Kemp remembered as Bills unquestioned leader
AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. ” Harry Jacobs can still hear the crowd booing loudly at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium as Jack Kemp took the field in place of benched quarterback ” and fan favorite ” Daryle Lamonica.
What made the moment memorable some 45 years later was how Kemp immediately made the booing stop and the cheers start by connecting with Charley Ferguson for a touchdown.
For Jacobs, the former Bills linebacker, that was the first of many examples of the persevering quality that made Kemp an unquestioned leader ” and winner ” on the football field long before he ever became a political player. And it’s a memory Jacobs cherished on Sunday, a day after Kemp died of cancer at his home in Bethesda, Md., at the age of 73.
“He had the ability to come back at times of adversity and make things happen,” Jacobs said Sunday. “He didn’t shrink away from anything. Every challenge he ever saw, he faced up to it. He just kept going.”
Kemp lived on the national stage for most of his adult life, transforming what he learned in sports into a successful political career. That part of his life culminated in 1996, when he was the Republican nominee for vice president in Bob Dole’s losing bid to unseat President Bill Clinton.
In between football and a spot on the Republican presidential ticket, Kemp represented western New York for nine terms in Congress and served a term as President George H.W. Bush’s housing secretary.
Through it all, Kemp exemplified the leadership skills first noticed by his former Bills teammates.
“You never saw fear in his eyes. You always saw confidence. And I saw that in his political career, too,” Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw said. “That’s what made Jack the man he was. His ability to rise to the occasion ” whether it was on the football field or the political field ” and always come up with a solution.”
Kemp was undeterred during an 11-year career in football, which began with him failing to make the rosters of four teams ” even one in the Canadian Football League ” before he landed in Buffalo. By the time he retired in 1969, Kemp led the Bills to consecutive American Football League championships in 1964 and ’65. He continues to hold a special place for a franchise entering its 50th year.
“Jack remains a legendary figure in our team’s history,” the Bills announced in statement. “His many outstanding, unique qualities made him the exemplary role model of leadership for our team and later for our country. While today’s news brings us much sadness, we cherish the many fond memories of Jack.”
Kemp ranks third in most Bills career passing statistics, though his numbers were not exactly eye-popping. He completed less than 47 percent of his attempts and threw fewer touchdowns, 77, than interceptions, 132.
What was impressive was Kemp’s ability to deliver at the most important moments.
“When Jack was in the huddle, they knew that some way he was going to get it done,” said Paul Maguire, the Bills’ former linebacker and punter, and current football broadcaster. “Jack may not have gotten it done for 58 minutes, but you knew the last two, if he had to, it was going to get done. But that was his whole life, if you look at all the things that he did.”
Kemp’s first taste of politics came early in his football career. In 1964, he co-founded the AFL Players Association and was elected president of the union for five terms.
“Jack Kemp was a leader,” newly elected NFL Players’ Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said. “He laid a great foundation for our players to organize their efforts to protect their rights and privileges.”
Smith noted Kemp never forgot his football roots by serving on an NFL/NFLPA committee that addressed health, disability and financial needs for retired players.
Kemp also served as vice president of NFL Charities and was the initial chairman of USA football.
The Bills remained important part of Kemp’s life. He was active in lobbying both team owner Ralph Wilson and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to preserve the small-market team’s long-term future in Buffalo.
“The Bills belong in Buffalo,” Kemp said in 2005. “It’s a great city and it’s proven its loyalty. And now we’ve got to make sure that the Bills are loyal to Buffalo.”
Kemp welcomed even the most daunting challenges.
“He attacked life that way,'” Maguire said, breaking into a laugh at the story of Kemp being booed by Bills fans.
“That takes a lot of backbone,” Maguire said. “You sit at War Memorial Stadium and 41,000 people are booing you, and it’s almost like ‘Thank you very much, that’s exactly what I needed.’ And he did it. Those are the successful people.”