In 1964 a rumor swept Buffalo that Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist was getting fewer carries because quarterback Jack Kemp, a staunch Republican, refused to hand the ball off to an unabashed lefty. It turned out to be a sportswriter's joke, but Gilchrist still saw fit to angrily refute the notion that Kemp, who died last Saturday at age 73 of cancer, could be so narrow-minded. "Jack is a pro," Gilchrist snapped, "and a pro would hand off to Castro."
This is an article from the May 11, 2009 issue
Kemp's conservatism was no secret. Before joining the Bills in 1962, he played two seasons with the Chargers and moonlighted as a columnist for The San Diego Union, a right-leaning paper. (A headline for one of Kemp's pieces: SPORTS, FREEDOM REQUIRE LAWS.) Kemp read William F. Buckley and Ayn Rand on team flights. He campaigned for Republican candidates. He befriended Richard Nixon and was a liaison to college campuses for the Republican National Committee. A foray into politics seemed inevitable, but not before the end of his football career.
And what a career it was. Kemp's Favre-ian style (he could scramble and would, upon identifying a target, throw the ball as hard as humanly possible) was a little too unrefined for the NFL—he spent time on four teams' taxi squads—but it was perfectly suited for the fledgling AFL. He also possessed Favre-ian toughness. Kemp could heave the ball 90 yards despite a chronically dislocated right shoulder. His nonthrowing shoulder was so badly damaged that he was declared unfit for duty when his Army reserve unit was called up in 1961, and he played most of the '62 season with a dislocated finger that had to be popped back in after every snap.
Kemp couldn't always practice, and he had to receive several painkilling injections to play—but he always did, and that made him one of the most respected leaders in the game. "It's hard to describe," Chargers teammate Ron Mix once said, "but whatever it is, Jack's got it." In nine AFL seasons Kemp made five championship game appearances, winning two, and was a seven-time All-Star.
He retired in 1970 as the league's alltime leader in passing yardage and soon announced that he was running for the vacant congressional seat in a heavily Republican district near Buffalo. A 1961 SI story described Kemp as looking "like the little boy down the block who one afternoon throws a rock through your picture window and the next morning comes back to sell you a subscription to The Saturday Evening Post." If anything, that all-American image hampered his campaign. "He looks too kiddish, too pretty," one aide said. "We have to unslick him, give a little character to his face." In a race that was closer than it should have been, Kemp won the seat he would hold for nine terms. "Pro football gave me a good sense of perspective to enter politics," he said just before the 1970 election. "I'd already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy."
As an unwavering advocate of supply-side economics, Kemp was closely associated with the Reagan revolution, but on social issues he was far more progressive. He called himself a "bleeding-heart conservative" and said his views on race were shaped by his football career. "I can't help but care about the rights of the people I used to shower with," he was fond of saying.
After an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988, Kemp served as George H.W. Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He was Bob Dole's running mate on the GOP presidential ticket in 1996. Like his football career, which ended with an interception, his political career ended on a flat note, as he and Dole were soundly beaten. But Kemp remained a prominent voice in the Republican party, delivering speeches, writing a syndicated column and running a consulting and lobbying firm with his son. "The only way to oppose a bad idea is to replace it with a good idea," he said. "And I'd like to think that I have spent my life trying to promote good ideas."