in the NFC championship.

Fans made their quarterback allegiances known with bumper stickers that read “I Like Sonny” or “I Like Billy.” Jurgensen and Kilmer got a kick out of that, too.

“On a lot of occasions, I’d be in the car with him, going somewhere to lunch, and we’d see a bumper sticker,” Kilmer said. “I’d stick my head out and yell, ‘Tear that Sonny sticker off.’ 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 ever saw. He praised Jurgensen’s touch and ability to anticipate receivers getting open. He also credited him with 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 once did. He wasn’t aware that Washington had been eliminated from playoff contention last week, or that rookie fifth-round pick Sam Howell had been tabbed as the starter against the Cowboys. (In the spirit of the rivalry feel of Sunday’s festivities, it’s fitting that Howell will make his debut. He starred at North Carolina, while Jurgensen, who will join Sammy Baugh, Bobby Mitchell and Sean Taylor among Washington players to have their number retired, went to Duke.)

“I wish him well,” Kilmer said of Howell. “I’m just glad they’re honoring Sonny. I wouldn’t miss it, and I hope Washington wins. I know it’s going to be a big day for him and he’s looking forward to it.”

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