Fairview’s Mariano Kemp comes from a family built on football.
“Football means a great deal to me,” Kemp, a senior, said this week. “Having my whole family revolve around it, it definitely means a great deal to me. Growing up, I didn’t have a basketball. I had a football in my hands. I wasn’t watching anything but football. It’s been ingrained in our family.”
Kemp is the grandson of three-time state champion coach Sam Pagano. He’s the nephew of both Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and Raiders assistant coach John Pagano, and the brother of current University of Michigan defensive end Carlo Kemp.
“I think he’s been motivated a lot by his uncles and me or his father. Probably the main one is watching a peer like Carlo and being on the same team,” Sam Pagano said. “He’s worked very hard. I think he’s taken it on with great enthusiasm and with a great attitude. He’s taken on being a leader. Getting out in front in drills, hustling from drill to drill, and leading by example.”
Most of all, Mariano Kemp is, well, Mariano Kemp. And he’s making a name for himself on the football field.
“It’s definitely been tough to make people call you by your first name, and not Sam’s grandson, or Carlo’s little brother or Chuck and John’s nephew,” Kemp said. “I think I’m doing a pretty good job of making a name for myself and showing people that there’s more than one Kemp in the family.”
This season, Kemp is averaging 7.4 yards per carry and has amassed nine touchdowns to go with three 100-plus yard games. He’s tearing up opposing defenses with a unique skillset.
“I’m 245 pounds. That’s not really a typical running back weight,” Kemp said. “That’s something unique about me is that I have 20-plus, maybe 30 pounds on other running backs, but I have the same speed as them. I have the ability to cut and truck at the same time.”
Added Kemp: “The first thing that goes through my mind is always, ‘Let’s take this first one to the house, let’s start the game off right.’ That’s always my mentality.”
After dealing with a high ankle sprain last year, Kemp went to work in the offseason and is seeing the results. He’s averaging 139.3 yards per game — the fifth-most in Class 5A.
“I came back week one, but I really wasn’t healthy until probably about week five,” Kemp said. “Those first four games were really tough for me. What I wanted to focus on going into this season was to make a name for myself. I cut weight, I worked on my cuts, I worked on everything — down to the last detail — on my craft.
“It’s definitely paid off, and I’m really happy with how my performance is going, but we have to improve every week.”
From when Kemp was working on that craft as a kid, he’s been a running back. He’s always had the speed and quick feet.
“He’s always had great feet,” Pagano said. “When they were little, we’d go out and work on drills, and his feet were always quick. I always said he’d be a running back.”
Kemp has to work extra hard to get out of the shadow of his prolific family, and he’s on pace this season to do just that.
“The fact that my uncles are still currently coaching, it’s definitely a big thing in our family, just how everything revolves around it,” Kemp said. “It’s definitely been tough having Chuck and John who have reached their height of their profession. There’s nothing above that. With my grandpa winning three state titles at Fairview and winning championships overseas, then having Carlo — who was the number one player in the state — it hasn’t been easy.”
But, that’s not to say Kemp isn’t proud of his roots.
“There’s a lot I would say that I play for, but I’d say I play for my brother,” Kemp said. “He’s been such a great inspiration to me on and off the field. My original number was 42, but I switched to 5 for him. I wanted to show him what a great deal he means to me.
“Every time I step onto that field, I play for a lot, but mostly him.”
What the football tradition of his family has given Kemp is a knowledge of the game, an appreciation and a love for it.
“An average lifespan is around 80 years, and if I’m lucky, I could play until I’m 20,” Kemp said. “There’s a lot you have to look at. What they’ve taught me is you have to have a passion and love for the game. When I’m older, this isn’t something I can do.
“With basketball, you can pick up five buddies and go to the court and start shooting. With football, it’s not like you can get 20 other guys to strap on some pads and play full contact.”
And he’s making the most of his time. Kemp plays defensive end, like his brother, and occasionally at linebacker on some series.
“Carlo has set great values for me. Just to always strive to be the best in whatever you may do,” Kemp said. “Always give 110-percent effort. Even if you’re not taking a rep, always take a mental rep. He’s definitely opened up a lot of doors for me as far as recruiting. He’s taught me so much from how to get a school interested, what they look for, what I need to improve on.
“Even after his games, he’s texting me and watching my Hudl, saying, ‘On this play, you should have cut back.’ Stuff like that. He’s been such a great help, and he still is continuing to help me.”
When Kemp is in the backfield, he seems like he’s playing from a different headspace than his opponents. Not too high, not too low, just ready to get to work.
“I don’t want to build up any anxiety or stuff like that, so I’m definitely calm and collected before a snap. What you see on the football field is my mentality off it. Walking onto the field, I’m calm and collected. That’s something I carry on and off the field.”
That mentality is working as Kemp and No. 7 Fairview have cruised to a 4-0 start. The Knights have outscored opponents 187-40 in those four games.