A former University of Wisconsin wrestler who was twice a Big Ten champion says his biggest thrill in sports was "the day practice was called off. I'll never forget it. I still tingle when I think about it." Indeed, practice is the scourge of many athletes, even the good ones. Or, perhaps, especially the good ones. It drives varsity men to intramural teams and is instrumental in pushing coaches to despair, then to stiff drink and finally to selling insurance. The problem is that many athletes are convinced they are terrific without practicing, while coaches of course disagree. If there is anything fun about practicing, it has escaped just about everyone's notice.
Not Lee Kemp's. Kemp, a 158-pound University of Wisconsin wrestler from the Ohio sticks, loves to practice. He's not sure why. "It's just one of the few things I don't mind doing," he says. So there he is, bathed in sweat in the practice room late on a Saturday night while his friends are cavorting in downtown Madison at the Fog Cutter and the Red Rock. All alone, Kemp keeps working out, stoically, under the sign that says: IN THIS WORLD, A MAN MUST EITHER BE AN ANVIL OR A HAMMER. Then he jumps rope, stoically, beside the sign that reads: WHEN YOU CALL ON A THOROUGHBRED, HE GIVES YOU EVERY OUNCE OF STRENGTH AND HEART AND COURAGE IN HIM. WHEN YOU CALL ON A JACKASS, HE JUST KICKS AND BRAYS.
Such dedication partially explains how this hammer, this thoroughbred has come to be considered the best college wrestler in the country, edging out such worthy rivals as the University of Iowa's unbeaten 177-pounder, Chris Campbell, and Dan Severn, an extraordinary freshman at Arizona State who is 30-0 at 190 pounds. Kemp is so good that, barring injury or a mental ambush, he may—by the close of Olympic business in 1980—be worthy of mention in the same sentence with the alltime hero of U.S. wrestling, Dan Gable. Gable was beaten only twice in his career. One of his losses was to Kemp. Gable won two NCAA championships (he was second his senior year, when he lost to Larry Owings after 181 straight victories), then went on to win a gold medal in the Munich Olympics.
Kemp, just a junior, was second in the NCAAs as a freshman; he won last year when he was the only major college wrestler in the country to go undefeated, with a record of 39-0. Kemp's name already has been written in ink as the winner in the 158-pound division of this year's NCAA championships, which will be held next month in Norman, Okla. And 1978 is indelibly Kemp's, too. And after that, the world. Everybody buy that? Of course not.
February 21, 1977
Not even Kemp's father does. "Even if he won them all, I wouldn't say he's best," says Leroy Sr. "There're people out there better than him. We just don't know their names." His mother, Jessie, agrees and frequently tells her son so. What does Lee do? "He just stares at me," she says. Russ Hellickson, who won a silver medal last summer in Montreal and is assistant coach at Wisconsin, says of Kemp, "He's the greatest collegiate wrestler in the country, but he could be a lot better." That raises the questions: How high is high and what's better than best?
This is the Kemp paradox. Praise for him somehow comes out sounding like regret for what might have been—or hope for what might still be. Gable, now head coach at the University of Iowa, says, "If a coach just knew how to get it out of Kemp...." Here his voice trails off and his eyes glaze over as he envisions the potential. Wisconsin Coach Duane Kleven says, "Lee is so good that it's like he's always got you in the outside lane." But the caveat quickly follows: "He should be able to totally dominate matches but...." Here Kleven's voice trails off, too.
What gives everyone pause is Kemp's lack of aggressiveness. He realizes this is the main rap on his rep, but says with a certain logic, "If I'm winning a match, I'm just happy to be winning. What's wrong with that?" Obviously nothing. He wins a lot of bouts 3-1, 5-3, 7-6. And as a consequence, seeing one of his matches is often about as thrilling as watching paint dry. It also seems that the more victories Kemp amasses (he's 27-1 this season, his only loss coming against a non-collegian, former Iowa State star Pete Galea), the more conservative he becomes. According to his critics, that makes him riper for defeat. Chuck Yagla, the top wrestler in college last year, whipped Kemp three times when Lee was a freshman; Kemp has since beaten Yagla twice. Says Yagla, who wrestled for Iowa, "Lee's record is better now, but he's a poorer wrestler than he was when he was a freshman."
Kemp does not bristle when he hears this kind of criticism; in fact, he joins right in. "I have to admit I don't beat people like I should," he says. Badly is how Kemp should be defeating his opponents, because he has plenty of technical skills. The trouble is that he often does not bother to use them. A Kemp match too frequently consists of him waiting for his opponent to make a move. Kemp has extraordinary speed and strength, especially in his arms, and should an onrushing opponent put one leg a trifle too close, Kemp grabs it. He throws his man to the mat, collects his two points, then seems to spend the rest of the time protecting that margin, which is like a basketball team scoring the first bucket and going into a stall.
Unfortunately for Kemp's fans, on one of the rare occasions when he was aggressive, he almost paid dearly for it. Several weeks ago against the University of Iowa, Kemp tore onto the mat like a mongoose after a cobra. Thirty-two seconds into the bout, while everyone was busy checking his program to make sure this was the Kemp of let's-wait-and-see fame, he grabbed Iowa's Mike McGivern, lifted him above his head and threw him to the mat. The referee properly ruled that Kemp was guilty of unnecessary roughness. McGivern was hurt, having been dropped on his head; and because he had been injured by an illegal move, he easily could have refused to continue and would have been awarded the victory.
Nonetheless, a stunned McGivern said he would keep on wrestling. Kemp resumed his surprising tactics, ultimately pinning his opponent. Asked afterward why he decided not to take the win by default, McGivern said, "I was all right. Besides, that would be a pretty poor way for me to get past a champion, don't you think?"
Kemp realized how close he had come to defeat, and while he did not say "See what happens when you're aggressive," his narrow escape may make him even more cautious. After all, if he commits a similar error in the NCAAs, he could wind up with more time than anyone needs to sightsee in Norman.
Actually, Kemp has seen all that interests him in Oklahoma—the insides of the field houses in Norman and Stillwater—and the folks at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State certainly have seen all they want of him. Late last month, Wisconsin went to these campuses and won both meets, 22-12 over the Sooners and 20-16 over State. It was the first time that a visiting team inflicted double defeat on the proud Oklahomas. Wisconsin, which has a 10-3 record this season, looked very good; Kemp looked better.
Against Oklahoma, Kemp gave a 10-2 lesson to Keith Stearns in a match that was not that close. The next night against State, he had a sterner test, because his opponent was Paul Martin, previously undefeated this season and the wrestler who figures to be Kemp's main rival for the NCAA 158-pound title. Martin scored a takedown and an escape to lead 3-0 going into the final period. Kemp seemed headed for disaster. Then he scored an escape, quickly grabbed Martin's leg and bear-hugged him for a takedown, got a two-point near fall, and finally received a point for riding time, all adding up to an easy 6-3 triumph.
His lack of aggressiveness aside, there are other reasons for the less-than-full-throated praise for Kemp. He is still young (20 years old), and that is rarely an advantage in wrestling; most international champions are in their middle or late 20s. And the fact that Kemp chose Wisconsin rather than one of the Big Four—Iowa, Iowa State. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State—gnaws at some wrestling experts, most of them at the Big Four schools.
Then there is Kemp's personality. "What personality?" asks an acquaintance. John Grantham, the Chardon, Ohio businessman who recruited Kemp for Wisconsin, says, "If you're going to talk to Lee for 30 minutes, you better have a lot to say for the last 29." By his own description, Kemp is quiet, stubborn and moody. These qualities are often misread as arrogance or conceit or evidence of an ego that won't fit in any room.
In truth, Kemp is simply a young man with a single-mindedness about wrestling. "I don't like joking at practice," he tells his teammates. That sort of thing does not endear him to the other wrestlers. And while the rest of the team does conditioning exercises facing the front of the wrestling room, Kemp joins right in, except he's facing the back. Ed Vatch, the former wrestler whose biggest thrill came the day practice was canceled, says, "A great wrestler like Lee is a different breed." Indeed, Kemp wrestles to the sound of a different whistle. And he also practices differently, working indefatigably hour after extra hour.
Kemp likes to practice so much that Kleven has made a rule for the other members of the Wisconsin team: you have to stay after practice once a week and wrestle with Kemp, if he asks you. Why only once? "Because night after night with Kemp would tend to make another wrestler lose his confidence." Kleven says.
Kemp got his first taste of wrestling growing up in Cleveland next door to Keith The Bully. Kemp's mother recalls the horrible things that regularly happened to her son, until one day "Lee whipped him all over the street." So long, Keith. Living on such mean streets instilled in Kemp a strong opposition to violence, especially to the use of guns. He cried all through his nursery school graduation exercises because he was required to wear toy pistols: later he eschewed the Cub Scouts because he somehow got it in his mind this was the first step toward the Army. And the Army, of course, meant guns.
The Kemps moved to Chardon when Lee was 11, and it was quite a change from the tightly packed houses on Clearview Avenue to the 25 acres on Clark Road. Lee soon realized the importance of falling asleep instantly whenever he heard the John Deere fired up to mow hay. "I've driven some tractors and plowed some fields," insists Kemp. Could be, say his parents, but they can't remember the time. "Lee is not what you call a farm boy," says his father. "I mean, you send him out for a cabbage and he'll come back with an onion."
But inside the house is proof that whatever his shortcomings as a farmer, Kemp sure knows how to wrestle. The place is decorated in early half nelson. Trophies are all over the house. Old wrestling shoes hang from one wall. The dominant decorations in the living room are the tournament draws that show how Kemp advanced to his two Ohio high school championships.
After Kemp had tried—and found he disliked—basketball and football, a high school phys ed teacher encouraged him to give wrestling a chance. He did, then gave a succinct evaluation: "I hate it." Thus, a love affair started. As a sophomore Kemp's record was 11-8-3, the kind of unnotable achievement guaranteed to keep colleges from putting your name on their recruiting file cards. Nonetheless, Kemp's interest was whetted enough that he attended a summer wrestling camp at which one of the instructors was Gable. As a result of that experience, Kemp's father says, "Something just happened to Lee."
The main something was that Kemp went undefeated (55-0) his next two seasons and yearned to go to Michigan Slate. Inexplicably, MSU suggested a deal whereby Kemp would pay $1,000 in tuition for a year; then, if he made the team, he'd get a full scholarship as a sophomore. He looked at other schools, but' his heart wasn't in it; he wanted Michigan State. His love continued to go unrequited.
Enter Grantham, who had once met Wisconsin Athletic Director Elroy Hirsch and had said he would try to direct a good Ohio athlete to Madison sometime. Kemp, he figured, would fulfill his promise. Grantham called Kemp one morning and asked if he could go to Madison that day to look over Wisconsin. Kemp said he could. "How soon?" asked Grantham. "Fifteen minutes," said Kemp jokingly. "Make it 10," said Grantham seriously.
Through it all, Iowa hardly talked to Kemp. Gable says, "We knew something about him, but not enough to recruit him." Assistant Athletic Director Gary Kurdelmeier says, "We had some good people around his weight, and let's face it, if King Kong were available but at a weight that wouldn't help us, we wouldn't bother to talk to him." Just after Kemp signed with Wisconsin, Michigan State located a spare $1,000 and came up with a tardy offer of a full scholarship. But by then, the Spartan life had lost its appeal for Kemp.
Once settled in Madison, Kemp thought he had found heaven, because an all-night doughnut shop was right across the street and it always had the jelly-filled ones with powdered sugar. "What else could I possibly want?" he asked. A victory over Gable would be nice, but he listed that one under impossible dreams. When he faced Gable in November 1975, Kemp says his only hope was to be respectable. Before the match, people asked, "Who are you wrestling?" "Gable," he replied, which prompted loud laughter. "This isn't funny," a somber Kemp said.
The final score was 7-6 in Kemp's favor, a resounding victory heard round the wrestling world and one that, despite the Olympic champ's having a bad arm, contributed mightily to Gable's aborting his plans for trying out for the 1976 Olympic team. Kemp later failed to become a starter on the Olympic team. "I just wasn't ready for that level," he says. He bolted the training camp after not making the first team. Eventually he rejoined the squad and worked out in Montreal, but it was not a happy time. Kemp says flatly, "I didn't like being on the second team."
These days—and especially these nights—Kemp is rarely absent from the gym, where he works feverishly to prevent himself from ever being second again. Tonight he's under the sign that says: MEN DO NOT FAIL, THEY GIVE UP. For Kemp to do either would be a big upset, because, as he says, "I love to sweat and work and practice, then win. But to sweat and work and practice, then lose, I can't see that at all."