Jack Kemp reconnection shows man was a class act

Imagine for a moment how it might have been if one of the four national candidates had addressed an audience in Summerlin during the presidential campaign that concludes Nov. 6.

Regardless of what you are ---- Democrat, Republican or Independent ---- some campaign juice from any of the four could have energized a voter base well into its fondest moments of ecstasy.

And yet that's the way it was on Oct. 16, 1996, the day Jack Kemp came to Sun City Summerlin and spoke for about 40 minutes to more than 500 persons jammed into the Desert Vista Community Center, 10360 Sun City Blvd. They sat in a theater-in-the-round setting, mesmerized by the speaker.

Some of you may ask, who is Jack Kemp? Others may say, oh yeah, I remember him. So let's not tax anybody's memory too hard. Kemp was the Republican nominee for vice president that year, running on a ticket with presidential candidate Bob Dole. His credentials included 18 years in the House of Representatives and four as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Reagan administration.

For the purposes of this column, I neither subscribe to nor endorse any political party or its candidates. The day Kemp came to Sun City had another meaning for me. It represented the rekindling of an acquaintanceship that traveled back in time, back 32 years earlier to a frigid, snow-covered War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.

It was Dec. 26, 1964, and late that afternoon Kemp stood in his football locker room surrounded by an army of sportswriters as he peeled off his shoulder pads. The smile that was always so characteristic of Kemp was as wide as could be. After all, he had just quarterbacked the Buffalo Bills to a 20-7 victory over the San Diego Chargers to win the American Football League championship.

"Winning this game has so much special meaning for me so much special meaning," he emphasized to reporters. I knew what he meant immediately. I was a sportswriter, and I was in Buffalo to cover the AFL championship game for my newspaper at the time, the Newark Star-Ledger. Eighteen months later the AFL merged with the National Football League.

As for the "special meaning," by defeating the Chargers ---- and scoring a touchdown to boot ---- Kemp also beat a team that had given up on him two years earlier, selling his contract to the Buffalo Bills for a mere $100.

I remained in contact with Kemp from time to time, but when he retired from pro football in 1970 and went into politics, coincidentally I moved out of the sports department and into investigative reporting at the Star-Ledger. So you can't begin to imagine how excited I was when I learned Kemp was coming to Sun City on that Wednesday in 1996.

I had retired from the Star-Ledger a year earlier and moved to Las Vegas. I had a new career then. I was a member of the Sun City Security Patrol. And as soon as I heard that my old friend would be speaking at the Desert Vista Community Center, I didn't have to twist too many arms to be assigned to do crowd control. After all, that gave me the opportunity to clear Secret Service, especially during Kemp's news conference that followed his address.

Sure enough, we made contact. And irrespective of his busy campaign schedule, Kemp and I spent several minutes reminiscing in the Desert Vista lobby. Much of the conversation centered on that winter day in 1964 when Kemp, then only 29, played one of the greatest football games of his life, leading the Bills to their first of back-to-back AFL championships.

"Do you still have a copy of the article you wrote on the 1964 game?" he asked.

When I said I did, he told me that one of his two daughters was trying to assemble a scrapbook of his football career, something he had neglected to do. I went home, dug out the article and passed it on to him. Several days later I received a football photo of Kemp in the mail, with a personally inscribed thank you message.

Jack Kemp died at age 73 on May 2, 2009.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His newest novel, "All For Nothing," is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.