By the time Billy Kilmer arrived in New Orleans in 1967 as an expansion draft pick from San Francisco, he was a 27-year-old who, after being drafted in the first round in ‘61, had missed the ‘63 and ’65 seasons and primarily had been a running back for two years, in ’61 and ’62.
He’d been a fine runner – 96 carries for 509 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie, and 93 carries for 478 yards and five touchdowns in ’62. But he didn’t have much to show on his resume as a quarterback.
Saints Coach Tom Fears chose him anyway and for Kilmer, it was the beginning of his beginning.
He shared time with Gary Cuozzo in the ’67 season and became the Saints’ primary starter the next year, when the team traded Cuozzo to Minnesota.
“Tom Fears, he saved my career,” Kilmer said. “I had been in the league seven years prior to the ’68 season. And Fears had that much confidence in me. It gave me a chance to showcase what I could do for later on. It really did help me there, to keep my career going for 17 years.”
The vast majority of Kilmer’s success occurred after he left the Saints, via a trade to the Washington Redskins. But the ’68 season, his first as a full-time starter, proved he could handle the job.
The Saints went 4-9-1 that year, starting 3-3 and failing to win again until the season finale, a home game against Pittsburgh.
Kilmer, in his most extensive action as a quarterback, completed 167 of 315 passes for 2,060 yards and 15 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions. The year before, he completed 97 of 204 passes for 1,341 yards and six touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
“We went on strike during the training camp (prior to ’68) and we trained out in San Diego,” Kilmer said. “I remember how great training camp was, because you trained right off the Pacific Ocean and we had cool nights and pretty fair days. No real muggy days. We trained out there through the exhibition season, then on Sept. 1 we came back.
“They traded Gary Cuozzo away and they made me the No. 1 quarterback. I’d never been a starter and that gave me a lot of incentive to work hard and try to make a winner there. I know we only won four games all year but at the time, we’d won more games than any expansion team to that point. We were coming along.
“Other teams, they didn’t give their best players up (in the expansion draft), plus you had to work through the draft and we’d only had two drafts at that time. So we had a fairly young team. But we had a damned good defense. I know our defense was really good and kept us in most games.”
The offense, which averaged 275.9 yards per game, wasn’t shabby, either. In the four victories and tie, New Orleans scored 22.2 points per game.
As a starter in New Orleans, Kilmer’s record was 11-29. He completed 592 of 1,116 passes for 7,490 yards and 47 touchdowns, with 62 interceptions, in four seasons. But those numbers and his play were enough to attract the attention of a division rival coach.
The Saints played the Los Angeles Rams four times from 1967-70, twice when the teams became NFC West Division rivals in ’70. And the Rams were coached by George Allen.
“George Allen liked something that he saw in me, and when he went to the Redskins, I was his first trade that he ever made,” Kilmer said. “I went on to the Redskins and had a lot of success.”
In eight years with Washington, Kilmer, whose final season in New Orleans was the ’70 season, was 50-23-1 as a starter and completed 953 of 1,791 passes for 12,352 yards and 103 touchdowns, with 75 interceptions.
Today, the 74-year-old lives a life of leisure in Coral Springs, Fla.
“I play golf a couple of times a week, do the horse races on Saturday, and that’s about it,” Kilmer said. “I do a few charity golf tournaments around the country, but I don’t do as many as I used to. I’m just getting too old to travel.
“I try to get to California in August. Southern California is where I was raised. I still have family there.”
And he has the memories he created in New Orleans, where, as a first-time starter, he showed signs of the player he would become.