When John Kemp heard about a chance to win two tickets to pro football’s big game, he stopped vacuuming his living room and busted out a familiar move: He went to his pantry and pulled out a standby can of Hormel® chili. Then he paired the family staple with a dance routine no one had ever seen before.
John, a self-proclaimed “football head,” was responding to a call from Minnesota wide receiver Adam Thielen to enter the Hormel® Chili Dip Dance Contest. According to John, not to mention a bevy of people who know and love him, his entry wasn’t necessarily pretty. Yet, true to form, it came from the heart.
Hormel Foods team members in Austin, Minn., who work on the No. 1 chili brand, thought so too. They liked his style and sensed his sincerity. “There was something about John’s dance that was genuine and authentic,” says Brian Olson, a member of the Hormel Foods corporate communications department. After reviewing dance after dance from eager contestants, prize committee members chose their winner. It was John.
Getting To Know John
Soon after, they did a little Googling on this man from East Biloxi, Miss., before telling him the good news. And that’s when it got really interesting.
They found a treasure trove of information on a guy who serves as an unofficial ambassador for his city. An award-winning volunteer. A fellow who mentors at-risk kids. A Southerner whose grandfather, a sharecropper from Alabama, helped establish East Biloxi. A son who was raised by his grandparents while his mother served in the U.S. Air Force. A descendant of a slain civil rights activist. An Army veteran. An ordinary person who once came upon a fatal collision between a bus and a train, and without hesitation, began pulling victims out of vehicles. In short, they were face to face with a hero named John Kemp.
They were stunned by his story; John was more surprised by his victory.
“I remember thinking, ‘I have no chance of winning.’ But somehow, I did,” he says.
The contest judges had no way of knowing about John’s long relationship with Hormel® chili, and when they found out, that too was a delight. He told them about Big Mama, his grandmother who cooked all week for her large family, except for Saturdays when she would cook for their church. On those days, she would send John to the store for a can of chili for his dinner. His first choice was always the Hormel® brand, but when he was short a few cents, he would go for a generic version.
“I would make my weekly pilgrimage to the store,” he recalls. “Sometimes I couldn’t afford Hormel® chili. That’s when I got my education about a brand. The stuff that just said ‘chili,’ it just didn’t taste the same.”
These days, John is as brand loyal as they come, which is why he was able to put his Hormel® chili dance together in such short order. It was time well-spent. A “football geek” by his own admission, John was on the verge of being in the stands for the grandaddy of all matchups – the big game. Precious few of us ever get that opportunity.
There was a wrinkle, however. The prize package was a pair of tickets. John is the father of two sons in the United States, both of whom are “huge football fans.” He couldn’t bring himself to choose one over the other, and so, he was about to pass on the coveted tickets to the championship game. In the meantime, Brian recounts, people at Hormel Foods found out something else about John. He has a third son in Germany, a young boy named Torsten, who has never met his older brothers, Jontrez and Saveair.
“In 2018, while I was FaceTiming with Torsten, he asked when he would ever meet his brothers,” John says. “When I hung up, I cried like a baby, knowing it wouldn’t be possible.” Still, he prayed someday there would be a way.
The Hormel® chili brand team members didn’t have it in them to walk away. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and pulled out all the stops to get funds and tickets, and to make arrangements to bring John and his three sons together for the first time ever. They managed to secure two additional game tickets and money enough to pay for transportation for Torsten and his mother to travel from Germany to Miami.
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It was a tearful union – for the Kemp family and for all those who happened upon them. “People cried with us,” John recalls. “It was like God opened a window and allowed us to be together.” Soon after their meeting, borders began to close due to COVID-19.
He’s not sure when, if ever, the four will reunite. In the meantime, the memory of time together in February 2020 burns brightly for John. He calls it the best day of his life.
“To think a can of chili put the four of us in the same spot for the first time,” he says. “I’ve been a lucky guy. I’ve traveled the world, but Hormel Foods sort of put the cherry on the top of my life.”