"Sports teach positive lessons that enrich America even while revealing its flaws."
We live in an age when, too often, rules are scorned; values are turned upside down; principles are replaced by expediency; and character has been sacrificed for popularity. Individual athletes sometimes are the worst offenders, but not as often as one might think. That is because sports teach important moral lessons athletes can apply on and off the playing field.
Many people dream of being a professional athlete. For me, the dream seemed to be within reach because my father, Jack Kemp, an outstanding quarterback, played for the American Football League's Buffalo Bills (prior to the AFL's 1970 merger with the National Football League). The trouble was, I was not very good! I was a third-string football player through most of junior high and high school and for two years at Dartmouth College. I was not anyone's idea of a "hot prospect." After graduation, I was passed over by NFL scouts. When I finally was asked to join the Los Angeles Rams in 1981 as a free agent, I was designated as fifth-string quarterback.
Humility. It was a 50-to-1 shot that I would survive training camp. Rookies were the only players required to show up for the first week of camp. There were dozens competing for the few spots open on the team.
After two days, a young boy approached me as I was walking off the field. He asked if he could carry my helmet to the locker room. It was a long way, but I said, "Sure, I think you can handle that." The next morning, he showed up before practice and offered to carry my helmet and shoulder pads, and he was there again after practice offering the same service. So it went for the rest of the week.
On the last day, as we were departing the field, my young assistant said, "Jeff, can I ask you a question?" (We were on a first-name basis by then.) I thought, "This is my first fan! He is going to ask me for an autograph." He then inquired, "When do the good football players come to camp?" Right then and there, I learned a lesson in humility from a seven-year-old boy.
In my first three NFL seasons, I was forced to learn the same lesson over and over again. During that time, I threw just 31 passes. Nevertheless, by 1984, I had managed to outlast the five NFL quarterbacks who had been ahead of me. With the Rams' record standing at 1-2, I took over for injured quarterback Vince Ferragamo and earned my first start against the Cincinnati Bengals, eventually leading the Rams to nine more victories and a playoff berth.
The next season, I returned to the bench as a backup quarterback. Humility, I was compelled to remind myself, was a good thing. It helped me appreciate what I had and avoid dwelling on what I did not have. It prevented complaining, which drains the spirit and unity of any group. It also led me to persevere and be ready whenever opportunity presented itself.
In 1986, I was traded to the San Francisco 49ers as a backup for Joe Montana. While he was sidelined with a back injury, I was called upon to take over the offense. We won against the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, and Indianapolis Colts, primarily because wide receiver Jerry Rice reached the end zone with a number of my touchdown passes. As soon as Montana recovered, however, I was again relegated to the bench. At about the same time, I received a fan letter that read:
"As Joe Montana returns, you'll probably feel like you were shoveled off to the side. Well, just remember, Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. You should feel lucky to have even played on his team."
The author of the letter sang Montana's praises for another full paragraph and then closed with a real zinger: "P.S. You are not as bad as some people might say." With fans like this, I never had to worry that my head would grow too big for my helmet.