Jim Kelly opted long ago not to run for office, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing a little political football. There’s a television commercial flooding the airwaves and the internet showing the beloved Buffalo Bills quarterback throwing his support behind Democrat Chuck Schumer, the senior U.S. senator from New York who’s up for re-election. Jimbo praises Schumer for his role in helping the Bills franchise stay put. He even refers to Schumer as his favorite Bill of all-time.
It’s not the first time a Bills quarterback has entered the political arena. After guiding Buffalo to consecutive American Football League championships in the mid-1960s, Jack Kemp decided to go from running for daylight to running for Congress. He wound up winning nine terms in the House of Representatives and later joined President Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet before embarking on an unsuccessful bid as Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election.
Kemp’s post-football career path didn’t surprise his onetime boss and former teammates. They truly believed his journey would take him all the way from War Memorial Stadium, aka The Rockpile, to the White House.
Kemp, who died in 2009, told me that playing quarterback for demanding fans, who occasionally called for him to be replaced by backup Daryle Lamonica, prepared him well for his career as a congressman and secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Pro football gave me a good perspective when I entered the political arena,’’ he said. “I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hanged in effigy.”
Kemp learned in a snap that politics, like football, is extremely competitive and often dirty. He believed skin as thick as a football helmet was a prerequisite. However, given the combative, no-holds-barred, repugnant nature of the current campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a football helmet might not provide adequate protection. Each candidate may have been better suited wearing the head-to-toe armor of a hockey goalie to ward off the barrage of verbal pucks they’ve peppered at one another.
“In both sports and politics, you better be resilient,’’ Kemp advised. “You better be able to take a hit and you better have a lot of endurance.’’
Gerald Ford would have seconded that emotion. The 38th president of the United States was an All-American football player at the University of Michigan, prompting one of Lyndon Johnson’s most cruel put-downs. Commenting on Ford’s voting record in Congress, LBJ quipped: “I think Gerry played too many games without his football helmet.”
This campaign reminds me a little of a WWE battle royal, so we may have been better served with someone like Jesse Ventura to moderate the debates. He was, after all, a former professional wrestler. Nicknamed “The Body,” Ventura climbed out of the ring to become “The Governing Body” as governor of Minnesota.
Our democracy has long been a jockocracy, with the White House under the influence of jocks for more than a century. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman and boxer. Dwight D. Eisenhower played college football for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was once bowled over by the immortal Jim Thorpe. Ike later became obsessed with golf, starting a tradition of linking presidents to the links.
Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, broadcast radio re-creations of minor-league baseball games in his 20s, and later starred in several movies, including one about dying Notre Dame football legend George Gipp. Hence, the origin of Reagan’s nickname, “the Gipper.” John F. Kennedy was an accomplished sailor and joined his brothers Teddy and Bobby in many spirited touch football games at the family complex on Cape Cod.
George H.W. Bush was captain of the Yale University baseball team that competed in the first two College World Series. His son, George W. Bush, became owner of the Texas Rangers and was credited with procuring a new ballpark and ridiculed for trading away slugger Sammy Sosa. Barack Obama has been a hoops junkie since his high school days in Hawaii when his propensity for chucking up long shots earned him the nickname “Barry O’Bomber.”
Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning took a path similar to Kemp’s, winning 224 games for the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers and several elections as a Republican congressman from Kentucky. Bill Bradley helped the New York Knicks win two NBA titles before becoming a Democratic senator and presidential candidate from New Jersey. A beanball in his first season of minor league baseball convinced Mario Cuomo that politics was saner than facing 95 mph fastballs.
Clinton has been riding a political and sports high of late. She is ahead in most of the polls and her childhood team, the Chicago Cubs, looks as if it might snap its 108-year-old World Series championship famine.
Meanwhile, Trump is attempting to avoid what happened to him in his two pro football campaigns. His bold move to sue the National Football League in the mid-1980s when he was owner of the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League backfired. But it turned out to be a blessing for Bills fans because after the courts awarded Trump and his fellow USFL owners a grand total of $3 in damages the upstart league went belly-up, freeing Buffalo to sign Kelly.
Trump also was a runner-up in his bid to purchase the Bills after Wilson’s death, losing out to Terry and Kim Pegula.
The stadium lease deal that Wilson and politicians like Schumer hammered out made it cost prohibitive for any new owner to uproot the team. And that’s why Kelly decided to stump for the senator. But that’s as political as he wants to get. Kelly is quite content endorsing a candidate rather than being one.
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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