If one truly walked through the annals of Bills history, they’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of an early franchise QB than Jack Kemp. One of the most prominent passers in Bills history, despite playing in one of the earliest eras of Buffalo sports, Kemp played an important role in the popularization of AFL football. Alongside one of his favorite targets and fellow Wall of Famer, Elbert ‘Golden Wheels’ Dubenion, he brought two AFL Championships to the Bills in 1964 and 1965.
Welcome To The NFL?
His career in pro sports actually began a full three seasons before the Bills even existed. Kemp was drafted in 1957 (Round 17, pick 203) by the Detroit Lions, but didn’t make the roster. The Pittsburgh Steelers would sign him as a backup. He appeared in four games, throwing 18 passes for eight completions, 88 yards, two INTs, and zero TDs. He spent time on the “Taxi Squad” (practice squad) for the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers in 1958, which marked the end of his NFL career. His 18 attempts and dismal 19.9 passer rating didn’t bode well for his athletic future.
Kemp’s Career Crossroads
As his professional football career prospects dwindled, his family urged him to give up on his dream and find some direction for his life. As a result, Jack Kemp joined the US Army Reserves. However, he still wanted to play football and knew that he only really had one shot left. During his time with the reserves, he managed to make the roster of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders and played in one game for them. His family drove all the way from California to Calgary to see him play. Unfortunately, he was cut from the roster, and that lone CFL appearance made him ineligible for NFL tryouts that season.
Things looked dimmer than ever, as Jack had now been cut by five teams across both of the continent’s two major football leagues. Despite being urged by his family to just “get on with his life”, Kemp caught wind of a new opportunity.
He signed with the newly-formed AFL in 1960 and things finally worked out. Kemp won the starting job for the Los Angeles Chargers. He put together a dominant season (by AFL standards), taking his team to the championship game before finally bottoming out. But, as always, it was never going to be easy for Kemp.
In August 1961, the Berlin Wall went up and President Kennedy activated Kemp’s reserve unit, the 977th Transportation Company. Kemp was ready to skip out on the season to serve but injured his non-throwing shoulder in September. Both team and independent examiners ruled him unfit for duty. The U.S. Surgeon General reviewed the call, fearing there had been foul play involved but upheld the decision in the end. The break Kemp had been waiting for finally came for him. He finished second in passing yards and made the AFL Championship for the second straight year, despite needing large doses of painkillers before each game.
Further misfortune came for Kemp in 1962 as he broke his middle finger, missing almost the entire season. Supposedly, he asked doctors to “set it around a football” so his grip and release wouldn’t be affected once he’d healed. The Chargers placed Kemp on waivers in order to keep him on the team but save the roster spot, which turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Enter Lou Saban. The new Bills HC understood the need for a franchise QB and believed in Jack Kemp’s potential. So he claimed Kemp off the waiver wire for a measly $100 fee. In doing so, he secured success in Buffalo for almost the entirety of the AFL’s pre-merger run; though he may not have known it at the time. Saban’s efforts to build an offense that facilitated the passing game revolutionized the game of football and differentiated the AFL from the NFL’s ground-and-pound style of play. Kemp worked that system like a charm, leading the Bills to two AFL Championship titles in 1964 and ’65. At the time of his retirement in 1969, he led the league in all-time pass attempts, completions, and passing yards.
A Life After Football
Jack Kemp had a long, distinguished career after football too, unsurprising to those who knew him. He believed every citizen should be involved in the political process, personally volunteering in election season. Kemp served in the New York House of Representatives from 1971-1989. He often voted his conscience and moral compass, even if that conflicted with the party platform.
In 1990, he became a member of President George H. W. Bush’s Cabinet. His most notable work was pushing the $4 billion Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (H.O.P.E.) initiative. The project ultimately failed, receiving far less funding than required to work. However, Kemp believed in homeownership for all Americans and its positive economic impact. He was the Republican nominee for Vice President in 1996 and continued to work in line with his beliefs until his death in 2009.