By Dennis Taylor
The DNA of one of the best-known NFL quarterbacks of his generation is probably still on those playgrounds at El Sausal Middle School in Salinas.
Joe Kapp skinned his elbows, knees and knuckles out there seven decades ago as a hardscrabble little kid who lived to play sports, scrapped with neighborhood bullies and shined shoes on East Alisal Street, two bucks a pair, alongside his friend, Everett Alvarez Jr.
“Everett and I tried out for sports, but also for the school band,” Kapp recalled in a 2011 interview with the Cal Band Alumni Association. “In those days the public schools provided instruments. He got the last trumpet and I got the sousaphone.
“If I hadn’t made it as a quarterback, I always felt like I could have played the sousaphone in the Cal Band.”
Joe Kapp field?
A high school is named today for Alvarez, who became a U.S. Naval Commander and was the second-longest held prisoner of the Vietnam War. And on Oct. 12, the Salinas High School Union school board will consider whether an athletic field at El Sausal should be named after Kapp, a longtime Los Gatos resident who, at 83, is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.
The proposal was put forth by Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, a Ph.D. researcher, historian, and archivist in Stanford University’s Department of Special Collections, and an alumnus of El Sausal and Salinas High.
Naming a middle school field after Kapp might seem like a no-brainer, but could encounter some resistance as expectations about who constitutes role models are being redefined by the cultural and political climate.
He didn’t back down
He was the epitome of machismo, a fighter on the streets, in barrooms, in jam-packed football stadiums, at team parties and, as recently as 2011, at a Hall of Fame banquet.
He once needed 100 stitches after a 250-pound Canadian Football League teammate slashed him across the neck with a broken bottle. Then he started at quarterback four days later. He had a gory, tequila-fueled, backyard fistfight with All-Pro linebacker Lonnie Warwick, a teammate, after his Minnesota Vikings lost Super Bowl IV to the Kansas City Chiefs.
He was unabashedly flawed, but always authentic.
“I’m aware of my own reputation, and I enjoy it,” Kapp told Sports Illustrated in 1970 when he was at his athletic peak. “I’ve been called one-half of a collision looking for the other.”
“I think of myself as a gentle, fun-loving, peaceful person, but you can be all these things and still get in fights, especially if you don’t back down. And I try not to.”
He was in the third grade when his family moved to Salinas, into a housing project with “pickers, Okies, Arkies, blacks and whites and browns and purples,” continued Kapp (whose mother was Mexican-American, and whose father was German) in the SI article entitled “A Man of Machismo.”
“In the fifth grade, a bigger kid called me ‘a dirty Mexican,’ and at first I didn’t challenge him,” he remembered. “But I brooded on what he said. My sense of justice was outraged. So I went back and found him, and really whaled him. I didn’t win, but I got in some licks. That was machismo, not backing down, acting like a man.”
A crusader for justice
Kapp also fought when he saw social or racial injustice.
He crusaded fiercely alongside Cesar Chavez on behalf of the United Farm Workers. He delivered fiery speeches at civil rights rallies. He spoke frequently at gatherings of the League of United Latin American Citizens. He co-founded the Joe Kapp & Family Scholarship Fund in partnership with the UC Berkeley Chicano Latino Alumni Association.
“It was con mucho orgullo that I was the first Latino quarterback to play in the Super Bowl,” Kapp said in a 2011 interview with foxnews.com. “But you live every day with your heritage. It’s not something that just jumps out on a Super Bowl Sunday.”
He frequently spoke to at-risk youth, frequently at Rancho Cielo, a learning and social services center in Salinas.
Kapp was founder and CEO of the What Do You Want To Be Foundation, a nonprofit providing career training for underemployed and underserved military veterans.
“Joe’s passion for Mexican-American history, culture and the community he grew up in was palpable,” Ornelas Rodriguez told Voices of Monterey Bay. “He lit up with pride about being a Chicano, and that was something I could relate to.
“My physical education classes at El Sausal were some of the most rigorous workouts of my life, and Joe Garcia Kapp’s athletic determination reflects that program,” he added, explaining why he believes Kapp should be honored.
Destined to be a Bear?
After two years at Salinas High, Kapp finished high school at William S. Hart School in Newhall, near Santa Clarita, then became the first person in his family to attend college.
He was an All-American quarterback and team MVP at Cal (a place he first visited on a student field trip in 1950, as a seventh-grader at El Sausal), leading the Bears to the 1959 Rose Bowl.
A two-sport athlete, Kapp also played for Coach Pete Newell in two NCAA basketball tournaments.
The legendary coach didn’t want the 6-foot-3, 215-pound football star to score points, grab rebounds or make plays on the court. Instead, Newell used Kapp as an enforcer. Example: In 1956, against No. 1-ranked Kansas, he sent Kapp into the game specifically to rough up 7-foot-1, 275-pound Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, the nation’s best player.
“I took a shot at Wilt,” Kapp would joke later to the Associated Press. “I got him right in the ankle.”
After graduating from Cal (bachelor’s degree, physical education/fitness), Kapp expected to be an early pick in the 1959 NFL draft. He was surprised when Washington took him in the 18th round — the ninth of 12 quarterbacks selected that year — and felt more disrespected when nobody from the team ever bothered to contact him. He signed instead with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
Rose Bowl, Grey Cup, Super Bowl
After two seasons in Calgary, Kapp was traded to British Columbia, and in 1966 he led the Lions to the Grey Cup Championship, Canada’s Super Bowl.
The following year, he signed an NFL contract with Minnesota in the NFL, joining the Vikings as a 29-year-old rookie. He was third string, playing behind Bob Berry and Ron VanderKelen. But two years later he guided the Vikings to the NFC crown and the Super Bowl, even though his passes often wobbled like a man falling out of a tree.
The man Sports Illustrated called “The Toughest Chicano” embraced the violence of the game, often preferring to run over a tackler, rather than avoid him, if he thought he could gain an extra inch. Teammates and fans loved him for it.
“Joe didn’t run all that often, but when he did, he ran to get everything he could get. And when he got knocked down, he always got up,” said former NFL referee Jim Tunney, a Pebble Beach resident.
Through eight seasons in Canada and four in the NFL, Kapp never missed a start due to injury, playing with cracked ribs, a punctured lung, torn knees, a separated shoulder and countless concussions.
A landmark lawsuit
Ever the crusader, Kapp was part of a lawsuit that led to a 2017 settlement between the NFL and retired players who suspect they suffered brain damage during their careers — landmark litigation that led to the modern-day concussion protocol used by the NFL, the NCAA and high school sports.
More famously, he sacrificed the final years of his playing career, filing a lawsuit challenging the NFL’s so-called “standard player contract,” which, he said, restricted his freedom in the pro football marketplace. A judge ruled in Kapp’s favor, deciding the terms of the “standard contract” were a violation of U.S. antitrust laws.
“(Kapp v NFL) is an important case in antitrust sports law,” said Prasad Krishnamurthy, a professor at UC Berkeley Law, in an interview with California Magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. “Though it was a ruling by the Northern District Court of California — not an appellate or Supreme Court ruling — it established legal precedent and had a spillover effect for all teams in the League.”
Kapp v NFL became a major precedent in antitrust case law, and is a primary reason why players enjoy free agency today.
A postscript: Though he had $450,000 remaining on his contract with the Patriots, and plaintiffs typically are entitled to triple damages in antitrust cases, Kapp was awarded nothing.
He took his final snap as a pro in 1970 (a year after being named NFL Player of the Year) at age 32, and remains the only man in history to play in the Rose Bowl, the Grey Cup, and the Super Bowl.
Joe Kapp: Hollywood actor
And that was merely Act One.
The next act came in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when Kapp became a Hollywood actor, best remembered for his role as a thuggish prison guard in the 1974 Burt Reynolds film, “The Longest Yard.” He also had parts in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Adam-12,” “Medical Center” and other popular TV shows.
In 1982, Kapp was hired as head football coach at his alma mater, UC Berkeley, even though he had never coached before. In his first season, he was voted Pacific-10 Conference Coach of the Year, and also National Coach of the Year.
That season famously concluded with “The Play,” a five-lateral kickoff return that provided the game-winning touchdown against a John Elway-led Stanford team in The Big Game.
Kapp spent one season, 1990, as general manager of the British Columbia Lions, his former team in the Canadian Football League, and became head coach of the Los Angeles Wings (which became the Sacramento Attack) in the Arena Football League in 1992.
Old grudges die hard
He was a featured speaker at numerous events after his playing career concluded. In 2011, at age 73, the still-pugnacious Kapp was attending a Canadian Football League luncheon in Vancouver when he came to blows with a fellow CFL Hall of Famer, 74-year-old Angelo Mosca. The bad blood between the septuagenarians dated back to the 1963 Grey Cup game — a hit Mosca put on Kapp’s teammate, Willie Fleming, that Kapp considered a dirty play.
“Prior to me being on stage, he’s mouthing obscene statements to me,” Kapp told the Vancouver newspaper at the time. “I’m into his bleeping game now, cussing and swearing.
“I took flowers that were on our table and used it as an olive branch,” he said to the National Post after the incident. “I offered the olive branch and I got clubbed on the side of my head. What I did to him was nothing. I defended myself. He hit me with a goddamn hammer.”
Husband, dad, grandfather
Kapp today is married (Jennifer), with four children and four grandchildren. A son, Will, played fullback at Los Gatos High, then made the team at Cal as a walk-on, started at fullback as a senior, and was voted Most Inspirational for his special teams play. A grandson, Frank, played tight end at Mountain View High, and was a redshirt freshman for the Cal Bears in 2016, the same year Joe Kapp was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors have since revised Kapp’s diagnosis to dementia.
While the disease continues to progress, Kapp’s firstborn son, J.J., a Santa Clara attorney, says his father is fighting the good fight.
“His spirits are usually good,” he said. “There’s still a lot of Joe in there.”
Kapp has promised to donate his brain to neurologists at UC San Francisco for research after his death.
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