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JACK FRENCH KEMP

Athlete ~ Scholar ~ Statesman
 
 

 

           Jack Kemp was born July 13, 1936 in Los Angeles, the third of four sons.  Sports were always important to him and once, when he had to write a high school essay on significant inventions, he chose "the forward pass" as his topic.

           He attended Occidental College, showing his early ability to plan ahead, since Occidental used the pro-set, and he viewed it as a stepping-stone to Professional Football.  At Occidental, he was a record-setting javelin hurler.  Though near-sighted, he also also played football: quarterback, punter, placekicker and defensive back.  In 1956, he threw for 1,100 yards and made Little All-America.


 

           Kemp had a "cup of coffee" with four NFL teams: the Lions, who drafted and then cut him in 1957, and then with the Steelers, 49ers and Giants.  He played one game with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders in 1959.  Five teams failed to recognize his determination and potential.

           In 1960, Kemp signed as a free agent with the
Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League.  In the team's first year, he led them to a 10-4 record.
 He finished second in the league to Frank Tripucka in passing attempts, completions, and yards (making him and Tripucka the league's, and all of Professional Football's, first 3,000-yard passers).  Kemp also led the AFL in yards per completion, and finished one short of the league rushing touchdown lead He led the Chargers to a Western Division title and a berth in the AFL's first Championship game, only to fall to George Blanda's Houston Oilers

         The Chargers had changed venues to San Diego by the start of the 1961 season, but Kemp continued to shine as their quarterback.  He finished second again in passing attempts, this time to Blanda, but his team's record improved to 12-2.  They again won the Western Division title but lost to the defending AFL Champion Oilers in the AFL championship game.

        In 1962, Kemp broke the middle finger on his throwing hand in the season's second game, and couldn't play.  He convinced his doctors to set his broken finger around a football, so that his grip wouldn't be affected once the finger healed.  Sid Gillman, the Chargers' head coach, tried to hide Kemp on injured waivers.


 

         On September 25, 1962, Buffalo Bills' head coach Lou Saban saw that Kemp was available and claimed him for a $100 waiver fee in one of the biggest bargains in Professional Football history. The Dallas Texans and Denver Broncos had also attempted to claim Kemp, but AFL commissioner Joe Foss awarded his rights to the Bills.  Kemp at first was disappointed at going to Buffalo.  As an avid skier, he had hoped to go to Denver.  But he soon learned of the excellent skiing just a half-hour from Buffalo in Western New York's Southern Tier, and he and his wife Joanne, a former college sweetheart, became regulars there.

        
Among the Bills, he would become known for his love of reading from a broad range of authors including Henry David Thoreau, leading Saban to jokingly castigate him for not "concentrating on football".  The broken finger and other injuries kept Kemp from playing at the start of 1962.  The injuries healed, and Kemp debuted for Buffalo on November 18, 1962 by directing the only touchdown drive in a 10–6 win over the Oakland Raiders. The Bills won three of their last four games to finish 7–6–1.  Kemp played only those four games, but made the AFL All-Star team that year.

         In 1963, Kemp led the Bills from a slow start to a 7–6–1 record and a tie for the lead in the AFL Eastern Division.  For the third time in four seasons, Kemp again placed second in passing attempts, completions, and yards. He also finished second in the league in rushing touchdowns, to teammate Cookie Gilchrist. The Bills played the Boston Patriots in a playoff game to determine the Eastern Division title on December 28, 1963, at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium in 10 F weather.   During the game, after falling behind 16–0, Saban replaced Kemp with Daryle Lamonica but the Bills still lost 26–8.  Lamonica and Kemp formed a one-two punch for the next two years, and were the basis of a hot "quarterback controversy" among Bills fans.

 
 
 

        Kemp was the Bills' clubhouse lawyer, mediating team conflicts.  In 1964, he managed personalities such as Gilchrist, who walked off the field when plays were not being called for him.  The following week, he kept Saban from cutting Gilchrist . He also managed the politics of his quarterback battle with Lamonica, who engineered four winning touchdown drives in the Bills' first seven games.  Though fans clamored for Lamonica to start, Kemp kept his composure and was always ready to play.   Lamonica was later to credit Kemp, in spite of Jack's competitive nature, for selflessly teaching him "a lot about quarterbacking."

         The 1964 team won its first nine games and went 12–2 for the regular season, winning the Eastern Division with a
final victory over the Patriots at Fenway Park, before a record crowd of 38,421.  Kemp led the league in yards per attempt and finished one short of the league lead for rushing touchdowns, a mark shared by Gilchrist and the Houston Oilers' Sid Blanks.  In the 1964 AFL Championship Game, Kemp scored the final touchdown with just over nine minutes left in a 20–7 victory over the defending champion San Diego Chargers.

         The 1964 American Football League All-Star Game was scheduled to be held in New Orleans in January, 1965.  Kemp and team-mates Ernie Warlick and Cookie Gilchrist were members of the Eastern Division team.  When they arrived at the New Orleans airport, Gilchrist and Warlick hailed a nearby cab.  The cabbie told Gilchrist: "You have to take a colored cab", to which Cookie replied "I don't care what color it is, we just want a cab!"  The driver explained that they had to wait for a cab used only for black patrons.  He peered out at Kemp, though, and said "I'll take you."  Kemp replied that if the cab was too good for his friends, it wasn't good enough for him.

         After similar treatment of the black players at their hotel and other Big Easy establishments, Kemp joined with the rest of the white players on the squad to support the black players in their boycott of the city.  In an early civil rights stand, the players held out and the game was moved to Houston.


 

       The 1965 Bills, according to Lamonica, had a new emphasis, and altough they had depended a lot on Gilchrist and the running attack to carry them in 1964, that all changed in 1965.  The Bills had traded Gilchrist to the Broncos in the off-season, so in 1965, they went to a pass-oriented game more than they ever had before.  They not only went to the receivers, but often threw to the running backs.  Lamonica feels that change brought out the best in Kemp that year.  In 1965, the Bills finished with a 10–3–1 record.  Kemp was second in the league in pass completions.  Because of their overwhelming talent, and Gilchrist's absence from the Bills' backfield, San Diego was favored in the AFL Championship Game.  However, Buffalo once more defeated the Chargers, this time 23-0.  Kemp again won the title against his former team.  His role in leading the Bills to a repeat championship without Gilchrist and with star receiver Elbert Dubenion playing in only three games earned Kemp the Associated Press AFL MVP award.  He also won the AFL Championship Game MVP award.

        Kemp led Buffalo to four straight appearances in the AFL playoffs, three consecutive Eastern Division titles, and two straight AFL Championships.  He led the league all-time in career passes attempted, completions, and yards gained passing.  He started in five of the AFL's ten Championship Games, and holds the same career records (passing attempts, completions, and yardage) for Championship Games. He is second in many other championship game categories, including career and single-game passer rating.  He was The Sporting News' American Football League All-League selection at quarterback in 1960 and 1965, and the AFL MVP in 1965.  He was the only AFL quarterback to be listed as a starter in five AFL championship games, and in all 10 years of the league's existence; and one of only 20 players to serve on an AFL team all 10 of those years.  Kemp held the Professional Football record for career touchdowns scored by a quarterback (forty) for thirty years, until it was broken in 1999, and he still ranks second in the category. With such credentials, the only reason he is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame seems to be that he starred in the wrong league.   He is, however, in my American Football League Hall of Fame.

         In 1969, knowing that it was the last season of the American Football League, I made three plaques featuring the AFL logo, to present to the three Buffalo Bills who had been in the league for its entire ten years: Paul Maguire, Harry Jacobs, and Kemp.  In those days, players were not inaccessible, and I brought one plaque to Kemp's home.  When I told him my name, he clearly knew that I was the fan who for years had bedeviled him with letters to the editor, demanding that Lamonica replace him.  With a wry smile, he said "I always thought you had horns!" but he graciously accepted the plaque.

         As the end of the 1969 season neared, and after a full season watching every player on every NFL team wear a '50-NFL' shoulder patch, I resumed my efforts to have AFL teams wear '10-AFL' patches, if only in the post-season.  I wrote to many owners and league officials, and also asked Kemp to support my cause.  In spite of my history of anti-Kemp letters, he lobbied Pete Rozelle, and the result was that the Chiefs wore that distinctive patch in the last game ever played by an AFL team, and used it as a motivation to destroy the Vikings.

 
 
 

         Jack and Joanne had four children, two boys and two girls.  He never missed a football game played by either son, and saw both play Professional Football.  After his own football career, Kemp went on to ably serve Western New York for nine terms as a U.S. Congressman.  He exemplified the phrase "bleeding heart conservative", and showed that a man could be a champion of Republican ideals, but still care for and protect the common man.  He later served in the Cabinet as Secretary of Housing, and eventually ran for Vice President on a ticket with Robert Dole.

         He faced his final illness privately and stoically, and left behind, along with his seventeen grandchildren, a standard of public service and devotion for all to emulate.

        I ask Ralph Wilson Jr. to "do the right thing" ~ have all Buffalo Bills players in the future wear the number 15 on their helmets or jerseys, to honor the team's true champion, Jack French Kemp.

 
 

Kemp's induction to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame

 

 
 
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