(Jack Kemp photos courtesy Buffalo Bills)
By Ron Borges
Canton, Ohio bills itself as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not the NFL Hall of Fame but the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As such, Jack Kemp seems to be a family member long overlooked.
Kemp is one of only 20 players to have played in the American Football League for the entire 10 years of its existence and the only quarterback to have started each of those seasons. But Kemp did far more than play. In seven of those years, he was named an AFL All-Star as quarterback for the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers and then the Buffalo Bills after having spent two years on taxi squads of the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants.
In five of those 10 years, Kemp led his team to AFL championship games and twice, in 1964 and 1965, the Bills team he quarterbacked won the AFL championship. In the latter of those years he was named both the AFL’s Most Valuable Player and the MVP of the championship game.
A year later, in 1966, he was one victory from taking the Bills into the first Super Bowl, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in his third straight AFL title-game appearance, 31-7.
During those 10 seasons, Kemp set nearly every significant AFL career passing record, being its all-time leader in attempts, completions and passing yardage, and is still ranked 9th all-time in yards per completion at 14.8 yards.
Just as significantly, Kemp rushed for 40 touchdowns, the third highest total of any quarterback in pro football history, trailing only Otto Graham (44), Cam Newton (43) and Steve Young (43).
In addition, the political skills that would later make him a U.S. Congressman for 18 years, a vice-presidential nominee and presidential candidate as well as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development also allowed Kemp to manage what was at times a fractious locker room in Buffalo.
In those days, head coach Lou Saban and star running back Cookie Gilchrist were often at war, Gilchrist at times walking off the field when his number was not called. Kemp managed that situation while also co-founding the AFL Players Association and serving as its president for five terms.
Kemp also was an important voice among AFL players who boycotted the 1965 All-Star Game in New Orleans. Faced with discrimination by cab drivers and others around the city, 21 African-American players led by Gilchrist voted to boycott the game. Kemp had in fact refused to get into a cab that week when Gilchrist and Bills’ wide receiver Ernie Warlick were not allowed to share it with him but told to find a “colored cab.’’
During the boycott meeting, Kemp and his former San Diego teammate Ron Mix, convinced the white players to go along with the black players’ decision to boycott, despite many of them wanting to play and fearing for their football futures if they did not. One day after they left New Orleans, the game was moved by AFL commissioner Joe Foss to Houston. It was the first boycott of a professional game’s host city by players and a significant moment in football history.
Years after his football career was over, Kemp would jokingly say his experiences in the AFL became the foundation of his political successes.
“Pro football gave me a good perspective,’’ Kemp said. “When I entered the political arena, I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy,’’
At some point, it seems, he should also have been invited to Canton for at least a debate, if not his induction, as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the American Football League.