The position is the arguably the most important on the gridiron. It requires a combination of skill and smarts. Quarterbacks in today’s game have the freedom to switch plays at the line of scrimmage based on the defense’s formation. It’s no accident that they get a majority of the credit, or the blame, depending on the game’s outcome. Over the history of the NFL there have been many skilled quarterbacks who have found themselves categorized as “highly-spirited young men”.
One of the first quarterbacks to gain notoriety as a “highly-spirited young man” was Christian Adolph Jurgensen III . He would be followed shortly after by William Orland Kilmer, Jr., and the two would later become teammates in the nation’s capital where they played concurrently for the Redskins.
Sonny Jurgensen was born in Wilmington, North Carolina on August 23, 1934. He played his college football at Duke University where he made his first impact in 1954 as a defensive back, tying a team record by intercepting at least one pass in four consecutive games. In 1955 Jurgensen took over as starting quarterback while also starting on defense. In 1956, Jurgensen’s final year at Duke, the team finished 5-4-1. Jurgensen finished his college football career with less than stellar numbers: 77-156 passing for 1,119 yards, 16 career interceptions and six touchdowns. He also rushed for 109 yards and intercepted ten passes.
Billy Kilmer was born in Topeka, Kansas on September 5, 1939. He played his college football at UCLA where he was the last single-wing tailback, a position that required a player to pass, run, and kick. In 1960, his final season, he threw for over 1,000 yards, ran for over 800, scored eight touchdowns, was the team's punter, and finished fifth in voting for the Heisman Trophy, leading the nation with 1,889 yards of total offense and becoming an All-American. He was also named Most Valuable Player in the 1961 College All-Star Game and received the 1960 W.J. Voit Memorial Trophy as the outstanding football player on the Pacific Coast.
Jurgensen was picked in the fourth round of the 1957 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He served as backup to quarterback Bobby Thomason in 1957 and Norm Van Brocklin in 1958-’60. In 1961, his first year as a starter, Jurgensen passed for an NFL record 3,723 yards, his 32 touchdown passes tied an NFL record, was named All-Pro, and the Eagles finished 10-4.
Kilmer was picked in the first round of the 1961 NFL draft, eleventh overall, by the San Francisco 49ers where he was utilized primarily as a running back. During his rookie year he rushed for 509 yards and ten touchdowns, four coming in one game against the expansion Minnesota Vikings.
During the 1962 and 1963 seasons, Sonny Jurgensen compiled a record of just 5-15-2, and after an injury-plagued ’63 season he was traded to the Washington Redskins on April Fools day in 1964. During the ’64, ’65, and ’66 seasons Jurgensen started all but one game for the Redskins, throwing 67 touchdown passes, but compiled only a 19-22 record in the process.
On December 5th 1962, Billy Kilmer fell asleep at the wheel of his 1957 Chevrolet and drove off the Bayshore Freeway and into the San Francisco Bay, suffering a fractured leg. At first it was feared the leg would have to be amputated, but he was lucky and the leg was stable enough to be rehabilitated. Kilmer sat out the entire 1963 NFL season. The following year his participation was limited and as a result of the injury, he had lost a step and was switched from running back to quarterback. In 1965 he did not play. After a training camp contract dispute the next season, he was placed in the 1967 NFL Expansion Draft.
In 1967, a healthy Sonny Jurgensen broke his own passing record by throwing for 3,747 yards while setting new records for attempts (508) and completions (288). The Redskins finished the season 5-6-3. Jurgensen played injured in ’68 and the Redskins finished 5-9.
Billy Kilmer was picked by the expansion New Orleans Saints in 1967 and went on to play there for four years, a starter half of the time. On November 2, 1969 he threw for 345 yards and six touchdowns in a 51-42 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was Saint’s owner John Mecom, who would later admit to Kilmer's many late-hour visits to New Orleans bars while playing for the team. Kilmer had been arrested once for being intoxicated and was gaining a reputation for being a “hell-raiser”.
In 1969 the Redskins made Vince Lombardi their Head Coach. Under Lombardi, the once “soft-bellied” Sonny Jurgensen was coached into top condition by the strict disciplinarian and went on to have a brilliant year leading the NFL in attempts (442), completions (274), completion percentage (62%) and passing yards (3,102). The Redskins finished 7-5-2 in what would be Lombardi’s last season as he succumbed to colon cancer September 3, 1970 at the age of 57. He said of Jurgensen “Jurgensen is a great quarterback. He hangs in there under adverse conditions. He may be the best the league has ever seen. He is the best I have seen.” The feeling was mutual as Jurgensen would later say that of the nine head coaches he played for during his NFL career, Lombardi was his favorite.
After Lombardi’s sudden passing, assistant Bill Austin stepped in and finished a dismal 6-8 in 1970. Former Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen was brought in to coach the Redskins in ’71 where his teams would be nick-named the “Over-the-Hill-Gang”.
When rumors surfaced that the Saints would be picking Archie Manning 2nd overall in the 1971 NFL Draft, Kilmer asked to be traded. He was traded to the Washington Redskins where he was to serve as back-up to Sonny Jurgensen, the highly-skilled passer with a colorful personality, who had a “let’s go out and have a beer” type image, was known to keep some late nights, and was quoted in a magazine admitting to a fondness for “scotch and broads”…
After Jurgensen suffered a shoulder injury in the 5th exhibition game while trying to make a tackle, Kilmer took the helm and the Redskins finished 9-4-1, reaching the post season for the first time since 1945. Jurgensen made it back on the field for the 11th game, but re-injured his shoulder, ending the year with 16 completions for 170 yards and without a touchdown pass.
It was during the 1971 season that rumors stirred that Kilmer missed curfew before a game against the Denver Broncos and that his new Redskins teammates had nicknamed him “Ole Whiskey”. Kilmer’s most memorable night on the town in 1971 came when he got arrested in an Arlington coffee shop. Apparently, Kilmer was attempting to pay for a cup of coffee with a $100 bill when an argument ensued involving the waitress. A policeman showed up, and Kilmer, who had been drinking anything but coffee earlier that evening, told the policeman, “If you think I’m wrong, put me in jail!” The policeman locked Kilmer up for the night, releasing him in time to lead the Redskins into the playoffs against San Francisco. Kilmer “won the hearts of fans when he told the waitress she could keep the $100 as a tip”.
The normally full-figured Jurgensen came into training camp fit and trim and ready to compete for the starting quarterback job in 1972. George Allen was known to favor a more controlled offense with fewer turnovers and Jurgensen had a reputation as being a gun-slinger type quarterback who plays with an aggressive and decisive manner by throwing deep, risky passes and is frequently intercepted. Kilmer was more of a ball control guy.
Coach Allen played the two quarterbacks equally during the exhibition season, each playing as well as the other, but started Kilmer when the season began. That season Kilmer led the NFL with 19 touchdown passes and an 84.8 passer rating and took the Redskins to the Super Bowl where they lost 14-7 to the undefeated (16-0) Miami Dolphins. Sonny Jurgensen never felt any contempt towards his replacement and good friend Billy Kilmer, even praised him on his ability to win.
Kilmer was not known for throwing the tightest spiral, in fact some of his most ardent fans recall a perennial wobbler. He did not posses the quarterbacking skills of Sonny Jurgensen, and even after a quarterback controversy divided fans who expressed their feelings with “I love Sonny”-“I love Billy” bumper stickers, Kilmer remained the primary starting quarterback from 1971-’77, going 49-22-1 in that time. He credits his passing improvements to Jurgensen, who he said helped him with his grip and his throwing mechanics, mostly his hip rotation. Up to that point Kilmer admitted to being an arm thrower and suffering constant pain in his elbow and shoulder areas as a result.
Former NFL defensive back (1953-’61) and CBS commentator Tom Brookshier once said of Kilmer “He never threw a spiral in his life, but his receivers caught every ball he threw at them”. In his reflection, Pro Football Weekly’s Tom Danyluk described Kilmer this way “Banquet-Circuit Billy- the chunky, flutterball passer with New Orleans and Washington, playing above his playing weight and not giving a damn how his uniform fit …”
In 1974, his final year in professional football, at the age of 40 and while splitting playing time with Billy Kilmer, Sonny Jurgensen was able to lead the NFL in passing with a 64.1 % completion percentage, completing 107 of 167 passes. The Redskins enjoyed their third impressive winning season in a row going 10-4, first in the NFC East all three times (10-4 in ’73, 11-3 in ’72) , and the Sonny and Billy quarterback time-share had worked very well. Kilmer was quoted as saying “We knew it was a good thing- and it didn’t hurt that we hung out in the same saloons-”
Sonny Jurgensen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
On December 11, 1976, nearing the end of his career, Kilmer was arrested for drunk driving less than 2 days before a game against the Dallas Cowboys. Kilmer was 7-2 as a starter that year with 12 touchdown passes in ten games.
When Billy Kilmer played in his final game in the NFL in 1978 he was backing up Joe Theisman, still wearing his number 17 jersey, and viewing the game over his single-bar facemask long after double-bar facemasks had become the norm, an in-your-face gesture he made to would-be pass rushers during his entire 16 year NFL career.
In the years that they played together for the Washington Redskins, quarterbacks Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen were able to unselfishly share the snaps, the spotlight, and probably the whiskey too-
To this day Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer remain close friends.