Monday, 4 May 2009


My obit of Jack Kemp is in today's Guardian, you can find it here. As with the Indy's Doc Blanchard piece, his sporting career was of less interest than other facets of his life to a British audience , though in Kemp's case I thought it was particularly instructive, in that he was an unfancied quarterback leading teams in an unfancied league. I made a mistake while I was trimming it: Kemp was cut by only four NFL teams, not five (!). He was actually on the taxi squad of the New York Giants when they lost the NFL title game to the Colts in 1958; the so-called greatest football game ever played.

The two salient points cut from my precis of his football career were , first, that after taking Sid Gillman's Chargers to two title games in the league's first two years, Kemp broke a finger in his throwing hand. Gillman, who had John Hadl in waiting --just as the Bills would have Darryl Lamonica behind him-- tried to hide Kemp on waivers, but the Bills (and two other teams) claimed him, and he went to Buffalo for the $100 waiver fee, a supply-side bargain by any standards. The other was that he was arguably the AFL's most successful quarterback (Len Dawson is usually picked as the league's best, or Joe Namath, who benefits from his image and the big win over the Colts in Super Bowl III) not because he played in all ten AFL seasons but because he took six teams to title games, and won twice. I love the image of him, at the right, with the single-bar helmet, no chin strap, throwing from a leap like a prototype Doug Flutie, though Jeff Garcia might be a closer comparison. Kemp was very much like Flutie; although he was undersized, his arm was actually very strong, and he could throw just as well on the run as from the set. His persistent shoulder injuries probably had something to do with that.

I mentioned he co-founded the AFL players' union, which came about as a direct result of the boycott of the 1965 All-Star game when the players were subjected to segregated facilities in New Orleans. Kemp's Buffalo teammate Cookie Gilchrist was one of the boycott's leaders, with Kemp's support, and it got the game moved to Houston. Ironically, his ex-Charger teammate Keith Lincoln stole the show at the game itself, shortly after the Bills had beaten the Chargers (by then in San Diego) for the AFL championship.

Kemp also intervened with Gilchrist earlier in the season. Cookie bristled under coach Lou Saban, not necessarily the most flexible of guys (nor in fairness was Cookie) and in one game, incensed he'd had only five carries in the first half, he took himself out a game and told Willie Ross to go in. Saban put him on waivers, and, as had happened with Kemp, three teams claimed him for $100. But before the waivers expired, Kemp talked Gilchrist into apologising to the team, if not Saban directly, and he was reinstated. Cookie gained 122 yards in that '64 AFL title game, which the Bills won. After the All-Star game, Saban traded him to Denver for Billy Joe.

I'd written that Gerry Ford and Bill Bradley were among the sportsmen who went into American politics, though Ford didn't play pro football, he was a college All-American. NFL star Whizzer White and baseball pitchers Vinegar Bend Mizzell and Jim Bunning were others who preceded Kemp. Steve Largent, JC Watts, Heath Shuler and former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne were football figures who followed him to Congress, all of them conservatives. Athletes in general tend to believe in individual achievement, even when they come from team sports. They usually emphasize their own hard work over their God-given abilities. Kemp (and Largent) were both examples of players making the most of limited physical talents, but the bigger picture, of the NFL as a monopoly, and its ultimate success as a revenue-sharing socialist collective never seems to sink in with them.

Kemp, by the way, served in the Army reserve while pursuing his NFL and CFL career; it wasn't until he was established in the AFL he was called up for active duty, and ruled unfit due to that injured shoulder. Ron Mix told how Kemp would often have multiple shots to the shoulder before games, to allow him to play, and throw; that he could play pro football but be unfit for the Army is another small irony.

Politically, I would have liked to examine the paradox of the way in which Kemp's fairly liberal social positions were contradicted by the easily perceptible effects of his policies. Like many conservative ideologues he seemed able to relate policies to personal experience, but unable to project beyond his own experience. Even Dick Cheney takes an enlightened view, for example, on gay rights; his daughter's experience runs contrary to his ideology, but though it affects his personal conduct, it doesn't change his ideology. I'd call that a lack of wide empathy. I also thought the link between Reagan (and Thatcher) economics and the current financial crisis is straightforward and obvious, though listening to 'Lord' Saatchi discussing the thirtieth anniversary of Thatcher's ascencsion on the Today programme, one wonders if it isn't straightforward at all to the presenters asking the questions.

It was also interesting that Kemp wasn't chosen as Bush's running mate in 1988; he would have been a stronger candidate than Quayle, but Bush never agreed with Kemp and Reagan's 'voodoo economics' and also likely did not want a potential usurper operating as VP. Hence the appointment to HUD, a thankless and almost invisible job. It's to Kemp's credit that he left Congress and took that post, and shows that he was, indeed, a true believer.

There's a nice piece by Greg Easterbrook in the Sunday New York Times; he grew up in Buffalo idolising Kemp, then coached some of Kemp's grandchildren (he had 17!) in pee-wee football. It's funny to read about Kemp putting his arm around the right-wing columnist and calling him a 'socialist' because he voted for Obama, and detailing all the ways the country would be ruined by Obama's socialism.

And finally, I did find it intriguing that his two sons both were pro QBs; Jeff went to Dartmouth and then 10 years in the NFL, despite, like his father, having limited natural ability. Jim played nine years in the CFL.

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