From the field to the hill, Jack Kemp ’57


Author: Dylan Bordonaro

On a typical fall Saturday evening, Occidental students trickle into Jack Kemp Stadium to watch the Tigers take on their SCIAC foes on the gridiron. Many of them are unfamiliar with the stadium’s namesake, yet Jack Kemp is easily the most influential graduate Occidental has ever produced. Teeming with intellectual curiosity, Kemp constantly challenged himself and everyone around him.

Kemp came to Occidental to study and play football in 1953. Although he played various positions on the team, he excelled at quarterback and threw for over 1,100 yards in his final season at Occidental, leading all small colleges that year.

Kemp, who married his college sweetheart Joanne Main ’58 the following year, was drafted in the 17th round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. A mere 6’1” and 200 pounds, he was notoriously small and struggled to find a permanent home on an NFL roster. Eventually, in 1960, the Los Angeles Chargers of the newly-formed AFL gave him a chance.

Kemp led the Chargers to back-to-back AFL Championship games in 1960 and 1961, losing both contests to the Houston Oilers. The next season, following a finger injury, he was claimed off waivers for a paltry fee of $100 by the Buffalo Bills, where he played eight seasons, won two AFL Championships and was the 1965 AFL MVP.

Kemp had a remarkable career as a professional quarterback. Jim Mora ’57, former coach of the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts and Kemp’s good friend, spoke of his determination.

“At that time and even now, for a player from a small school like Oxy, the chances of making in the pros are almost nil,” he said. “That’s just the way it is … but Jack always had a strong desire to play pro ball, and the drive and the confidence to do it.”

After retiring from football, Kemp was finally able to commit himself to his other passion: politics. He was active in politics during his tenure with the Bills, working on Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 and Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in 1966, but was finally ready to take it on full-time in 1970.

Capitalizing on his popularity in Buffalo, Kemp was elected to the House of Representatives in 1971. However, his political prowess should not be diminished by his popularity as a quarterback. Kemp, who considered himself a “bleeding-heart conservative,” took over a traditionally democratic district outside of Buffalo, where he served until 1989.

In 1978, Kemp rose to prominence in the Republican Party by advocating for dramatic tax cuts, a part of economic policy that launched Ronald Reagan into the White House two years later. Kemp himself led an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988 and was also the party’s candidate for vice president alongside Bob Dole in 1996.

A Republican heavyweight, Kemp advocated for much more than conservative fiscal policy. He fancied himself a committed Lincoln republican, and, following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Kemp challenged the GOP to examine their approach.

“The party of Lincoln needs to rethink and revisit its historic roots as a party of emancipation, liberation, civil rights and equality of opportunity for all,” he wrote.

Following Kemp’s death the following year, President Obama spoke very highly of his efforts, as did Occidental President Jonathan Veitch when a new statue honoring Kemp at Patterson Field was unveiled in 2011.

“[We] also honor Jack Kemp because … [we are] committed to the full range of political opinion … We believe strongly that you cannot know your own mind unless you are exposed to ideas from across the political spectrum,” Veitch said.

Jack Kemp, for his contributions both on the field and on the hill, should continue to be cherished at Occidental by generations of athletes and activists to come.

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