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Kemp's legacy providing political path for athletes

Posted Mar 7, 2011

Jack Kemp was a leader and two-time AFL champion as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. He also blazed a trail successfully transitioning from a career in football to a career in politics. That’s something now under the direction of his son Jimmy Kemp that the recently established Kemp Foundation intends to provide in addition to other initiatives set forth under its mission.

When the former Bills quarterback fell ill with cancer a couple of years ago, it prompted many of Kemp’s closest political friends and constituents to act, including his son, ultimately leading to the formation of the Kemp Foundation.

“Dad had started the process by sending his papers in 400 boxes from his political career to a university out in California where he’s from,” said Kemp. “The university had talked about putting a Kemp Institute together, but it never took off and the fundraising was challenging. Then dad got sick and a bunch of people wanted to help him out.”

Jimmy’s father also asked his son to get involved to ensure that his papers were taken care of properly.

“His papers are what he cared about,” said Kemp. “I couldn’t do anything about his cancer, but I could take care of his request. So I got involved and realized there wasn’t any real vision for his papers and what his legacy would be.”

Working through several different political channels in Washington D.C., Kemp discovered that the Library of Congress would be willing to take his father’s papers.

“They would put them in the manuscript division alongside the papers of all of our presidents up until the early 20th century,” Kemp said. “After that time the presidents had their own libraries, but the Library of Congress doesn’t usually take the papers of recent congressmen. So this was really a unique opportunity and they recognized his national role in presidential administrations and just his stature as a national figure having run for president and being the HUD secretary. So they took his papers shortly after he passed away.”

Kemp’s son however, wanted to take it a step further. Inspired by former Bill Brad Butler’s interest in politics having served as an intern one offseason at his father’s political consulting firm, Jimmy Kemp believed there were other ways his father’s legacy could serve a purpose today.

“I thought we could create something in Washington D.C.,” Kemp said. “Brad came down and interned with us and I thought there’s a program right there. We can develop leaders coming out of professional sports that are interested in public policy and potentially public service. It all kind of came together where we created a foundation and we opened up in September of 2009 and we’ve got three program areas.”

The first is the Kemp Legacy Project, which was formally launched last Friday with the Kemp Oral History symposium held at Ralph Wilson Stadium where a panel of his former Bills teammates chronicled his playing days as a leader and quarterback. It was followed by a reflection on his political career to effectively put a stamp on his place in the history of Buffalo and the United States.

The footage of last week’s symposium, which was sponsored by the Buffalo Bills and the Jack Kemp Foundation, will be housed at the Library of Congress as part of the Kemp Collection.

The second arm of the Kemp Foundation is the Kemp Leadership Academy, which is the resource in Washington D.C. for current and former professional athletes who are interested in public policy and public service. The final component is the Kemp Forum, which is a debate-based discussion series providing a platform for the simple competition of ideas.

The Kemp Leadership Academy is what ultimately spawned the Foundation and according to Kemp’s son is drawing a lot of interest already.

“There is a lot of demand from not just football players, but from other athletes as well,” said Kemp. “I’ve got Senator Bill Bradley and Congressmen Steve Largent and J.C. Watts on our advisory board. I’m working with universities in the D.C. area to build our curriculum. We’ve already worked with a former pro tennis player. He’s our first student or beta-test so to speak.”

The junior Kemp sees their work as an incredible opportunity to help transition professional athletes interested in politics into that arena, much like his father did 40 years ago. And much like his father did, Jimmy Kemp is providing an avenue for others to succeed.

“He was always on the lookout for his teammates,” said Booker Edgerson a former teammate of Kemp. “Whether it was the social issues in the 60’s or business opportunities for us.”

Kemp always had personal plans for a political future, but as the first President of the AFL Players Association already was formulating the means for his fellow players to succeed after their playing careers were over.

“He had a program he wanted for the players back then called C.A.P. which stood for Career Adjustment Pay,” said former teammate Ed Rutkowski. “So when players retired from professional football and moved to the private sector they had transition pay.”

The plan was to have a short-term transitional pension on a sliding scale, providing retired players enough time to further their education or successfully transition into the regular working world knowing the rest of their private sector peers had a head start.

“It was a transitional situation he thought had to be addressed,” said Rutkowski.

Now Rutkowski is assisting Kemp’s son with the Kemp Leadership Academy.

“When dad was playing for the Bills and he made his strongest connections and relationships with the community, he was exposed to a broader world,” said Kemp. “Football gave him an opportunity to meet folks from all different walks of life. And it gave him a platform from which he could write columns in newspapers and think about bigger ideas as opposed to having a job where you had to stay myopic and focused. Its dad’s path that blazed a trail, and now we’re trying to keep that trail open for athletes that want to travel the same path.”

“I think it’s critical for the Kemp Foundation to be doing that,” said Rutkowski. “There are a lot of professional athletes that want to be involved in the politicial process and the Kemp Foundation is going to be a way for them to learn about how to do that in a rational and dignified manner.”