At 84 years old, Billy Kilmer has this physical status:
After graduation from high school in 1957, Kilmer competed in football for one year at Citrus Junior College, where he scored six touchdowns and threw for 15 more, with a broken foot limiting his playing time for the Citrus basketball team. He transferred to UCLA in 1958 and played three seasons. Kilmer also played on the Bruins basketball team in 1959–60 under head coach John Wooden. He capped off his college career with an outstanding senior season in 1960: he threw for over 1,000 yards, ran for over 800, scored eight touchdowns and served as the team's punter. Kilmer was also awarded the 1960 W.J. Voit Memorial Trophy as the outstanding football player on the Pacific Coast, and finished fifth in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
After the conclusion of a UCLA career that saw him finish among the top five in school history for passing and rushing yards, as well as total offense, Kilmer played in the 1961 College All-Star Game, where he earned Most Valuable Player honors. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999. There is some lingering controversy over exactly which position he played. His Hall of Fame plaque lists him as a halfback and says he "played tailback in UCLA's single-wing formation." Other sources list him as a quarterback.
Kilmer was the 11th overall selection of the 1961 NFL draft, taken by the 49ers. He was also selected in the fifth round of the 1961 AFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers, but signed with San Francisco on December 30, 1960. During that rookie season in 1961, he saw action as a primarily running quarterback in Red Hickey's shotgun formation, rushing for 509 yards and ten touchdowns, with his top performance coming against the expansion Minnesota Vikings on October 15 when he rushed for four touchdowns.
The following year Kilmer was primarily used as a running back but his season came to an early end following a December 5 auto accident in which he fell asleep in his 1957 Chevrolet convertible and drove off the Bayshore Freeway into the San Francisco Bay. Suffering a fractured leg, Kilmer's injury was bad enough to also force him to sit out the entire 1963 NFL season. He was able to return the following year, but his production was limited. His most memorable play as a 49er came in 1964 during a game against the Vikings at Kezar Stadium. On October 25, 1964 Kilmer fumbled after catching a pass from George Mira. The fumble was recovered by Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall, who infamously ran 66 yards in the wrong direction. In spite of Marshall's gaffe, the Vikings still beat the 49ers, 27-22.
After he saw no action in 1965 and was involved in a training camp contract dispute the next season, Kilmer was placed in the 1967 NFL Expansion Draft.
On February 10, 1967, Kilmer was selected in the expansion draft by the New Orleans Saints and, despite originally being thought of as the team's third-best signal caller, became the team's starting quarterback for much of the next four seasons. He was the starter for the team's first game, a 27-13 loss at home to the Los Angeles Rams. Kilmer lost his starting job in 1967 after the first three games (all losses), and was replaced by former Baltimore Colt quarterback Gary Cuozzo. However, Kilmer regained that job in 1968.
His most prolific performance during his four-year stint with the team came in 1969, when he threw for 345 yards and six touchdowns in a 51–42 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on November 2.
Kilmer's last win as the Saints' starting quarterback came on week 8 of the 1970 season. Coach Tom Fears had benched Kilmer after three season-opening losses in favor of backup Ed Hargett. However, Fears was fired after week 7 and replaced by J.D. Roberts. The new coach brought Kilmer back as the starting quarterback. On November 8, 1970, in a home game versus the Detroit Lions, Kilmer led what proved to be a game-winning drive, although he could only bring the Saints as far as their own 44 yard line. With just one play left in the game, and his team down by a 17-16 margin, coach Roberts opted against asking Kilmer to go for a "Hail Mary" pass. Instead, kicker Tom Dempsey, who had earlier in the second half kicked an 8-yard field goal, was asked to attempt a 63-yard field goal. (The goal posts were still placed on the goal line in 1970, and not on the end line as they are today.) Dempsey made the kick, which broke the existing record by 7 yards. Only two longer field goals have been kicked since.
In a 2016 TV interview, recorded during a celebration of the Saints' 50th anniversary, Kilmer denied lingering rumors that he had been Dempsey's holder. "I got out of the holding business a while ago," Kilmer recalled, "but it was Joe Scarpati and it was a perfect hold." (Scarpati was a reserve defensive back.) Kilmer added, "when [Dempsey] kicked that ball, I knew he had made it. It was like Babe Ruth hitting a 500-foot home run. He really nailed it. And that was at sea level."
This dramatic victory is still the stuff of legend today. Dempsey was a big man who had been a lineman in junior college and semi-pro ball, even though he was born with no toes on his right foot, which was his kicking foot. He used a special flat-fronted kicking shoe. This win proved to be the only highlight of an otherwise dismal 2-11-1 season: Kilmer closed out the season by leading the Saints to six consecutive losses.
Frustrated after four years of the Saints' futility and sensing New Orleans would draft Ole Miss star Archie Manning with the second overall pick of the 1971 NFL Draft, Kilmer asked to be traded and was granted his wish on January 23, 1971, when he was dealt to the Washington Redskins for linebacker Tom Roussel and two draft selections.
The trade which brought Kilmer to the Redskins was the first trade the team made after George Allen replaced Bill Austin (who had been the interim head coach since Vince Lombardi's untimely death in August 1970) as the head coach.
Kilmer seemed destined for a reserve role behind future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen. However, this changed when Jurgensen suffered a severe shoulder injury in a pre-season game against the Miami Dolphins. Kilmer got the starting job and kept it for most of the next four seasons, but Jurgensen stayed on as his backup. The two players were friendly rivals during those years. Fans in Washington tended to be loyal to one quarterback or the other, sporting buttons at games that read "I like Billy" or "I like Sonny", with Kilmer's wobbly passes being a slight favorite over Jurgensen's tight spiral.
Kilmer then led the resurgent Redskins to a 5-0 start in 1971, but then the team ran into a midseason slump. Kilmer briefly lost his starting job as a result of the slide but regained it after Jurgensen again injured his shoulder. The next season, Kilmer led the 1972 team to an NFC-best 11–3 record, while also leading the NFL in touchdown passes (19) and passer rating (84.8). In the postseason, Washington advanced to the Super Bowl with their first postseason victories in 27 years. The final opponent would be the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, who were one win away from a Perfect season. Miami managed the strength of their rushing attack and selective passing from Bob Griese to two touchdowns while Washington had nothing to show for most of the game. Only a special-teams blunder saved the first shutout in Super Bowl history, as a blocked field goal-turned-fumble with two minutes remaining in the game by Garo Yepremian was recovered by Mike Bass of Washington for a touchdown. However, Washington could not finish the comeback, as Kilmer was sacked by Vern Den Herder as time expired with the team far from the end zone. For his part, Kilmer went 14-of-28 for 104 yards with three interceptions. The loss didn't dampen Kilmer's individual recognition as he was named to the Pro Bowl and the All-NFC Team.
In 1974, the Redskins acquired a third quarterback in Notre Dame star Joe Theismann who had been a star in the Canadian Football League for three seasons. Kilmer beat out both Jurgensen and Theismann for the starting job. Jurgensen retired at the end of the 1974 season. Kilmer remained with the Redskins until he retired after the 1978 season. 1978 was also the season when Theismann finally took over Kilmer's starting quarterback position, although Kilmer did start two games that season, winning one of them.
During his time with the Redskins, Kilmer became one of the few remaining users of a single-bar face mask on the helmet, as multi-bar face masks became the norm in the NFL. Theismann also wore the single-bar throughout his career. Kilmer finished his 18-year NFL career with 1,585 completions in 2,984 attempts for 20,495 yards and 154 touchdowns, with 146 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,509 yards and 21 touchdowns, caught 27 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown, and punted the ball 16 times for 598 yards.
Following his retirement, Kilmer stayed on the fringes while working for a gambling service that made selections on NFL games, but has since stayed out of the spotlight. Kilmer served as coach of the Shreveport Steamers of the American Football Association (a summer professional league) in 1979 and commissioner of the same league in 1981, but left as a result of numerous problems under his tenure as well as a lack of payment. He occasionally makes appearances in Mobile, Alabama, in support of the GMAC Bowl.
Kilmer was inducted into the American Football Association's Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987