Sunday, May 3, 2009

A tribute to late Bills QB Jack Kemp

I interviewed Jack Kemp about a dozen times through the years, and always found him to be gracious and enlightening. The former Bills quarterback and Republican vice-presidential candidate provided one of my all-time favorite quotes when I asked him to compare football and politics.

"Pro football gave me a good perspective when I entered the political arena,'' he quipped, "because I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy.''

Kemp died yesterday after a long bout with cancer. Although his career stats were pretty lame (77 touchdown passes, 132 interceptions in 88 games), he was a vital cog in the Bills to back-to-back American Football League championships during the mid-1960s. I believe his leadership skills more than made up for his paltry individual numbers, which is why I rank him as the No. 2 quarterback in Bills history, well behind Jim Kelly but a sliver ahead of Joe Ferguson.

In tribute to Kemp, I'm reprinting what I wrote about the Bills Wall-of-Famer in my 2007 book, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping and Gut-Wrenching Moments in Buffalo Bills History. It's my hope it will give you an appreciation for what he meant to those great Bills teams of the 1960s.


Jack Kemp went from running for daylight to running for political office. He graduated from old War Memorial Stadium, to the U.S. House of Representatives, to President Reagan’s cabinet. Kemp’s post-football career path didn’t surprise his former Bills teammates in the least. They just can’t believe the quarterback’s journey didn’t take him all the way to the White House.

“I think,’’ said Bills owner Ralph Wilson, “he would have made a hell of a quarterback for the country.’’

Billy Shaw, an All AFL guard who once protected Kemp from would-be tacklers, vividly remembers the quarterback campaigning locker-to-locker for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (who was running against Lyndon Johnson) in 1964.

“Jack stopped by my stall for about half an hour extolling the virtues of Goldwater,’’ recalled Shaw, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Now, I don’t remember the particulars of his spiel, but I do remember him being quite convincing. He got me to vote for Barry.’’

While many of his teammates restricted their reading to the playbook and Playboy, Kemp was devouring books such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

“I used to kid Jack that carrying those big books on the plane was part of his weight-lifting routine,’’ said Eddie Abramoski, the Bills long-time trainer. “Jack often would give me one of the books and say, ‘Abe, you should read this. This is what’s wrong with our country.’’ Or, ‘This is the direction we should be going.’ Eventually, the conversations always got around to politics. Jack was passionate about it.’’

Kemp was equally passionate about football. His arrival during the 1962 season marked a turning point in Bills history. Lou Saban had taken over as head coach that fall, and had begun assembling the defensive players who would form the backbone of the Bills’ championship teams of the mid-1960s.

“The missing piece was quarterback,’’ said Bills owner Ralph Wilson. “That’s why, when Jack became available, we spent about two seconds deliberating before claiming him off the waiver wires (from the San Diego Chargers for $100). Our defense was good enough to make us contenders, but you’ve got to have a quarterback, a leader, if you want to win a championship.’’

Kemp paid immediate dividends, helping the Bills overcome an 0-5 start to finish 7-6-1. The following season, they made the playoffs but were beaten by the Boston Patriots. In 1964, the Bills went 12-2 and won their first AFL title. They repeated in 1965, and Kemp earned league MVP honors.

Although he finished as the AFL’s all-time passing yardage leader and competed in five title games in 10 years, Kemp’s time in Buffalo was not without its difficult moments. Saban occasionally played musical quarterbacks, yanking Kemp and putting in the popular Daryle Lamonica. The relationship between Kemp and Saban was mostly a good one, but there were times when the strong wills of quarterback and coach clashed.

“Jack wasn’t afraid to stand tall for what he believed in, and sometimes when he didn’t agree with a play Lou sent in, he would run his own,’’ Shaw said. “If the play worked, Lou was fine. If the play didn’t work, Lou would send in Lamonica.’’
The occasional benching were tough for Kemp to stomach, but he never complained.
“I roomed with him, and if he were upset about it, I’m sure he would have said something to me,’’ Shaw said. “I know if it were me in that situation, I’d have a tough time keeping my feelings to myself. But that was Jack. He was a true team player.’’

Kemp was often the target of fan criticism. He has joked that his job as quarterback of the Bills prepared him for a career in politics because he had already been booed, spit on and hung in effigy.

“I guess it did thicken his skin,’’ Shaw said. “But I know it bothered him, and a lot of it was unfair. Jack would get blamed for the missed blocks and the wrong routes and dropped passes. But just like with any quarterback controversy, he kept it to himself. That’s part of being a leader, putting the team above yourself.’’

Kemp, who helped co-found the AFL’s players’ union in 1965, was the go-to guy when his teammates had gripes with the coaching staff. In his most famous mediation, Kemp convinced Saban to allow star running back Cookie Gilchrist back on the team after the coach had released him for insubordination in November 1964.

“Jack was a master at solving problems without confrontation,’’ said former Bills cornerback Booker Edgerson. “He told Lou that the entire team wanted Cookie back because it was best for the team, and since it was a team decision, Lou agreed. It happened because Jack helped make it happen. I believe Lou had great respect for him.’’

The voters of Western New York also had great respect for him, sending him to Congress for nine consecutive terms. Kemp spent time in the Reagan administration as the director of the department of Housing and Urban Development, and was Republican Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election. They wound up losing decisively to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Some Jack Kemp trivia
Despite finished with 18 interceptions and a 54.8 pass efficiency rating, he earned AFL most valuable player honors after leading the Bills to the championship.

He established the team standard for most touchdowns by a quarterback when he rushed for eight in 1963.

He was named to the AFL All-Star team five times.

In 88 games, he threw 77 touchdown passes and 132 interceptions and passed for 15,138 yards, most in AFL history.


John F. said...

Sad day for Bills fans and the entire country. Great tribute, Scott.

Smitty1937 said...

Well done, Scott.
Jack Kemp was a real leader on those great championship teams of '64 & '65....and he was a class act (not always true these days, sadly.)

Ben R said...

Hi Scott -
Thanks for posting this. I traveled on Jack Kemp's campaign bus for a day back in 1988 when I was covering the New Hampshire primary for my political reporting class at SU. You can imagine that this made quite an impression on a young college student. Political persuasions aside, I found his energy and commitment to be inspiring - as the commenter above said, a class act. Keep up the great work!