The nicest aspect of doing this series is finding the interesting characters that are often overlooked when discussing the greats of the game. Jack Kemp is best known for playing quarterback for the Buffalo Bills from 1962 – 1969 and that’s only a small part of his amazing life story. After his football career, Kemp entered politics and was a Vice Presidential candidate in 1996.
Kemp was drafted in the 17th round of the 1957 NFL Draft and was not expected to accomplish much in his football life. It did take him some time to make a name for himself. In fact, his football accomplishments happened in the AFL, not the NFL. He won two AFL Championships and in 1965 he was awarded the AFL’s MVP award. He threw for 21,218 yards and 114 touchdowns in his career and is a member of the Buffalo Bills’ Wall of Fame.
Kemp’s political life started before his football career was over. In 1964, he volunteered on Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and in 1966 he volunteered on Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in California. Interestingly, Reagan was a staunch supporter of Goldwater in 1964, so for Kemp to help in Reagan’s 1966 campaign, it was an easy segue.
After retiring from football he ran for Congress and represented a Buffalo suburb from 1971 – 1989. After losing in the primaries to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election, Kemp was named to Bush’s Cabinet as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Finally, in 1996, he was named the Vice Presidential nominee but he and Bob Dole lost the election. One occurrence during the 1996 campaign that people still talk about is the Vice Presidential debate between Kemp and Al Gore. Both were respectful of their counterparts and had a substantive debate.
In his lifetime, Kemp has been associated with some of the most famous people in football and politics. Some of Kemp’s teammates include running back O.J. Simpson, linebacker Marty Schottenheimer, and kicker Pete Gogolak. In the political realm, Kemp interfaced with Presidents Richard Nixon, Reagan, and H.W. Bush; worked alongside Newt Gingrich, Dole, and Trent Lott and had a positive relationship with many across the aisle which helped him accomplish many things for the American people.
Kemp died in January 2009 of cancer. After his death, the Jack Kemp Foundation was created by Kemp’s family to continue advancing and developing leaders who support the “American Idea.” Some of the awardees of the Kemp Leadership Award include Sean Parker, Senator Tim Scott and Dr. James Billington.
It has been said that Kemp was one of the most influential politicians of the 20th Century who was never President, he definitely was an interesting personality and significant enough to make our list.