On the morning of Feb. 7, 1998, 38-year-old former Bengals safety Bobby Kemp returned from the gym to his home in North Hollywood, Calif. After his wife and two-year-old daughter went to feed ducks at a nearby park, Kemp showered, set his wristwatch, put on a pair of jeans and shot himself in the chest with a revolver that he kept in the bedroom closet. "We came home, and I tried to open the door, but the chain was on," says Inga Colbert, Kemp's second wife. "I knocked down the door and told our daughter to stay in the living room. I opened the door to the bedroom, and he was already dead."
Known as the Enforcer during his seven seasons with the Bengals (1981 to '86) and the Buccaneers ('87), the 6-foot, 189-pound Kemp played through pain—one season with a dislocated left shoulder that never fully healed—while inflicting hurt on opponents, often with his helmet. "He'd come to the sideline woozy a lot," recalls Bengals teammate Mike Martin. "I'd say, 'Man, you've got to stop leading with your head.' And he was like, 'My head is hard enough to knock these guys down, and I'm not big enough to overpower 'em.'"
Nearly 14 years after his death, there is no way to determine how those collisions might have affected Kemp's psychological state. To speculate that his death was a football tragedy may be too simple an explanation for a man most knew only as a voracious reader and a soft-spoken loner. (Some of his '86 Bengals teammates didn't know he had died until contacted by SI for this project.) Kemp left no note—only morbid promises, told to a select few, that suicide would be his final act. "He talked about it since we were kids," says Kemp's first wife, Christy, who met Bobby during their sophomore year at Taft Junior College in California and was married to him for 13 years, during which time Kemp battled alcohol and drug addiction. "That's the way it was always going to happen. He wanted it to be like any other day. He was true to his word."
Kemp, who became a paramedic after his NFL days, appears to have been gripped by depression from an early age. He confided to both of his wives and to Douglas Aberg, his best friend and ambulance partner, that when he was about nine years old he found a gun, put it in his mouth and contemplated pulling the trigger. "He had some moments of sheer sadness," says Aberg. "Bobby told me many times, 'I will not live to see the day when I'm 40 years old.'"
December 12, 2011
Football, in fact, may have been Kemp's saving grace. "It was the one thing he loved more than anything," Christy says. "I think it regulated him. When football was over, he was just never the same. With that hole in his life, it just slowly deteriorated."
In his second profession the Enforcer would sit and talk with patients at nursing homes or pull his ambulance over to help people struggling with wheelchairs. "Bobby was a gentle, humble soul. He treated everyone with dignity," Aberg says. "But the contrast of playing in a Super Bowl and wheeling people around on a gurney—I don't think Bobby thought his life was going to be like that."
In a life of extreme highs and lows, Kemp experienced no greater thrill than being surrounded by 81,270 fans as he stood on the field at the Silverdome during Super Bowl XVI. He told Aberg, "I just stopped in that moment and was full of gratitude." On the day he shot himself, there's no telling what was happening in Kemp's head.