Watching his son Jeff play football has never been easy for Republican Congressman Jack Kemp. The senior Kemp gets so nervous, reports Jeff’s wife, Stacy, “he’s always rubbing his palms over his knees. I keep thinking he’s going to wear his pants out.” Since Jeff, 25, stepped in at quarterback for injured Los Angeles Rams starter Vince Ferragamo in the third game of this season—after spending three years on the sidelines—Jack’s jitters have worsened. But he swears there will be no repeat of an incident at a 1980 Harvard-Dartmouth game, when Jeff was Dartmouth’s starting quarterback. After a tough first half, the elder Kemp could no longer control his fatherly urges. “Throw a quick out to Shula!” he yelled down to his son at half-time. (David Shula, son of Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, was Jeff’s favorite college receiver.) Jeff looked up at his father and screamed, “Dad, get out of here!” Recalls the elder Kemp, 49, “I admired him for doing that.”
You can’t be too hard on the old man. After all, he knows a thing or two about the game himself. An intense competitor, he spent 13 years as a pro quarterback and led the AFL’s Buffalo Bills to league championships in 1964 and 1965. Now in his seventh term in Congress as a representative from upstate New York, the conservative Kemp is chairman of the House Republican Conference and touted as a presidential contender in 1988. But these days he seems more intent on watching his son guide the Rams into contention for a play-off spot than discussing his political future. “Deep in his heart I know Jeff wants to be first-string quarterback,” says Jack. “I want to see him do well.”
Through the Nov. 18 game with Green Bay, the Rams are 6-3 since Jeff replaced Ferragamo as starter. Kemp spends much of his time handing off to Eric Dickerson, the leading rusher in the NFL. But when he does pass, he seldom lets the ball fall into the wrong hands. His five interceptions are tied for fewest in the league. Prior to this season he had appeared in only one game, and his reported salary, a modest $125,000 (average for an NFL quarterback: $300,000), reflects that inexperience. “I’m a late bloomer,” says Jeff, “but I always knew I’d get my chance.” His success has been a surprise to the Rams. “He has a strong arm and good quickness,” says head coach John Robinson. “Jeff thrives on competition. I believe it is genuinely fun for him.”
Like his father, Jeff is handsome, square-jawed and a conservative thinker. Homespun values of hard work and preparation were drilled into him from childhood: “My father would always say, ‘You’re a Kemp. Be a leader.’ ” The eldest of four, Jeff was born in Santa Ana, Calif. “My father was playing in Canada and didn’t see me until six weeks after I was born,” Jeff says. The Kemps lived in Buffalo when Jack was playing for the Bills and moved to Bethesda, Md. after he was elected to Congress in 1970.
A starting quarterback in high school (“I could always throw a football better than any kid on the block”), Jeff majored in economics at Dartmouth and was a respectable, if hardly spectacular, starter for two of his four years there. His dad admits: “I spent more money going to football games at Dartmouth than I did going to college [at L.A.’s Occidental] in the first place.”
Jeff’s college statistics did not attract many pro scouts. “The Rams were the only team that wanted me,” he says. “The advantage of being my father’s son was that I wasn’t in awe of the NFL.” He and Stacy, 24, live in a town house in Laguna Hills. In the off-season Kemp is studying for an M.B.A. at near-by Pepperdine University and is a jock of all trades—he skis, golfs and plays tennis. And like his father, he gives motivational speeches to business, civic and church groups. “I guess that’s the politician in me,” says Jeff, who has no plans to enter politics. Both Jeff and Stacy, who are nondenominational Christians, are deeply religious. “God obviously wanted us together,” says Stacy. “We feel He had a plan for us.”
The Lord may be their shepherd away from the Rams’ Anaheim Stadium, but it’s coach Robinson who will call the signals for Kemp’s immediate future. Robinson is coy about revealing what will happen when Ferragamo, who broke his hand, is ready to play again this month. Kemp is characteristically philosophical. “If Vince comes back, I will understand that and accept it,” he says. “I’ve done the best that I can.” The indecision over Jeff’s future may be more agonizing to Jack than any election night he has sweated out. “It’s tough being the father of a quarterback,” he says. Maybe even tougher than being one.