My friend Jack Kemp died this past weekend at 73.
His obituaries list many accomplishments: seven-time all-star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and the American Football League’s most valuable player in 1965. Eight-term congressman from Buffalo, New York, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the 1996 Republican vice-presidential candidate.
As our mutual friend Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard, it’s hard to think of any congressman in recent memory who accomplished more, setting the stage for the Reagan Revolution and economic opportunity for all Americans.
But as remarkable as Jack’s accomplishments were, Jack the man was even more so. He personified all of the classic virtues—temperance, prudence, courage, and justice. But today I want to focus on one especially—courage.
Jack was indomitable. “Too small” to play college football, never mind professional ball. He was cut five times before sticking with the Chargers. He became a star despite often playing hurt. He suffered a dozen concussions over his career, two broken ankles, and a crushed hand.
Courage also marked his life after football. While he didn’t hesitate to describe himself as a conservative Republican, many conservative Republicans were hesitant to call him one of their own. That’s because his sense of justice sometimes put him at odds with his own party.
While much of the party was winning over white Democrats in the South, Jack was embracing civil rights. Whereas many Republicans saw labor unions as the “enemy,” Jack, a co-founder and five-time president of the AFL Players’ Association, fought hard for the interests of working Americans.
Then, in 1994, when the GOP in his native California appealed to fears about illegal immigration, Jack opposed them. That cost him dearly with the national party. Many split ways with him at that point.
Jack might well have been President—and would have been a great one—were it not for two things: He would never compromise his convictions, nor would he attack his opponents. Sadly, it’s hard to resist those things and still get to the White House.
His courage was on display to the very end. During the times I visited him over the last months of his life, I was taken by how he kept his spirit up even as the cancer devastated his body.
Jack was a giant in our midst. He had a heart for the same kind of people Prison Fellowship serves—the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. His wife, Joanne, has been a board member at Prison Fellowship for many years.
He also shared our Christian commitment to human life, telling the New York Times how a personal tragedy made him “more aware of the sanctity of human life, [and] how precious every child is.”
This and more is why Jack’s death is such a great loss to me personally. Joanne and his four beautiful children—all Christians—are in my prayers. How proud of them Jack was. This family’s Christian witness has touched countless lives.
I’ve been humbled by being asked to give the eulogy at the National Cathedral this Friday. What a privilege to celebrate a life so richly lived in service to his Lord and nation. I thank God for my friend, whom I and a grieving nation will sorely miss.