Kemp was the mouse that roared

May, 3, 2009
5/03/09
9:30
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

As a rookie linebacker at Los Angeles Chargers training camp in 1960, Paul Maguire assumed he would be in for all sorts of unusual experiences.

One of the first times Maguire crouched into his stance, he couldn't believe his ears.

"He was calling signals and his voice was so high I thought 'This has got to be a joke.' And then I saw him throw," said Maguire, whose voice turned into a low, rumbling chuckle. "I said 'His voice can be as high as he wants it to be.' "

 
  Lou Witt/Getty Images
  Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp, who led the Bills to two AFL championships, died on Saturday.
Maguire was referring to Jack Kemp, a vagabond quarterback who'd been cut by four NFL teams and failed to stick with the Canadian Football League, but whose determination and screaming ambition would make him one of America's strongest voices.

"Whatever he decided he was going to do was done," Maguire said.

After years of taxi squads and pink slips, Kemp proved himself a winner and a leader. He guided the Buffalo Bills to AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and became one our nation's most influential Republicans. He served nine terms in Congress, was a member of George H.W. Bush's cabinet and was a vice-presidential candidate.

Kemp died Saturday at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 73.

"He was a terrific guy, a special friend, a special person," said Kemp's roommate at Occidental College, former NFL coach Jim Mora. "I'm pretty saddened by this."

Kemp's office released a statement in January that confirmed Kemp had cancer. Those close to him knew it was terminal.

A couple weeks ago, Mora and another Occidental roommate, NFL umpire Ron Botchan, dropped by for a weekend visit to see their old college buddy.

"It was tough because he was struggling," Mora said by phone Sunday from Palm Desert, Calif. "It wasn't the Jack that I was used to, outgoing, take charge, center of attention, dominate the conversation. That's how Jack was.

"When we saw him, he was very quiet. He couldn't talk well because he'd had radiation that affected his vocal cords. It was almost a whisper when he talked."

Mora met Kemp in 1959 at the tiny liberal-arts college in Los Angeles. Mora's first impression was that Kemp was half nuts.

"Not many guys get drafted in football out of Occidental," Mora said. "He always had a belief that he could play professional football.

"Back in those days, the early '50s, guys didn't lift a lot of weights, especially quarterbacks. But Jack was so dedicated -- a quarterback at a small school who didn't even start until his junior year -- that he's down there pumping weights four days a week.

"He was so dedicated with really not much of a chance in most people's eyes. That was an indication of what kind of person he was."

The Detroit Lions drafted Kemp in the 17th round of the 1957 draft. He didn't make the team and subsequently was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. He managed to play four NFL games with zero starts his first three years out of college. He played one game with the Calgary Stampeders before they cut him, too.

When Maguire crossed paths with Kemp in 1960, both were trying to make it in the new AFL.

Maguire was just starting out. Kemp was refusing to give up, his mousey voice crying out for a genuine opportunity.

"We used to tease him about that all the time: 'What the hell kind of voice was that for a quarterback?' " Maguire said from his home in Isle of Palms, S.C. "He would try to make his voice deeper, and we would say 'You can't. Just play deeper,' which he did."

They both made the Chargers' roster that year and were teammates when the Bills won their AFL titles. Maguire had settled in as a punter.

Kemp finished his career with Buffalo in 1969. Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback to start in modern pro football, was in his first year with Buffalo and made a friend for life.

"He was a great, great, great man," Briscoe said Sunday from his home in Long Beach, Calif. "He was the kind of guy you could rely on. What you saw is what you got.

"Jack was always up front with you, no pretentious air about him. You knew when you talked to Jack, whatever came out of his mouth was what he meant.

"I love the guy."

Briscoe's football career might have withered on the vine if not for Kemp.

Much to Briscoe's chagrin, the football establishment already decided he wasn't a good enough quarterback and wanted him to try receiver. He agreed to the switch when he signed with Buffalo, but wasn't getting on the field that preseason.

"I was getting cut," said Briscoe, who was Kemp's roommate that preseason. "We were in San Diego and there was 10 minutes left, and they put me in the game.

"I got in the huddle and Jack said 'I'm coming to you.' He threw me about six or seven balls. I ended up being the leading receiver because of Jack Kemp throwing me the ball. I made the team, and the rest was history."

Briscoe had a fine NFL career. He was Buffalo's MVP in 1970 and won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. He played on Miami's undefeated 1972 squad and was the leading receiver in 1973.

"It could not have happened if Jack hadn't had confidence in me," Briscoe said. "There was no way in the world I would have made the team if it wasn't for Jack Kemp."

Kemp's legacy would extend far beyond football. Mora sensed bold ambitions years earlier at Occidental -- even though they were physical education majors.

"When I was reading Sport magazine, he was reading U.S. News & World Report," Mora said. "I didn't even know what the heck that magazine was. I knew we were going to go different paths."

As if being the star quarterback in a football-mad town wasn't enough to qualify him as royalty, Kemp remained in the Buffalo area, serving nine terms in Congress.

President George H.W. Bush named him secretary of housing and urban development. He was Bob Dole's vice-presidential selection in 1996.

"He never said this to me, but I always thought that Jack's aspirations were the presidency and not the vice presidency," said Maguire, who lived in Western New York for 35 years. "If there's ever any disappointment it might have been that because everything that Jack tried to accomplish, he accomplished."

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