Buffalo barely existed on the sports map when Jack Kemp arrived in 1962 with his Johnny Unitas flattop and San Diego tan. The NHL’s Sabres were still nearly a decade away - as were the Braves, the city’s short-lived NBA team. It was a minor league town, Buffalo was, home to Class AAA baseball (the Bisons) and Kemp’s Bills, who scratched out an existence in the 3-year-old American Football League.
It would be an overstatement to say Kemp, who died of cancer Saturday at 73 in Bethesda, made Buffalo big league, but he contributed mightily to the process by quarterbacking the Bills to consecutive AFL titles. And he did this, as the TV broadcasters never tired of pointing out, with his lucky sweat bands snugly around his wrists - no matter how frigid the weather might be at legendary War Memorial Stadium, no matter how wicked a wind might be whipping off Lake Erie.
Joe Namath gave the AFL credibility by leading the Jets to a Super Bowl upset of the NFL’s Colts, but Kemp was part of the construction crew that poured the foundation. Except for a few passes for the Steelers in 1957 and stints on several taxi squads (as practice squads were then known), his pro career essentially spanned the life of the AFL. It began with the Chargers in 1960 and ended with the Bills in ‘69, the last season before the two leagues merged.
For many - me among them - these were the best years of pro football. The rivalry between the NFL and AFL was entertainingly intense, and the junior league’s wide-open offensive style was almost Arena-esque. This was the era of Lance “Bambi” Alworth, San Diego’s balletic receiver, and Charlie “The Human Manhole Cover” Tolar, the Houston Oilers’ 5-foot-6, impossibly low-to-the-ground fullback. It was the heyday of “Wahoo” McDaniel, the Jets’ Native American middle linebacker, and Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, the Chargers’ gargantuan (6-9, 315) defensive tackle.
Just to give you a feel for the period, the New York Titans played the Broncos in Denver one day - the same season, it turns out, that Kemp landed in Buffalo. The Titans scored 46… and the Broncos scored 45.
Jack became a Bill by virtue of one of the greatest gaffes in football history. In 1962, after guiding the Chargers to two championship games, he dislocated the middle finger on his passing hand, and coach-GM Sid Gillman wanted to move him to the injured list to open a spot on the roster. Back then, this could be done only by clearing the player through waivers, where any club could claim him.
Gillman took the gamble, figuring Kemp was damaged goods, but the Bills, in desperate need of a quarterback, pounced. Two years later, they won the first of their back-to-back crowns - beating, in both instances, San Diego in the title game. (Remarkably, this didn’t keep Sid from being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
Actually, those Buffalo clubs in the mid-‘60s were more renowned for their defense, but Kemp was easily the biggest star. When he wasn’t throwing long, arching spirals to Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion, he was handing off to Cookie Gilchrist, a 250-pound freight train, or holding on kicks for Pete Gogolak, pro football’s first soccer-styler.
Opposing teams dreaded coming to War Memorial Stadium - for more reasons than just the Bills. The Chiefs’ Len Dawson considered it “one of the worst stadiums in the world. I don’t know which war had been fought there,” he said in Bob Carroll’s paean to pro football in the ‘60s, “When the Grass Was Real,” “but it must have been an old one. I used to get nauseous there. When you went out of the locker room, you stopped in front of an old coffee-and-hot dog stand to wait for player introductions, and I’ll bet the coffee grounds had been there since the Civil War. The smell made me sick. And the quarterback was always introduced last.”
It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Kemp went into politics. After all, he’d been one of the founders of the AFL Players Association and stood shoulder pad-to-shoulder pad with black players when they refused to play in the 1964 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans because of racist treatment in the city. (The game was moved to Houston.)
John Hadl, one of his roommates in San Diego, said the first time he ever saw Kemp, he was sprawled on his bed “reading a book on Barry Goldwater.” (More than likely, he was reading Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative.”) When Jack retired from the Bills, he capitalized on his local popularity to win a seat in the U.S. House. And later, of course, the ol’ QB ran for vice president on Bob Dole’s ticket and fought for federal housing programs as a member of George H.W. Bush’s cabinet.
“My father came to the ‘60 [AFL] championship game in Houston,” he once said. “My dad sat on the 45-yard line, and the black families had to sit in the roped-off part. Black guys were sitting outside the stadium telling the black athletes not to play. My heart just went out to those guys. They were going to play, but you know they had concerns having their parents sit in a roped-off part of the end zone while my dad was sitting on the 45-yard line. I think about that and what it does to a person’s psyche.”
Kemp never made it to the White House, but he got inside the red zone, you might say. And he really was a heck of a quarterback - No. 15 in your program and one of the handful of athletes who brought off-the-beaten-path Buffalo into the big time.