Decades from now — when younger football fans pore through the Kansas City Chiefs’ statistical records for the last few seasons — Marcus Kemp’s name isn’t likely to jump out at them.
Over the four years since he joined the team as an undrafted free agent out of Hawaii in 2017, he’s appeared in 27 games — starting none of them. During his Kansas City career, the wide receiver has been targeted with just three passes, catching two of them for a total of 18 yards.
But ever since his second season in 2018, the Chiefs have regarded Kemp as one of their key special-teams players. In that sophomore season, he was on the field for 64% of that unit’s plays — the third-most on the team. During the following training camp, he was turning the heads of both fans and analysts. It looked very much as if he might win a significant offensive role in 2019.
Then disaster struck. In the second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he tore both the ACL and MCL in one knee. He spent the team’s championship season on injured reserve. The following March, his contract was allowed to expire. But just under a year ago — as the Chiefs found themselves short-handed and Kemp was fully recovered from his injury — he was re-signed to the team.
“Having him back is great,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid at the time. “He’s a great kid. I’m so glad that he’s back now because he was playing the best football he had ever played since we’d had him here when he got hurt. It was a shame that that happened, and now he’s getting a chance to come back — it looks like he’s worked his tail off.”
Unfortunately for Kemp, the Chiefs were short on roster spots in 2020. He played in just 10 games — in several cases, by being elevated from the practice squad — and getting only 37% of the special-teams snaps. After a late-season stint with the Miami Dolphins, he returned to the Chiefs for the postseason — and played in his first Super Bowl.
Now back for his fifth season with the team, he talked about that experience as he spoke to reporters after Tuesday’s training camp practice in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“It’s a dream, obviously. I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a kid,” he said. “So I enjoy the moment. You learn how tough it is to get there. The game is just a game, really; you’re just playing football. But when you look back on the process it took to get there — and how tough it was to go through the season and then go through the playoffs and then you’re finally there — that’s more what I learned about it: about how tough (and how much work) it really takes to get to that point.”
And now, things have come full circle. Just as in 2019’s training camp, Kemp is turning heads with his play on offense, often with the first team, catching passes from quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“He’s comfortable with me,” said Kemp, “just knowing that I know where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been here for a while, so I know the offense like he knows the offense, so he’s comfortable knowing where I’m going to be. And I’m comfortable — obviously — with him throwing me the ball. It’s more about that he knows if I’m on the field, I’m going to do the right thing — or try to do the right thing — and we’re going to be right together.”
Like any other wide receiver, Kemp would love to make the final roster — and to have a role in Kansas City’s spectacular offense. But he says he’s more concerned about helping the Chiefs succeed.
“Here, it’s more like a family, so we’re all just trying to compete to make each other better,” he explained. “If I do well, it makes Mecole, D-Rob and Tyreek do better as well. So that’s what I’m hoping for: that we can all just do well. And whether I’m here or not, it’ll help them through the season — or me with the season. It’s more about how we can do personally and less about how competitive we can be with each other.”
But even if the only role he can fulfill is on special teams, Kemp says he is all right with that.
“What I knew coming into the league was that it was probably my best opportunity to make the team — and I think for a lot of guys, that’s true. So for me, that’s one of the ways that I can help the team — and whatever I can do to help the Chiefs is what I want to do to stick around.”
And he says he has a clear idea of what it takes to succeed in that phase of the game.
“Effort is probably the biggest part,” he declared. “You don’t have to be the best athlete. You don’t have to be the fastest or strongest out there. You have to be willing to give your all for that one play. You’re not running back — like on offense — to run another play; it’s not first, second or third down. It’s one down. And you have to give it your all on this one down — or something catastrophic can happen. A score can happen if you’re not giving it your total effort — or you can score if you are giving your total effort. So it’s all about being willing to give 100% for one play — throughout the game — and not thinking about what’s going to happen next.”
And even if it turns out that Saturday night’s first preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers is his final game with the team, he said he’s going to enjoy it.
“I think it’s just fun to play football. I haven’t had a ton of reps on offense, so these preseason games are opportunities for me to just go out and play football — like I have been for 20 years at this point. It’s just fun to be out there. I just hope to enjoy it. Any play could be [my] last play, so enjoy every play I’m out there. And just have fun.”