|Lou Witt / Getty images|
|Jack Kemp led the Bills to back-to-back American Football League championships in 1964 and 1965.|
Jack Kemp was always the consummate quarterback.
Long after he stopped wearing a helmet and cleats, long after his uniform became a suit and tie, long after his workplace switched from a field and a huddle to a desk and a podium, he remained a leader.
You felt compelled to listen to him, to follow him, to believe he was the man with the plan.
It had nothing at all to do with what he espoused in a political career that made him a larger national figure than he ever was as a professional football player. And we're talking about someone who led the Buffalo Bills to back-to-back American Football League championships, in 1964 and 1965, and who put up some highly impressive passing numbers during 10 years in the AFL, beginning in 1960 with the Los Angeles Chargers (who moved to San Diego a year later).
You didn't have to agree with his politics to understand or appreciate the special qualities that the man possessed. The greatest of these was eternal optimism.
For Kemp, it was as critical as anything that he or any quarterback could carry onto the field.
"You can't show fear," he once told me. "You can't show trepidation. You can't show any emotion that will betray your leadership. If the other players on offense see that, you compound the problem because it immediately surrounds the whole team and doubt creeps into the mind of every other player in the huddle. And if your teammates think there's a doubt in your mind that the play you're calling is something less than the best play at the right time, it manifests itself in the loss of that edge.
"What you think is, 'I have a chance to take 10 men into battle and give them a plan to lead to success.' You don't see yourself as being under siege, albeit there are times when you get your head knocked off and times when you are being booed heartily. But there has to be a tremendous sense of optimism that you are the one who can take a team down the field or to victory, that you're the best and you want to be the best. There's just no room for pessimism."
That attitude went a long way toward helping Kemp win two AFL crowns with Buffalo and five division titles with the Bills and Chargers (making him the starting quarterback for half of the AFL's 10 championship games) and hold the AFL-NFL career record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (40) for 31 years (1967 to 1998, when Steve Young broke it).
It was the driving force behind his ability to overcome a dozen concussions, two shoulder separations, torn knee ligaments and a pair of broken ankles. It was the reason that, as a Charger, he continued to play in a 1962 game against the New York Titans (before they were the Jets) despite suffering a dislocated finger on his throwing hand. Kemp was in excruciating pain, but he was determined to remain on the field -- and keep a highly touted rookie backup named John Hadl off of it. He finished the game, with his finger flopping around, and led the Chargers to victory.
The next day, the Chargers' team physician told Kemp he had severely destroyed the synovial cap, which is part of the mechanism that makes the synovial fluid that lubricates the joint. He then explained that there was no way of actually repairing the joint -- that he would have to cast the finger and that it would heal according to its position in the cast. If it healed straight, Kemp would never be able to bend it around a ball -- or anything else for that matter -- and his playing career, for all practical purposes, would be over. If it healed in a permanent curve, it would look funny, but at least he'd be able to get his hand around a ball again.
"Now what kind of finger do you want?" the doctor asked.
"A football finger," Kemp said. "I want to keep playing."
Consequently, the doctor applied the cast with Kemp's right hand resting on a football that happened to be in the physician's office. Indeed, when the finger healed, it fit perfectly over a regulation ball.
On the eve of San Diego's third game of the '62 season, then-Chargers coach Sid Gillman placed Kemp on injured waivers with the intention of re-claiming him once he went through the rest of the league unclaimed. He wasn't trying to get rid of Kemp, he just figured it would be a while before Kemp returned to action and that he could temporarily use his spot on the roster for a healthy player. But Gillman took a gamble in the process. According to league rules, if a team put a player on waivers during the week, it could recall him if another team attempted to pick him up. However, if a team put a player on waivers within 24 hours of a game, another club could claim him for the standard waiver price of $100 and his original club wouldn't be able to take him back.
Gillman reasoned that if he put Kemp on at midnight before the third game, no one would get the waiver notice in time to act on it. He was badly mistaken. Denver, Dallas and Buffalo all put in claims for Kemp before Joe Foss, the commissioner of the AFL, awarded him to the Bills on the theory that they had the most desperate need at quarterback.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Kemp well when he was a nine-term Buffalo-area congressman and I was covering the Bills for the Buffalo News. I got to know him better after he served a term as housing secretary for President George H.W. Bush when, through some mutual friends, I was enlisted to assist with the organizing and writing of his memoirs. Although politics, not my strong suit, would be a major component of the finished product, Kemp and those around him felt strongly that football should have a prominent place in the telling of his story. That was where I came in.
I spent a great deal of time with Jack and his wife, Joanne, at their home in Bethesda, Md., and at their vacation home in Vail, Colo. Being around him had the feel of attending a college class, especially when it came to his area of expertise: economics. He did his best to educate me about the intricacies and complexities of a topic that, admittedly, was a little out of my range. He loaded me up with books by Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
Through the years, we talked frequently by phone, mostly about football and particularly about his beloved Bills. Every conversation was upbeat in nature. From his late 50s through his early 70s, his energy and vitality came across loud and clear. He made you feel better than you did before you picked up the phone. He was, always, the quarterback, the leader.
The only time that the dreaded doubt and pessimism ever crept into one of our conversations was in January, soon after he revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer. When I dialed Kemp's number, I expected, as was often the case, for his assistant, Bona Park, to answer and I would leave a message for Jack to call. Instead, Jack picked up. He told me he was at the hospital, in the middle of a treatment. His voice sounded strong, but when I asked how he was doing, he said, "As well as can be expected under the circumstances."
That wasn't a typical Kemp response. And while assuring me he was getting the best medical care available, he got the point across, in a general but unmistakable manner, that there wasn't a clear solution to this ailment the way there had been when he injured his finger.
Sadly, as the weeks and months passed, the updates on Jack's health grew more discouraging. Our many mutual friends throughout the league shared that knowing look and tone of despair whenever we discussed him.
"Anything new on Jack?" someone would say.
"Not good," would be the quiet, eyes-down, head-shaking response.
But it occurred to me that we were all doing Jack a great disservice. Among the many lessons I learned from him was the importance of staying strong and understanding that doors don't close in our lives; other doors open. Besides being forced to read all of those books on the economy, I had picked up numerous valuable tips that I applied to everyday life and I believed had helped on so many fronts, including parenting. It was from Kemp that I learned about stressing the importance to my children of "being a leader rather than a follower." That would be among the messages that he would constantly deliver to his two sons, Jeff and Jimmy (both of whom went onto become pro quarterbacks), and two daughters, Jennifer and Judith. To this day, my two daughters will give me a smile and say, "Be a leader!"
Kemp learned those lessons from football, from playing in an era when a quarterback called most of his own plays rather than having them relayed via a communication device in his helmet.
"In 10 years as a starter, I probably called 85 to 90 percent of my plays, and I always waited for everyone else to form the huddle before I stepped in and announced the play," Kemp once told me. "As long as I was thinking, I would stay out of the huddle. I wanted to be certain the play was straight in my mind so I could make the call without the slightest hesitation, then get out of there. I never wanted my teammates to think that I had any doubts about what I was calling.
"Now, I did have doubts at times, everybody does. But I always felt it was very important not to leave my teammates wondering, even for a split-second, even if I didn't feel totally confident of a play. With your voice and your eyes, you're creating an aura that you are not only calling the right play, but you also have so much confidence in it, the people around you can't help but be confident, too. You want them to think, 'Gee, he must see something that I don't see.'"
That's how I'm going to remember my friend, Jack Kemp.