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  • Budd Bailey

Jack Kemp’s football career

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

By Budd Bailey

I have been a member of the Buffalo Presidential Center since its inception, but I couldn’t imagine what set of circumstances would have to line up in order for me to be a speaker there. Now I know. The Center opened an exhibit on former Congressman and Bills quarterbak Jack Kemp on Thursday night. The organization needed someone to talk about Kemp’s football days. Since I’m old enough to remember him, I was asked to help. Several people actually wanted to read a transcript of the speech, so maybe there’s some general interest in it. I personally guarantee there will be something you didn’t know about Kemp … if only about his connection to the Tijuana Brass.

Earlier this month, a book called “The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills’ History” was published. It ranked the team’s all-time best players from 1 to 50. The list contained the usual suspects at the top, starting with Bruce Smith, O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas. I have no complaints there. But to find Jack Kemp’s name, I had to go all the way down the list to No. 24. He was a notch behind Fred Jackson. Now we all loved Jackson, an overachiever from a tiny college who ran for more than 900 yards three times with the Bills. Still, it seems that Kemp has become underrated by at least one historian, and probably many others.

It seems appropriate in this setting to try to put Kemp’s football career in the context of a political debate. I’ll take Kemp’s side. You could point out that Kemp never had a season in which he threw more touchdown passes than interceptions, today’s standard for competence among quarterbacks, and you’d be correct. You could say that he never completed more than 52 percent of his passes in a season, and that number was usually under 50. Those are indeed facts. You could speak to the fact that Jack was the all-time leader in American Football League history in fumbles with 77, and you’d have won another debating point.

My response would be short. I would point out that the Bills have been playing football for 63 seasons, and have won two championships. Kemp was the starting quarterback for both of them. The others – from Johnny Green and Tommy O’Connell to Jim Kelly and Josh Allen – won zero. This debate is hereby over, and I win. I’m not sure where Kemp should rank among the Bills’ greats, although No. 15 seems like a good choice since that was his uniform number. The important point is that Jack Kemp will never be forgotten for what he did here.

He hardly took a traditional path to football glory, although it wasn’t for a lack of trying. At the age of 5, Jack decided he was going to be a pro football player. In sixth grade, he was assigned to write a paper on an important invention, and he picked “the forward pass.” Kemp was a good quarterback in high school in the Los Angeles area, spending many of his off-field moments with his best friend – musician Herb Alpert.  From there it was on Occidental College in Southern California. Jack was a good small-college player, and he was drafted in the 17th round by the Detroit Lions in the 1957 NFL Draft. But he bounced from the Lions to the Steelers to the Giants to the Calgary Stampeders to the 49ers during the next three years. No doubt Kemp pondered a change in his life’s direction by then.

But he received an unexpected lifeline in the form of the creation of the American Football League for the 1960 season. Sid Gillman, the legendary coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, signed Kemp to a contract. Jack won a starting job, and guided the team to the AFL championship game. That contest was played in Houston. Jack was horrified that the families of his Black teammates had seats in the end zone, while their white counterparts received tickets on the sidelines. The Chargers moved to San Diego and advanced again to the 1961 title game, but the story was the same. Houston won the championship over Kemp and his team.

In 1962, Kemp suffered a broken finger in an early-season game, and Gillman didn’t want his team to play short-handed while waiting for the injury to heal. So the coach tried to sneak his quarterback through waivers in order to activate another player. The Bills, who had been looking for a good quarterback for more than two years, claimed him. Kemp, who had lived in Southern California all of his life, had no choice but to go to Buffalo if he wanted to play football. So he did.

Kemp’s finger soon healed, and eventually he helped the Bills register their first winning record in history at 7-6-1. Jack was the starter from Day One in 1963, and he led Buffalo to a tie for the East Division title. However, the Boston Patriots kept the Bills out of the AFL championship game.

Kemp and Company would not be denied in 1964. Buffalo defeated Boston in the season’s final regular-season game to clinch the division title, and it knocked off San Diego to claim an AFL crown. The following season almost was a carbon copy of the previous year. The Bills won the AFL East, and beat the Chargers again. Along the way, Kemp was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the 1965 season. Care to guess how many Bills have won league MVP honors in their history? The answer is four; Thomas, Simpson and Cookie Gilchrist are the others. Kemp also took home MVP honors from his play in the title game. Winning the season and title game MVP is quite a double. Ten players have done it. Seven of them are in the Hall of Fame, and Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady will join them soon enough. Of the group, only Kemp doesn’t have a plaque in Canton.

The Bills tried for a third straight championship in 1966, but fell a game short. Buffalo lost the title game to Kansas City, allowing the Chiefs to represent the AFL in the first Super Bowl. At that point, Kemp had played in five of the AFL’s seven championship games, an admirable accomplishment. But he played in no others. The Bills’ dynasty started to crumble at that point, as the nucleus of the roster had either aged or departed. Kemp concluded his career at the AFL All-Star Game after the 1969 season – his seventh such appearance.

By that time, political activism was well entrenched in Jack’s mind. He and Boston linebacker Tom Addison started the AFL Players Association. Kemp’s beliefs were tested after the 1964 season, when Black players rebelled staging the AFL All-Star Game in segregated New Orleans. Kemp helped convince the white players to join in a boycott, despite the fact that such an action could damage their careers. The game was moved to Houston. Kemp loved talking about current events even then. He and Buffalo Evening News sportswriter Larry Felser used to argue about them throughout cross-country plane trips between Buffalo and Oakland or San Diego.

Then in 1970, Kemp noticed that Buffalo-area Congressman Max McCarthy was giving up his seat in order to run for the Senate. Jack decided to give politics a try. He had some insurance in the form of a contract with the Bills in case he lost. He received some campaign help from a former teammate, center Al Bemiller. Al got up at events and said this: “Jack put his hands on my backside for several years. Let me assure you – he is a man you can trust.” Kemp beat Democrat Tom Flaherty by 6,000 votes, and he put football in the rear-view mirror for good. Once in Washington, his playing days influenced his work on Capitol Hill. As he so often said, “I can’t help but care about the rights of the people I used to shower with.”

As we know, Kemp had a distinguished career in public service after football, and to some he’s more closely associated with enterprise zones than zone pass coverage. Still, his football days were always lurking.

In 1996, Kemp was running for Vice President with Bob Dole, and he took the campaign to Erie, Pennsylvania. Now, it’s important to remember that there’s no more popular person in a football city than the backup quarterback. Any time Jack threw an interception as a Bill, there were those in Buffalo who called for reserve Daryle Lamonica to play quarterback. Even so, Kemp was surprised that day in Erie when he walked out to the podium, scanned the crowd, and saw a sign that read “We want Lamonica!” – 30 years after their competition. After the speech, Jack found a staff member and ordered him to find out how Lamonica would be voting that November. Happily, Kemp and Lamonica were on the same team there as well.

Kemp lost that election, but the victories outnumbered the losses throughout his life. There’s no better tribute for an athlete to receive than to be called a winner, and Kemp was certainly that. As teammate Cookie Gilchrist said, “Jack came in with the confidence of a winner, and we won.” That legacy lives on today.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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