There was this guy, he played quarterback at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Not a star. Ronnie Knox at Santa Monica was a much greater prospect. USC and UCLA did not offer scholarships, so he went to Occidental, where he got an education and played some pretty good football. Good enough to get a shot at the pros. He married his beautiful California sweetheart, bumped around the NFL for a few years, then found himself back in LA with the new Chargers franchise in the fledgling American Football League. Sid Gilman ran the show, Lance Alworth was on the receiving end of his passes, and the guy suddenly was a golden boy.
Things did not work for the LA franchise at the Coliseum, so they moved on to San Diego, and in 1961 Jack Kemp led them to the AFL title game. There was no Super Bowl back then. Kemp had an off day in that game at Balboa Stadium before 29,556, and Houston's George Blanda hit Billy Cannon for a touchdown to spur an Oiler victory.
A couple years later, San Diego lead the charge again at Balboa, only this time they succeeded in a big way, 51-10 over the Boston Patriots. Unfortunately, it was not Kemp at the helm. A clerical error had left him exposed to the waiver wire, and the Buffalo Bills claimed him. What must have seemed like the end of the Earth for the quintessential California couple turned out to be the best move of their lives.
In 1964 Kemp and running back Cookie Gilchrist led Buffalo to the championship, and they repeated the trick over San Diego in 1965, 23-0. In the years before the Super Bowl, before the Silver and Black, "Broadway Joe" Namath, Len Dawson, and Daryl Lamonica--the marquee quarterbacks of the AFL--Kemp was putting the junior league on the map. Kemp almost was the AFL quarterback in Super Bowl I (actually called the AFL-NFL Championship Game), played in January, 1967 at the LA Memorial Coliseum. Dawson and Kansas City, however, had pasted Buffalo a couple weeks earlier, earning the right to be humbled by Vince Lombardi's Packers.
By 1970, the Bills were an also-ran and Kemp was a has-been. He decided to retire. Now, at this point in his life, he could have gone in any number of directions. With his good looks and erudite manner, broadcasting would have come naturally. He was a charismatic leader who could have been a good coach. He was not a genius intellect, but he was smart enough to have made it through law school if he had chosen to do so. He could have returned to California, or gone into business.
Instead, Kemp decided to enter politics. This is where his "misfortune" in getting picked up by Buffalo, which had become a blessing in disguise, now became an enormous opportunity. Maybe, if he had decided to run for Congress in San Diego, or his home town of Los Angeles, the seat would not have been open, or the voters not in touch with his brand of politics. 1970 was a pivotal year in American history. Mired in the Vietnam War, campuses aflame in protest, rights being demanded by blacks, Chicanos, gays, and women, Republican President Richard Nixon appeared, at first glance, to be in trouble with the electorate.
Kemp was a natural Republican, but not a country club conservative. He understood the innate sense that people should be held accountable for their actions, that free market economics is the best policy, and that through hard work people can empower themselves. Having grown up in what was already a diverse place, the Fairfax section of LA, and after spending years playing alongside black athletes, Kemp was also very much a Lincoln Republican who wanted to espouse the views that had propelled the party in the first place.
"I told the people that if they didn't re-elect me, I'd come back as quarterback of the Bills," he quipped.
Nixon and the GOP still had a following, and they were called the Silent Majority. Sides were being chosen. Vice President Spiro Agnew accosted the "liberal press" as the "Nattering Nabobs of the left." Buffalo, in Western New York state, was an inherently conservative place, as opposed to the wildly leftist politics of New York City (which Hillary Rodham Clinton will discover this fall). It was the perfect place for football hero Jack F. Kemp (JFK).
Four years later, however, being a Republican during the Watergate scandal was no advantage anywhere. It was during this election that Kemp's honest call for racial empowerment through economic opportunity rang true with Buffalo voters.
"In football, the enemy had numbers on and were out in front, where you could see them," he said. "That's not always true in politics. Pro football gave me a good sense of perspective to enter politics. I'd already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy."
Over the next six to eight years, Kemp positioned himself as a laizzez faire economic thinker. When the Democrats' fiscal program failed under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan was looking for somebody to take his case before the people, Kemp became a rising star in the Republican Party. Throughout Reagan's spectacularly successful Presidency in the 1980s, Kemp was his front man, one of his spokesmen, an articulator of the "trickle-down theory," who could explain it in layman's terms.
In 1988 Kemp went for the brass ring, but came up short. He retired from Congress, and still had enough juice to be Bob Dole's running mate in 1996. Dole called him an "American original," but the campaign was dogged by mistakes. The result: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
At this point, Kemp is past his political prime. He makes good money speaking, motivating, teaching, and writing. His quixotic White House run might now be viewed in the same way as William Jennings Bryan's failed Presidential efforts at the end of the last century. Kemp will be with us for a good long time as an elder spokesman, but he will have to live with the fact that he never reached the Super Bowl of football or politics.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism