You won't read this in Jeff Kemp's minibiography in the Los Angeles Rams' press book, but I know it had to have happened. Eleven years ago Kemp, who's now the young quarterback of the Rams, made a pact with the Devil. The details aren't clear. Ol' Satan tried to set up the usual package deal—sell me your soul and I'll give you 50 years of whatever—but he settled for much less, a couple of draft choices, maybe, or a player to be named later.
And what he gave the 14-year-old Kemp was a watered-down version of his usual fame-and-fortune program, a strange deal indeed. The story begins this way:
It's November 1969, Shea Stadium, New York City, where the Jets are methodically punishing the Buffalo Bills in a game that will end 16-6 in New York's favor. Chill winds are whipping off Flushing Bay and patches of mud line the field, and in one of them lies Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp, facedown. In the stands is his 10-year-old son, Jeff.
"He lay there for two or three minutes," Jeff recalls. "He'd scrambled down the sideline and run into a linebacker, Larry Grantham, head on. Marlin Briscoe replaced him. Marlin the Magician. He was the only quarterback they had left. He rolled out and threw a 50-yard interception. I kept thinking about my father. To me that's what pro football was all about: lying facedown in the mud."
Small wonder Jeff had no burning desire to invade his father's world of the NFL. "I was never a locker-room rat," he says. "Pro football was just a normal part of our life."
So for three years he stayed away from organized football. Oh, he'd throw a ball around in the park, and there were plenty of pickup games, but nothing serious. In 1970 Jack, who had retired from pro football that year, became a U.S. Congressman from the 31st district of New York. The family moved to Bethesda, Md. The local high school, Winston Churchill, in Potomac, was a power. Football was in the air, and after a while Jeff got the itch.
When he was a ninth-grader, he went out for the Bethesda Boys Club team in the Beltway League. The quarterback was a tough little kid named Chris Bossetti. Jeff was his unhappy backup. One day, when he came home from practice, there was a bearded stranger sitting atop one of the bedposts.
A deal was struck. Jeff could keep his soul, but his entire football career would go like this: Wherever he went, he would never start out as a first-stringer. As many as four people would be ahead of him. There would be moments of despair, of frustration, but gradually the competition would melt away. The agreement was signed...and the next day the Boys Club coach announced that in the interests of the team, Chris would move to linebacker, and the new quarterback would be Jeff.
Two years later Jeff was on the roster of Churchill High. Fred Shepherd, the coach, was assembling a powerhouse. He had a 6'5", 235-pound tackle named Brian Holloway, who would later win All-Pro honors with the New England Patriots; a nifty quarterback named Bobby Keith; and a solid backup, Francis Smith, whose younger brother, Eric, would play for Georgetown's 1982 NCAA basketball finalists. Jeff was the third-stringer as a junior and figured to be second string to Smith as a senior.
"We had a preseason scrimmage with Langley," Shepherd says. "I put Jeff in in the second half. We'd done nothing in the first half, but now, all of a sudden, he was moving that wishbone offense of ours up and down the field. Next day Francis became our free safety and Jeff was the starter."