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News » Kemp had diversity of interests

Kemp had diversity of interests

Kemp had diversity of interests
The date was Oct. 1, 1962, the day after the first crisis in the history of the Buffalo Bills began. The previous day in Dallas the Texans, soon to be known as the Kansas City Chiefs, had bludgeoned the Bills , 41-21, the fourth consecutive defeat in the four-game coaching reign of Lou Saban.

I was the Bills' beat reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express then. The custom at the time was for the media to fly on the same chartered plane that carried the team to its next destination, in this case Houston. Our driver took a wrong turn. When we weren't at the airport at the appointed takeoff time Saban, still in an ultra-foul move, ordered that the craft leave without us. Never was I so happy to miss a plane.

When I got up for breakfast the next morning I watched the comings and goings of suddenly former Bills and their replacements from my second-floor balcony in the Del Webb motel in Houston. Watching from the balcony next door was Cookie Gilchrist. The longer Saban watched the game films the more players he cut, including his captain, defensive end Laverne Torczon, and the starting quarterback, Al Dorow.

Suddenly the new and future Bills quarterbacks were passing each other without a word. "Goodbye Al Dorow," shouted Cookie. "Hello Jack Kemp."

Kemp had been claimed by Buffalo for $100, a bizarre error on the part of his team, the Chargers, who had sought to sneak him past waivers since he suffered a serious injury to the middle finger on his throwing hand and would not be able to play for six weeks. Eventually Kemp decided to have his finger fused in the shape of a Football in order to pass again, saving his career. Buffalo could afford to wait for him.

The Chargers were never the same and, for that matter, neither was Buffalo.

Pro Football in that time was nothing like the economic bonanza it is today. The National Football League was comprised of just 12 teams in the late '50s when Kemp came out of Occidental College. Just a week ago Steve Young, who became a Hall of Fame quarterback for San Francisco, observed that "there aren't 20 good quarterbacks in the NFL." As the '50s reached the '60s there was a surplus of good players at every position. The Los Angeles Rams had two great quarterbacks, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, on their roster at the same time. The entire 49ers' backfield in 1956, quarterback Y.A. Tittle and running backs Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson and Hugh McElhenny, would go to the Hall.

The only place even a handful of young players could develop was on a team's "taxi squad," a name which evolved from the practice of Mickey McBride, the Cleveland Browns owner, of paying his squad by employing them as drivers for his cab company.

That is what led Kemp to taxi squads of the Giants, Lions, Steelers and Colts, as well as the Canadian League, to hone his skills in hope of landing a permanent job, maybe even as a starting quarterback somewhere.

"When Kemp was with us," said Frank Gifford, the Giants' reigning star of the time, "we used to stay after practice to watch him throw.

"He had one of the most powerful passing arms I've ever seen."

Even then, Kemp was not a man for one season. He and his young wife, Joanne, took advantage of everything New York could offer in his free time -- Broadway shows, museums, historic sites. His interests went far beyond Football as it would for the rest of his days.

His enthusiasm for life often transferred to his friends. After he saw the great Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha" he couldn't wait to tell people what a wonderful experience it was and how they should see it as soon as possible. When he went to Congress and became an important Republican he was generous in introducing his new friends to his old ones. One time, he brought Rep. Bob Michel, then the Republican leader in the House, through a crowded Super Bowl party to introduce him to me.

His kind treatment of everyday people was returned at the voting booths. He knew most of the great and wealthy but his sense of compassion for less fortunate was unchallenged. I remember Kemp, when he was president of the league's players' association, coming to an AFL owners meeting on Shelter Island in San Diego, despite battling the flu, to plead the case of Tommy Minter, a defensive back for the Chargers.

As a Republican elder statesman he argued forcefully for more diversity in the party. When Kemp billed himself as a "bleeding-heart conservative," syndicated columnist Mark Shields seconded the description on CNN's "Capital Gang" television show.

"Jack Kemp has showered with more black men than most Republican leaders ever met," said Shields.

In several of his Congressional races and again in his vice presidential bid, Kemp was accompanied on the campaign trail by giant Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison, black stars who sought to flatten him when they were San Diego pass rushers.

For Bills fans, Kemp's finest hours were with the AFL champions of 1964 and '65. That was especially true in '65, when Gilchrist was banished by Saban in a punitive trade and the team's two best receivers, Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass, were lost for the season due to knee injuries. Kemp supervised a hunt-and-peck offense, the team upset San Diego, 23-0, in the championship game and he was voted the league's Most Valuable Player.

Five years later he was off on another rewarding journey at which he also excelled. Whether he was on the Football field or the halls of congress, he was one of the most interesting and decent men I've ever met.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: May 6, 2009

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