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Coffin: The Perfect Pass

Just a mile from the Connecticut River, in Hanover, N. H., stands old ivy-covered Memorial Field, where once some of the finest of all collegiate football was played. Dartmouth College still competes well in the Ivy League. In the late 1970s, during my Dartmouth employment, 20,000 fans turned out to see perhaps the best-known passing combination in the country.Quarterback Jeff Kemp, son of congressman and presidential hopeful Jack Kemp, threw to receiver Dave Shula, son of Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula. Both dads sometimes visited Hanover to watch their sons battle Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

Kemp had a rifle arm that would produce a National Football League career. Shula played briefly in the NFL, then became its youngest head coach.

But, oh could Shula catch a pass, once telling me his father threw to him while he ran up the Orange Bowl steps.

As we count down to the Super Bowl once again, I recall a cloudy afternoon on the Dartmouth Green. Still another news outfit, perhaps NBC-TV, had come to film the famous passing combination and, as assistant news director, I was host.

Kemp and Shula appeared on time, but the crew was late. So I imposed on Kemp, wanting to catch a pass from a likely future NFL quarterback.

Now, I’d played some football, once having been an end on an army flag football team. And I continued to play in pickup games. I had some speed, and good hands.

Kemp had a ball and I asked him to throw me a pass. “Sure,” he said, and instructed me to go to the edge of the green. When he said “Hike,” I was to run 50 yards straight ahead to where an old elm tree shaded the green, then cut left. “Be ready,” said Kemp.

So I took off coat and tie, and took position. Kemp shouted, “Hike,” and I saw him drop back as I sprinted down the green. At the tree I cut, and looked back, expecting to see him release the ball. But what I saw was the ball, less than 10 yards away, coming like a rocket. He’d thrown before I turned. Just in time I opened my arms and caught the thing, half in self-defense, never breaking stride.

“Nice catch,” said Kemp.

“Can you do that every time?” I asked.

“Just about,” he said.

“Wow,” I said.

I will think of him later today, when Tom Brady, best passer I’ve ever seen, lets go a missile, deflated or not, point on target, like Jeff Kemp on the Dartmouth green.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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