You won't read this in Jeff Kemp's minibiography in the Los Angeles Rams' press book, but I know it had to have happened. Eleven years ago Kemp, who's now the young quarterback of the Rams, made a pact with the Devil. The details aren't clear. Ol' Satan tried to set up the usual package deal—sell me your soul and I'll give you 50 years of whatever—but he settled for much less, a couple of draft choices, maybe, or a player to be named later.
And what he gave the 14-year-old Kemp was a watered-down version of his usual fame-and-fortune program, a strange deal indeed. The story begins this way:
It's November 1969, Shea Stadium, New York City, where the Jets are methodically punishing the Buffalo Bills in a game that will end 16-6 in New York's favor. Chill winds are whipping off Flushing Bay and patches of mud line the field, and in one of them lies Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp, facedown. In the stands is his 10-year-old son, Jeff.
"He lay there for two or three minutes," Jeff recalls. "He'd scrambled down the sideline and run into a linebacker, Larry Grantham, head on. Marlin Briscoe replaced him. Marlin the Magician. He was the only quarterback they had left. He rolled out and threw a 50-yard interception. I kept thinking about my father. To me that's what pro football was all about: lying facedown in the mud."
October 21, 1984
Small wonder Jeff had no burning desire to invade his father's world of the NFL. "I was never a locker-room rat," he says. "Pro football was just a normal part of our life."
So for three years he stayed away from organized football. Oh, he'd throw a ball around in the park, and there were plenty of pickup games, but nothing serious. In 1970 Jack, who had retired from pro football that year, became a U.S. Congressman from the 31st district of New York. The family moved to Bethesda, Md. The local high school, Winston Churchill, in Potomac, was a power. Football was in the air, and after a while Jeff got the itch.
When he was a ninth-grader, he went out for the Bethesda Boys Club team in the Beltway League. The quarterback was a tough little kid named Chris Bossetti. Jeff was his unhappy backup. One day, when he came home from practice, there was a bearded stranger sitting atop one of the bedposts.
A deal was struck. Jeff could keep his soul, but his entire football career would go like this: Wherever he went, he would never start out as a first-stringer. As many as four people would be ahead of him. There would be moments of despair, of frustration, but gradually the competition would melt away. The agreement was signed...and the next day the Boys Club coach announced that in the interests of the team, Chris would move to linebacker, and the new quarterback would be Jeff.
Two years later Jeff was on the roster of Churchill High. Fred Shepherd, the coach, was assembling a powerhouse. He had a 6'5", 235-pound tackle named Brian Holloway, who would later win All-Pro honors with the New England Patriots; a nifty quarterback named Bobby Keith; and a solid backup, Francis Smith, whose younger brother, Eric, would play for Georgetown's 1982 NCAA basketball finalists. Jeff was the third-stringer as a junior and figured to be second string to Smith as a senior.
"We had a preseason scrimmage with Langley," Shepherd says. "I put Jeff in in the second half. We'd done nothing in the first half, but now, all of a sudden, he was moving that wishbone offense of ours up and down the field. Next day Francis became our free safety and Jeff was the starter."
Churchill won the state Double-A championship. Holloway was heavily recruited and chose Stanford. Kemp wasn't in demand. "No one of significance asked me about him," Shepherd says.
Kemp went to Dartmouth and as a freshman became close friends with another football brat, Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula's son, Dave, a wide receiver, but his quarterbacking career seemingly was nowhere. There were two freshmen in front of him—Joe McLaughlin and Greg Jaeger, a sprint-out passer.
"I'd been at Boston College the year before," says Joe Yukica, who was in his first year as Dartmouth's coach that season. "I knew all about McLaughlin. He was quite a recruiting coup. He and Jaeger battled for the starting freshman job all season. Jeff was sort of overlooked."
The next year Buddy Teevens, a senior, was the varsity quarterback, and he was named Ivy League Player of the Year. McLaughlin backed him up, and Jaeger was still around, as was a varsity holdover named Larry Margerum. Kemp quarterbacked the jayvees.
"We were playing Harvard," Yukica says, "and our jayvee coach, Bill Maxwell, joined me in Cambridge and told me he had good news and bad news. The good news was that Jeff had looked terrific in the game the day before. The bad news was that he'd separated his shoulder and was out for the year."
By Kemp's junior year Teevens was gone, and Jaeger had decided to concentrate on rugby instead of football. There was a three-way struggle at quarterback among Margerum, Kemp and McLaughlin. McLaughlin ended up being switched to defense. "He threw two interceptions in a preseason scrimmage," Kemp says, "and after the second one he was so mad he nailed the guy who caught the ball and blew him out of bounds. He hit him so hard the coach turned him into a defensive back." Then, in the second game of the season, against New Hampshire, Margerum didn't do much at quarterback, but everyone loved the way he punted. He ultimately became an All-Ivy punter. Step to the head of the line, Mr. Kemp.
For two seasons Kemp threw and Shula caught, and this combination produced some nifty afternoons for the Big Green—and a lot of yawns from the NFL scouts. "I don't remember one of them ever working me out," Kemp says.
Both Kemp and Shula entered the NFL as free agents in 1981, Shula with the Colts, where he lasted for a year, Kemp with the Rams. When Kemp got to L.A. he found a mob. He was No. 5 on the depth chart behind veterans Pat Haden, Bobby Lee and Jeff Rutledge, and Dan Kendra, who played semipro ball in Baltimore in 1980. Then in September the Rams, over the strong objections of coach Ray Malavasi, brought in Dan Pastorini. Kemp was a 50-1 shot to survive the exhibition season, but in November he was still around, tucked away on the rolls of the injured reserve (bad back). Lee and Kendra were gone; Rut-ledge had a dislocated thumb; and Haden and Pastorini were waging a spirited battle for the No. 1 job on a team that was tumbling to 6-10.
By 1982 the competition was melting: Haden retired, Pastorini was cut, Rutledge was traded. A new wave arrived. Vince Ferragamo was back from Canada, and Malavasi, in a final effort to save his job, traded a first-round choice and a second-rounder to the Colts for Bert Jones. Kemp was the third-stringer.
The next year Jones retired after suffering a neck injury. Kemp had moved to No. 2, but then in August his confidence got a severe jolt when the Rams traded for Steve Fuller, an occasional starter at Kansas City.
"That was the only one that bothered me," Kemp says. "He was direct competition. I was disappointed. Coach [John] Robinson told me that if I continued to do well, my status wasn't going to change."
In the 1984 preseason Fuller was traded to Chicago, and Kemp remained Ferragamo's backup. In three NFL seasons he had thrown only 31 passes. The competition was down to one man. Ferragamo got off to a rocky start, and then in Game 3, against the Steelers, he broke a bone in his throwing hand. Kemp was the lone survivor; he had outlasted five former regular NFL quarterbacks who had been ahead of him.
Under Kemp the Rams have gone 3-1, including a 33-12 blowout of the Giants in his second start. He completed eight of 17 passes for 113 yards and one touchdown in that game and, more important, came up with the big plays. Last week against the Saints he was eight of 19 for 138 yards and had three TDs in a 28-10 win. His 98.4 rating is unofficially the highest of any Ram quarterback ever.
Robinson extolls Kemp's strong arm, and his toughness and ability to learn. "All these years he hung in and kept battling, and pretty soon the finger was pointed at him and we said, 'You're it,' " Robinson says. "A guy's got to be ready when an opportunity like that comes along. Some of them aren't."
Ready? He has been ready for 11 years, but, as that bearded stranger with the contract had warned him, it didn't come easy.