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Thursday, January 5, 2023

OPINION:

Sonny Jurgensen had a career before he was traded to Washington in 1964. He won an NFL championship in 1960 with the Philadelphia Eagles as the backup quarterback to Norm Van Brocklin. He played there for seven seasons and led the league in touchdown passes with 32 in 1961.

Then he came to Washington and became an NFL star — his best years, from 1964 to 1970, with weapons like Hall of Famers Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor and should-be-Hall-of-Famer Jerry Smith, throwing 160 touchdowns and more than 22,000 yards — but just one winning season, under the legendary Vince Lombardi in 1969.


His final years, though, were marred by injuries and a team that, under George Allen, thought offense was a necessary evil. But it was a winning team for four straight years until Jurgensen retired after the 1974 season.

For Washington Redskins fans, Jurgensen was first, with the Eagles, a nemesis. Then, in his glory years in Washington, a marvel. But he truly became a beloved figure in those final years — in large part because of the relationship with his rival quarterback on the team.

Sonny and Billy. Billy and Sonny. The rivalry between Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer became a big part of Washington sports lore and in part came to define the history of the franchise. Quarterback controversies have become part of the football fabric in this town ever since — even when the choices are Rex Grossman and John Beck, or, closer to home, Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke.

The irony of course — what makes the Sonny and Billy legacy so special — is that the two quarterbacks became lifelong friends. Sunday, when the current franchise finally gets around to doing something it should have done decades ago and retires the 88-year-old Jurgensen’s No. 9 jersey, Kilmer will be there at Ghost Town Field to celebrate with his friend.

“I sure will be there,” Kilmer, 83, said (the Commanders made the arrangements for Kilmer to be part of the ceremonies and sent a camera crew to his Florida home to interview him).

The 7-8-1 Commanders, who played their way out of the playoffs last week when they put their fate in the hands of the wrong quarterback, will face the 12-4 Dallas Cowboys, who are playing for the NFC East division title.

“I hope they beat the Cowboys,” Kilmer said. “That would be frosting on the cake.”

Instead, coach Ron Rivera has raised the white flag and, after first deciding to start Heinicke, will instead have fifth-round draft pick Sam Howell make his NFL debut.

It could be a long day for the rookie, facing a Dallas defense led by elite pass rusher Micah Parsons in a stadium filled with Cowboys fans.

How sad is it that it means more to Kilmer to beat the Cowboys than it does to this Commanders team?

Winning was the foundation of the relationship between Jurgensen and Kilmer.

“I had been in the league 10 years (Kilmer was traded to Washington from the New Orleans Saints in January 1971) and never been on a winning football team and Sonny hadn’t been on one in Washington, except for that one year with Lombardi,” Kilmer said. “Between us, we knew this team was going to be a winning team. We didn’t want to break the continuity up for the team. He wanted to play and I wanted to play, there’s no doubt about it. If I got benched, it hurt me inside but I didn’t show it and tried to help him if he needed help with some things. He was the other way too. When I was in there he always helped me. We socialized together, and that meant a lot to the team seeing that. Everybody got along. Teams can get splintered and we didn’t want that to happen.”

There is some mythology to the Sonny and Billy rivalry, which ran so deep in the fan base then there were bumper stickers on cars that read, “I like Sonny” and “I like Billy.”

Joe Theismann once told me jokingly that he was responsible for their close friendship.

“It was their mutual hate for me that made them friends,” Theismann said. 

“I know that. It is funny. One night at the Dancing Crab the two of them made a pact. In the beginning, George favored Billy over Sonny, and everyone knew Sonny was a better thrower of the football and was just more productive with the ball. I don’t think they were best of friends at the time, but they went out to dinner that night and made a pact that no matter who played, I would not play. I was referred to as “Him.” As long as “’him‘ wasn’t playing, they were fine. I’m glad I was able to put two friends together. It was very rewarding to create a bond between two guys that has lasted as long as theirs has.”

There is no doubt they were united in their dislike of Theismann, who ruffled a few feathers when he first arrived in Washington. But that wasn’t until 1974 — Jurgensen’s final year — and their close relationship began long before that.

“They were close to start with,” center Len Hauss, who passed away in December 2021, told me. “(Tackle) Walter Rock and I got Sonny and Billy together after a practice and said, ‘Hey, let’s go sit down and talk.’ We had some pretty good heart-to-heart talks, and I think by the time we were through, we had gotten us all thinking together that the team was the most important thing and that these guys were good enough football players and strong enough individuals that regardless of who played, it would be to the advantage of the team that we could win with either one of them.”

Defensive tackle Diron Talbert told me Sonny and Billy were part of a “real tight group” on the team.  “Me and Billy and Sonny and Ron McDole and Len Hauss would take our wives out every Thursday night,” Talbert said.

The best part of the day Sunday will likely be the retirement of Jurgensen’s jersey. The Sonny vs. Billy debate is part of Cowboys lore as well — after all, 50 years ago last week Kilmer led the Redskins to a 26-3 win over Dallas in the NFC title game — and hopefully the Dallas fans in the stadium will respect that.

It’s not just Washington football history. It’s NFL history. It’s history in the nation’s capital. It has stood the test of time because of the love and respect both men have had for each other.

“We’ve been friends ever since,” Kilmer said. “I’ve stayed at his house, he has stayed at my house. I’ve had his kids over at my house. We’ve been close ever since.”

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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