What Ever Happen To…. Billy Kilmer
(I interviewed Billy Kilmer by phone on May 6, 2004)
If it wasn’t for his mother, he may have been known today as a Major League baseball player. His toughness proved doctors wrong when they said he would never walk again. And his stubbornness was instrumental in embarrassing a Dallas Cowboys head coach when that coach questioned his athletic skills just before the 1972 NFC Championship game. Billy Kilmer played tailback and quarterback for the San Francisco 49′ers and quarterback for the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins during a career that ran for 16 years from 1961 through 1978.
Born September 5, 1939 and raised in Azusa, California, a town just east of Los Angeles, Kilmer credits his dad’s father as the one who encouraged him to get into sports. “My grandfather took me to my first football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. When I saw the Coliseum for the first time, I knew I wanted to play there some day,” he recalled.
He got his first chance to play organized sports when he attended Citrus Union High School outside Los Angeles from 1953 to `57. He played football, baseball and basketball. He especially liked basketball and was an All-California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) player of the year and made the all-star teams two years. In his senior year in 1957 Scholastic Magazine listed him as one of the top 30 basketball players in the United States. He also made the first team CIF in baseball. His freshman year he played fullback in football and made the varsity team his sophomore year and played fullback. He was converted into a quarterback later in a Split T offense. He commented that he didn’t throw the ball a lot, but mostly ran the ball. Although he played the game, he didn’t much like football when he was in high school. “I never thought I would continue in football. My best sports were basketball and baseball,” he said. He played all the positions in baseball except pitcher.
He was so good in baseball, in fact, that upon his graduation from high school the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him $50,000 to play baseball. Other major league teams showed interest too. But Kilmer’s mother nixed the deal saying that if he signed the contract and played baseball he would never go to college. “She was probably right,” quipped Kilmer. His dad went along with his mom’s decision. Instead of pro baseball, Kilmer accepted a football scholarship to attend the University of California in Los Angeles. “The UCLA football team played a single wing formation and I was fascinated by the tailback position in the single wing,” said Kilmer. He also received a scholarship offer to play basketball for John Wooden at UCLA. He didn’t take the scholarship, but he did play basketball for the school in his junior year (1959-’60 season). He also played semi-pro baseball during the summers for a home based team called the Monrovia Merchants and for a traveling team. “When I played for Monrovia other teams would come to us and play,” he said. The traveling team was managed by a major league scout. Kilmer noted that he mainly played shortstop but he also played all the other positions except for pitcher at one time or another.
He was a first round draft choice of the San Francisco 49′ers and was also drafted by the American Football League Los Angeles Chargers in the fifth round. He signed with the 49′ers for $15,000 and a $6,000 bonus. By the time he left the 49′ers he was making $19,000.
Prior to attending camp with the 49′ers his rookie season in 1961, Kilmer played in the college all-star game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Ironically, Sonny Jurgensen quarterbacked the Eagles in that game. Kilmer was the MVP.
When he joined the 49′ers it appeared as if he would be competing against Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie and Bob Waters for the quarterback position. However, one week after Kilmer arrived at camp the 49′ers traded Tittle to the New York Giants which gave Kilmer a little bit of a better chance to make the team. He also noted that the head coach of the 49′ers at the time, Red Hickey, was introducing the shot gun offense and had decided to alternate quarterbacks during the game. “Hickey rotated the quarterbacks during the six or so games he used the shot gun,” said Kilmer. “I would be used on first down, primarily a running down. I think I threw only three passes off of the formation during the six games we used it. Bobby would go in on second down and depending on the situation he’d throw or run. Then Brodie was used on third down. He was mostly the passer.”
Kilmer pointed out that he ran for 135 yards in one game which stood for a long time as the most rushing yardage by a quarterback. He also ran for four touchdowns in another game. Another record that stood for awhile.
Sports Illustrated did an article about Hickey’s shotgun offense and described it as the offense of the `60s. However, when the 49′ers actually used it in six games it was not successful and the team went to the T formation and Brodie was named the quarterback.
At the 49′ers camp prior to the start of the 1962 season, Kilmer noted that some of the team’s running backs were injured. So he was moved to running back and performed well in some exhibition games. He actually started the season for the 49′ers as a running back. However, during the season Kilmer was badly hurt in a traffic accident. He broke a leg. Moreover, the leg became infected and there was a chance that he might lose it. The doctors said that he would never walk again. “I was in the hospital for three months with my leg in traction,” remembered Kilmer. “When I finally got out of the hospital I had to keep going back as an out-patient because an area of the leg where there was an open wound was still draining and the doctors couldn’t figure out why. A doctor finally discovered that there were three bone chips in the wound. The chips were taken out, the leg healed and it hasn’t been a problem since.”
Kilmer missed the 1963 season and worked hard to re-hab the leg. The 49′ers kept him on injured reserve through that season and he used the team’s facilities — weights, etc. — during his re-hab. He was determined to come back for the `64 season. “I always wanted to be a professional athlete and I wasn’t going to give it up easy. I loved the life and I loved to play, I loved everything about it. So I was determined that I would come back and play quarterback.
“Another motivating factor was that my dad owned a dry cleaning business. When I got out of the hospital and went back home he said, `You’ll never play again. So you might as well learn the dry cleaning business.’ I was pressing pants in Pomona, California in August when it was 100 degrees outside and the steam from the press was hitting me in the face. I said, `I am not going to do this for the rest of my life.’ So I worked even harder in re-hab.” He did return for the `64 season and played in 10 games for the 49′ers at quarterback.
In 1967 the NFL added two new franchises — the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. Kilmer was left unprotected by the `49′ers in the expansion draft and he was selected by the New Orleans Saints. “Tom Fears was head coach of the Saints and he had been a coach with UCLA,” said Kilmer. “He knew me and he liked me so he took me in the expansion draft.” The plan was for Kilmer to be the third team quarterback. However, he worked hard in training camp; performed well in the exhibition games and won the starting job. He was the starting quarterback for the Saints for four years. When Archie Manning was drafted by the Saints in the first round prior to the 1971 season, Kilmer became expendable and was traded to the Redskins for Tom Roussel and a fourth round draft choice. It was the first trade George Allen made after he had been named head coach and general manager of the Redskins. And Kilmer had a hint that such a trade may take place. “When I was playing with the Saints we would play the Los Angeles Rams twice a year home and home. So I played once a year in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Allen was coaching the Rams. After a game I was walking up the ramp and Tommy Mason, a player for the Rams, approached me and said, `George Allen really likes you. He talks about you all the time. He talks about the way you play, your toughness. He really likes you. He just may trade for you.’ I thought that the Rams didn’t need me, they had Roman Gabriel at quarterback. Soon Allen left the Rams and was hired by the Redskins and soon after that the trade was made.”
Kilmer wasn’t sure if he wanted to play for Allen and the Redskins. “George called me and I told him that I was 31 years old. I didn’t have many years left and I knew I would be a back up to Jurgensen. There were other places I could play where I could start right away. Lou Saban wanted me in Denver. Allen said, `I want you in Washington. We are going to win here and you are going to be a part of it. We’re going to turn this thing around.’ It sounded corny, but his eyes showed me he was sincere. So I decided to stick around.” It was made clear, however, that he was there to back up Jurgensen and Kilmer knew it.
However, Jurgensen got hurt during the exhibition season and Kilmer started at quarterback when the season began. The `Skins went on to win their first five games and the Redskins made the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. And that was the start of a successful eight year career with the Washington Redskins and the beginning of what some would call a quarterback controversy.
As far as Kilmer was concerned, there was no controversy. “Allen liked me, there’s no doubt about that. But when I won, he played me. When I lost, he put Jurgensen back in. Then Jurgensen would get hurt and I would go back in. It had nothing to do with me and Sonny. And Allen never tried to put a wedge between me and Sonny.
“There was a personality conflict between George and Sonny but I didn’t know why. George wanted Sonny to go along with the program and Sonny would bump his system from time to time. But there was never anything between me and Sonny. The way I look at it is that I got my shot. When you get a chance to play, you better perform. That’s what an athlete does and if you don’t perform, you’re not going to play. I don’t care what sport it is. When I got my chance to perform, I won and it was hard to get me out of there when I won. I didn’t have a controversy with Sonny. I knew my place and I knew that if Jurgensen was healthy he’d be playing.”
Kilmer and Jurgensen actually developed a pretty close friendship. “We both like to have a good time, drink a few, we liked the same things and had the same friends.” Kilmer volunteered that he, Jurgensen, Diron Talbert, Lenny Haus, and Ron McDole would all get together and go out to a restaurant in Washington every Thursday. After Jurgensen retired they kept doing it.
Jurgensen retired after the 1974 season. Kilmer doesn’t think that Allen forced him to leave. “He was ready to go,” said Kilmer. “He had a TV deal with CBS and he was 41 or 42 years old at the time. I heard that the World Football League had contacted him to play one season for the Philadelphia franchise and I know that he was considering it.
“When Sonny’s contract was up I was negotiating for a new contract. I wanted to be traded and I knew that San Francisco needed a quarterback at the time. Brodie had retired. I tried to get Allen to trade me but he never would.
“Sonny had a meeting with Allen in `74 just before I met with Allen to talk about my contract. The two of us bumped into each other as Jurgensen was walking down the street and me up the street at old Redskins Park. I asked Sonny what happened. He said that Allen wanted him to play another year but he told him he was going to retire. I asked him, `Are you?” And he said, `Yeah, I guess I am.” Kilmer then talked to Allen and signed a contract to play another year for the `Skins.
Kilmer noted that he did not get a long well with Joe Theisman. Allen obtained Theismann in a trade for a draft choice with the Miami Dolphins and expected him to back up both Kilmer and Jurgensen. “Theisman started off on the wrong foot. In 1974 he was brought in and there was a players’ strike so the rookies played two or three exhibition games without the veterans in camp. Theisman had a good game in one of those exhibitions and a reporter with the Washington Post asked him, `What do you think is going to happen when Jurgensen and Kilmer come back to camp.’ Theismann said, `I’m going to put those two old men on the bench.’ And it was quoted in the paper. I called Sonny and said, `Did you see what he said?’ Sonny laughed and said, `Yeah, well we’ll have him catching punts at the end of the year.’ And my God we did.”
Kilmer played two memorable games for the Redskins, the NFC Title game against the Dallas Cowboys on New Year’s Eve 1972 and Super Bowl VII against the Miami Dolphins in January, 1973. A comment by Cowboy coach Tom Landry prior to the NFC title game motivated and focused Kilmer to play probably one of the best games of his career. Kilmer read in the newspaper the day of the game that Landry said the Cowboys would beat the Redskins because Roger Staubach was a better athlete than Billy Kilmer. That really upset Kilmer. “It was the best motivator in the world. I got rid of all the nervousness and focused on that game.”
Kilmer did not fair as well in the Super Bowl. “Miami scored 14 points in the first half and we shut them out in the second half,” recalled Kilmer. “Hell, in the second half I was down inside their 20 two or three times and couldn’t score. I had Jerry Smith open in the endzone on one play and my pass hit the goalpost. I never hit the goalpost before.” It may be ironic to note that the league moved the goalpost from the goal line to the back of the endzone the following year, commented Kilmer.
He retired in 1978 after George Allen left the `Skins and returned to the Rams and Jack Pardee was hired as head coach of the `Skins. Kilmer’s first contract with the Redskins was for $60,000 with a $30,000 (or so) bonus. He signed a multi-year contract for 1973, 74, and 75 which stepped up his salary every year from $120,000 in `73; $140,000 in `74 and $160,000 in `75. He got up to a yearly salary of $200,000 during his career with the `Skins.
Kilmer claimed that he was approached to coach Tulane University in 1976 when he was still playing for the Redskins but George Allen convinced him to stay with the team. He said that he never had a desire to pursue any coaching opportunities later. “As a coach you don’t have control of your own destiny. The players are making more money than you are and some players listen and others don’t. You work a lot of hours for what. I didn’t like that life.”
He did, however, serve as a commissioner of a Spring professional football league in 1981. The league had teams in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Shreveport, Louisiana; and San Antonio, Texas. It was the year that there was a major league players’ baseball strike. Kilmer had negotiated a TV deal for the league but the team owners didn’t have enough money to sustain the deal. Kilmer quit and the league folded after just one season.
Since retiring from the Redskins Kilmer has owned a piece of the John Koon Chrysler-Plymouth Dealership in Washington and he worked for Clint Markinson, the former owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Markinson’s company owned seven banks in four states and Kilmer served as marketing director. He also worked as a host for golf tournaments and Super Bowl parties as well as other special events at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
Today he lives in Coral Springs, Florida with his wife Sandy. He also participates in golf tournaments around the country and sponsors his own tournament for Citrus Junior College near Azusa, California. The tournament has been going on for 18 years. “My daughter has cerebral palsy. She’s never been out of a wheelchair her whole life. She’s now 44. She went to Citrus Junior College 18 years ago. They have a program there for handicap people but the gym they use was too old and the equipment was bad. The athletic director of the college asked if he could put my name to a golf tournament to help raise money for the program and I said, `Sure.’ So every year I get pro athletes like Sonny and Paul Horning and L.A. athletes to participate. Through the years we’ve raised a lot of money and we’ve been able to buy new equipment and the state stepped in and built a new facility.” He said that his daughter is still involved in the program today.