Professional football can be a fickle business.
Sometimes, players who appear to have pro potential end up not making a team and have to enter the “real world.”
Such was the case with Jack Kemp.
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) July 2, 2022
After being selected in the 1957 NFL Draft, Kemp was on and off the rosters of five different teams (including in the CFL) in two years.
At that point, it looked like Kemp’s professional football journey was finished.
Thankfully, he got a second chance to compete when the American Football League began play in 1960.
Kemp eventually found his way to Buffalo and led the Bills to consecutive championships.
After retiring from football, Kemp got involved in politics and became highly successful during the Ronald Reagan presidency.
He also made his own bid for the presidency in 1988.
This is the story of the life and career of Jack Kemp.
Growing Up in Los Angeles
Jack French Kemp was born on July 13, 1935, in Los Angeles.
Jack Kemp was born 83 years ago today in Los Angeles, California,
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under George H. W. Bush, US Representative from New York, NFL, AFL, CFL quarterbackhttps://t.co/kfgLlTksYQ pic.twitter.com/2PSlxlrm59
— Rick Brutti (@Rbrutti) July 13, 2018
He was raised by parents who were both intelligent and entrepreneurial.
Kemp’s father, Paul, started a trucking service from scratch, and after starting the company with one truck, soon had 14 in service.
His mother, Frances, taught Spanish and worked as a social worker.
During high school, Kemp and his older brothers worked for their father’s company.
When he wasn’t working with his dad, Kemp could be found playing sports—any sports.
His obsession with all things sports led to a well-researched essay on the forward pass for a school project.
Kemp used the forward pass during his football playing years at Fairfax High School and attracted colleges in the region.
College coaches also liked the fact that Kemp cared about education.
He was a voracious reader of philosophy and history books and would use the content of his reading material later in his life.
Playing at Occidental
When he graduated from Fairfax High, Kemp was a mere 5’10”, 175-pound athlete who wanted to keep playing football.
He realized that his size might work against him as a quarterback at larger institutions such as USC and UCLA.
So, Kemp matriculated at Occidental College, a Division III school located in LA.
Kemp chose the school because he liked the fact that the coaching staff used offensive formations that were similar to those used in professional football.
During his four-year college career, Kemp shined bright and was an All-Conference selection as well as an honorable mention Little All-American in 1956.
— Football Foundation (@NFFNetwork) December 16, 2015
That same year, Kemp was ranked as the third-best quarterback in small college football.
In addition to his accomplishments on the gridiron, Kemp was a renowned javelin thrower for the Tigers.
Kemp Nearly Quits Football
Although Kemp played at a small college, he still attracted attention from NFL scouts.
With the 203rd overall pick in the 17th round of the 1957 NFL Draft, Kemp was selected by the Detroit Lions.
Just before the season began, the Lions cut him.
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kemp for the rest of the year, though he rarely saw the field and had all of 88 passing yards and two interceptions.
Kemp was released by the Steelers after the season and he spent time on the rosters of the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants in 1958.
While trying to catch on with an NFL team, Kemp enlisted in the military and became a private in the Army Reserves.
He was stationed in Calgary, Canada, and signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
Jack Kemp spent most of the 1959 CFL season with Calgary Stampeders before his stellar 9-year AFL career with Buffalo Bills. He was MVP during 1965 season and in winning the AFL final. He then had a 30-year political career, mostly in Congress from New York. pic.twitter.com/B13JKM4Gaz
— Daryl Slade (@Stampeders1945) June 19, 2020
Kemp played in one game for Calgary before they cut him as well.
At that point, five professional football teams had said “no” to Kemp and it looked like the end.
His family encouraged him to seek employment in a different industry and Kemp resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to play NFL football.
The AFL Gives Kemp a Shot
Thankfully, the American Football League was founded at the same time Kemp was ready to give up.
The fledgling league needed warm bodies, preferably with pro experience.
Kemp had just what the new Los Angeles Chargers and head coach Sid Gillman were looking for.
He was signed by the club before its 1960 inaugural season.
Kemp Leads the Chargers
Gillman’s penchant to throw the pigskin down the field was right up Kemp’s alley.
He became the Chargers’ starter in 1960 and promptly showed his former NFL employers that they made a mistake.
That season, Kemp passed for 3,018 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions, and also rushed for 238 yards and eight scores.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) May 29, 2019
LA went 10-4 and faced the Houston Oilers in the first AFL Championship game.
Kemp’s passing yards, completions (211), and attempts (406) ranked second in the AFL in 1960 and he was voted to the first-team All-AFL squad that year.
Furthermore, both he and Denver Broncos quarterback Frank Tripucka became the AFL’s first 3,000-yard passers.
During the 1960 AFL Championship, Kemp couldn’t pass his team to a victory and the Chargers narrowly lost 24-16.
The following year, the Chargers relocated to San Diego and Kemp passed for 2,686 yards, 15 touchdowns, 22 picks, and also rushed for 105 yards and six touchdowns.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) July 2, 2017
His yardage mark was ranked second in the league behind Houston’s George Blanda.
Kemp was voted first-team All-AFL along with being selected as an AFL All-Star for the first of his seven selections.
San Diego went 12-2 in 1961 and again faced the Oilers for the AFL title.
As they had the previous year, San Diego lost the game 10-3.
San Diego Accidentally Gives Away Kemp
Two games into the 1962 season, Kemp had passed for 292 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions before breaking one of his fingers.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 25, 2017
Since Kemp’s injury would keep him out for a few months, Gillman thought he would be clever and stash Kemp on the waiver wire list as he healed.
That idea backfired horribly when the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, and Dallas Texans all noticed Kemp’s name on the list and pounced.
Buffalo was the first to submit a bid and was awarded Kemp for the un-princely sum of $100.
Just like that, Kemp was now a Buffalo Bill.
Instead of playing in the sun of Southern California, he was headed to the harsh climate of Northern New York.
“It wasn’t Buffalo, it wasn’t the team, it wasn’t Ralph Wilson,” Kemp said. “I just didn’t want to leave my home. I was a San Diego Charger, I had a little business, I was a resident of San Diego, quarterback of the Chargers. I woke up one day and found out that I’d been placed on injured reserve. It had never happened before, at least in my day, that anyone had been picked up like that. It was a shock more than anything else.”
Kemp healed in time to play in four games for Buffalo and finished the season with 636 yards, three passing touchdowns, and four interceptions.
Kemp Leads Buffalo to a Championship
It didn’t take long before the Bills’ fans and players understood what Kemp brought to the organization.
In his first full season with the franchise, Kemp passed for 2,910 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 20 picks as the Bills went 7-6-1 in 1963.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) November 28, 2019
He also rushed for a career-high 239 yards along with eight rushing touchdowns.
In the Divisional Playoffs, Buffalo’s season ended with the Boston Patriots winning 26-8, but Kemp had proven his worth to the team.
“Getting Jack Kemp solved our quarterback problems,” said guard Billy Shaw.
The following year, Kemp led Buffalo to a 12-2 regular season as he passed for 2,285 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 26 picks.
That same year, Kemp often found himself playing peace-maker between head coach Lou Saban and star running back Cookie Gilchrist.
#OTD in 1964 Lou Saban places running back Cookie Gilchrist on waivers a few days after Cookie refused to enter the game during the Bills loss to the Patriots. Jack Kemp will intervene, waivers will be withdrawn, and Cookie will help the Bills to their first AFL championship. pic.twitter.com/c8L62wIgn5
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) November 17, 2021
Gilchrist expected to get a significant amount of carries each game.
When he didn’t get an opportunity to run the ball when he wanted to, Gilchrist was known to take himself out of a game.
Kemp became the team’s mediator of disputes and was able to convince both men to come together for the benefit of the team.
That benefit was realized when Buffalo beat Kemp’s former team, San Diego, for the AFL title in 1964.
War Memorial Stadium, Buffalo, NY, Dec 26, 1964 – Bills QB Jack Kemp looks to run the clock out in 1964 AFL Title game with his team up on Chargers 20-7. One of the top sports photographs of all-time in my opinion and it's no surprise the legendary Neil Leifer is the photographer pic.twitter.com/34c0ieniIV
— Old-Time Baseball Photos (@OTBaseballPhoto) January 16, 2021
Gilchrist rushed for 122 yards and Kemp passed for 188 yards and scored a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter to lead the Bills to a 20-7 victory.
Kemp was named the game’s MVP.
Kemp and Teammates Boycott the 1965 All-Star Game
Kemp and Gilchrist were both invited to the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans that was held a couple of weeks after the title game.
Before the game, a number of black players were treated poorly by cab drivers and restaurant owners in the New Orleans area.
Disgusted by how they were treated, all 21 black players who represented both the East and West squads met to determine how they should respond.
After going back and forth on whether or not to play in the game, the players eventually voted to boycott the contest.
In a show of solidarity, Kemp and Chargers tackle Ron Mix also boycotted the game.
The player revolt was enough of a distraction that the game was moved to Houston, where the West would win 38-14.
Before the 1965 season, Gilchrist was traded to the Broncos.
The Bills suffered without him but still managed a 10-3-1 record that year.
Without a solid running game, Buffalo relied more on Kemp and he delivered.
He was second in the AFL in completions with 179 and also had 2,368 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions.
Kemp’s leadership that year prompted the league to honor him as the AFL MVP.
The good times continued when the Bills shut out the Chargers 23-0 in their second straight championship win.
Jack Kemp led the Bills to championships in 1964 and 1965, and played in five of the AFL’s ten title games. Today would have been Kemp's 84th birthday. https://t.co/IRC3n2EyXN pic.twitter.com/n11fYOo5Lp
— [BN] Blitz (@BNBlitzNow) July 13, 2019
During the game, Kemp passed for 155 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
He helped score the first points of the contest on an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ernie Warlick in the first quarter.
Kemp was voted the game’s MVP for a second time for his efforts.
Kemp and the Bills Just Miss Super Bowl I
After the AFL Championship game, Bills head coach Lou Saban left to coach in the college ranks and new coach Joe Collier took over in 1966.
That season, Buffalo went 9-4-1 and Kemp passed for 2,451 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 16 picks.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) December 22, 2019
The ‘66 season was special as the top seeds in each conference would play each other in the AFL Championship game for the right to appear opposite the NFL champion in the first-ever Super Bowl.
The Bills were the Eastern Conference champion and faced the Western Conference champion, the Kansas City Chiefs.
By the end of the first quarter, the score was tied at seven after Kemp completed a 69-yard touchdown throw to receiver “Golden Wheels” Dubenion to tie the game.
From then on, things only got worse as Kansas City scored 24 unanswered points to win the contest 31-7.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) March 9, 2022
The Chiefs then faced the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I and lost 35-10.
Over the next three years, the bottom fell out of the Bills organization.
From 1967 through 1969, Buffalo won only nine games in total.
In 1968, Kemp was seriously injured during a preseason scrimmage and missed the entire year.
1969 saw the arrival of rookie running back O.J. Simpson from USC and Kemp returned from injury to pass for 1,981 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions.
"Every team requires unity. A team has to move as one unit, one force. If the team doesn't do this, it goes down in defeat. You win or lose as a team, as a family."
– Jack Kemp pic.twitter.com/XWe4X6KOcs
— FNF Coaches (@fnfcoaches) June 27, 2018
Neither player could help Buffalo overcome their 4-10 record.
After the season, Kemp retired from professional football.
During his 10-year career, Kemp had 21,218 passing yards, 114 passing touchdowns, 183 interceptions, 1,150 rushing yards, and 40 rushing scores.
He was also a two-time AFL champion, two-time AFL Championship game MVP, AFL MVP, five-time first-team All-AFL, and seven-time AFL All-Star.
By the time of the AFL’s official merger with the NFL in 1970, Kemp had played in half of the AFL’s 10 championship games.
Kemp was later added to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame and his number 15 was retired by the organization in 1984.
Second Life in Politics
From a very early age, Kemp enjoyed philosophy and history.
During his football career, he became involved in player rights by co-founding the AFL Players Association and serving as the union president for five terms.
Kemp frequently sided with players of color during disputes with the league or with city officials at events such as the 1965 AFL All-Star Game.
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) March 5, 2020
After the All-Star game in early 1970, Kemp decided he wanted to make politics his next endeavor.
“In 1970 after the AFL all-star game, my last game, I came home, talked to my wife and said, ‘I think I’m going to run for Congress,’” Kemp said. “I had a four-year no-cut contract with the Bills and I figured if I lost, I could come back and still play, either for Buffalo or maybe they’d trade me. I ran, I won, and it’s been downhill ever since.’’
From 1971-1989, Kemp was a member of the House of Representatives and became a regular face in the Ronald Reagan White House.
He was a proponent of supply-side economics and was noted for his work in helping underprivileged families.
In 1988, Kemp ran for president. However, George H.W. Bush became the Republican party’s presidential nominee.
Kemp would later become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and was a nominee for Vice-President to Bob Dole in 1996.
— Saying.co (@Saying_co) May 2, 2014
His experience in professional football enabled Kemp to deal with the slings and arrows of political life.
“Pro football gave me a good perspective,’’ Kemp said. “When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy.”
In early 2009, Kemp shared with the public that he had cancer.
He continued working at his consulting firm, Kemp Partners, until he succumbed to cancer on May 2, 2009.
He was 73 years old.
“He was a person who brought the same enthusiasm and energy to politics that he brought to football,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. “And you could tell, whether it was a battle of ideas or a battle on the gridiron, Jack Kemp threw himself into it completely.”