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Way Back When: A quarterback's path


We all know about the great significance of the quarterback position in pro football.

This week, the Denver Broncos' schedule has them play the Los Angeles Chargers after having just played the Buffalo Bills.

That put me in the state of mind to remember one of the most unusual transactions in pro football history. It involved those two teams and a quarterback, and it changed the course of the American Football League.

Jack Kemp had been a 17th-round draft choice by the Detroit Lions out of tiny Occidental College in Los Angeles. Kemp was promptly cut by the Lions, bounced about a bit and wound up with the Los Angeles Chargers, run by future Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman, the "father of the passing game."

Gillman loved Kemp.

Sometimes there were concerns that Kemp threw the ball too hard. "If our ends can't handle his throws," Gillman once said, "we'll just find some new ends."

Meanwhile, at the opposite side of the country, Lou Saban, future head coach of the Broncos, was coaching the Buffalo Bills. Writers called him "Cool Lou," but he was anything but that. Saban was tough, hard-nosed, uncompromising and fiercely combative.

And Lou needed a quarterback.

It was midway through the 1962 AFL season, and Gillman wanted to add a player to his roster. Kemp had a "broken capsule on the knuckle of his middle finger on his passing hand" at the time.

In that era, the coaches in the AFL generally had a "gentleman's agreement" that if a team made a waiver move on Saturday before a game, no one else would claim the player.

By personality, Lou was disinclined to go along with that.

Sid waived Kemp, and a league employee tipped Lou off that he could absolutely claim Kemp on Saturday. Based on that info and his own competitive nature, Saban and the Bills claimed Jack Kemp for $100.

Now, Kemp had led the Chargers to the AFL title game in both 1960 and 1961, so the printed word fails to describe the rage Gillman had. He appealed, but to no avail. The league basically told Gillman he had botched the paperwork.

By the following Monday, Jack Kemp was a Buffalo Bill and the AFL made its waiver policy more clear.

This was an astonishing development. All Kemp did was lead Buffalo to two AFL titles and a berth for a third.

In his six-and-a-half years in Buffalo, Kemp became an AFL legend. He played in five title games in 10 AFL seasons with the Chargers and Bills, winning two crowns. He won nearly 50 games with the Bills back when they played only a 14-game schedule.

Lou was happy.

Sid won the 1963 AFL title with quarterback Tobin Rote (also a future Bronco), and then he had John Hadl as his signal caller all the way through his final season with the Chargers. Hadl recently finished 12th in an AFL "Call to the Hall" vote in which I participated to highlight deserving and perhaps under-appreciated candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kemp was initially not pleased with his cross-country move, but it grew on the California native.

"It was a shock more than anything else," Kemp said.

He adjusted quickly to playing for Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson and Saban, the legendary coach.

Meanwhile, in Denver, the 1960s were unkind to the Broncos, as has been well documented. Kemp went 12-2 against Denver with both the Chargers and Bills. In terms of negativity for Denver, that record during the decade was exceeded only by the 13-1 record by Hall of Famer Len Dawson with the Dallas/Kansas City franchise.

As for Kemp, in the spring of 1970 that he announced he would run for Congress.

"I had a four-year no-cut contract with the Bills and I figured if I lost, I could come back and still play, either for Buffalo or maybe they'd trade me," Kemp said.

But Kemp won his battle for Congress and went on to a successful political career, even serving a term as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush.

Kemp even had an unsuccessful presidential run himself, becoming the only former pro football player to run for president.

He credited his increased interest in politics from playing quarterback for the Bills on the East Coast, calling his unusual pickup by Buffalo a "blessing in disguise."

This is just one quarterback's tale, and a reminder in retrospect that the AFL and 1960s were fascinating, and that teams need to read the fine print before putting a player like Jack Kemp on waivers.

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