Why Does No One Remember Joe Kapp, the NFL’s First Mexican-American Super Bowl Quarterback?

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

With apologies to Tony Romo, Jim Plunkett is the most successful Latino quarterback of all time. Plunkett, a Mexican-American from San Jose, won college football’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, while at Stanford and then, while coached by Tom Flores (another Mexican-American), Plunkett won two Super Bowls with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders (the team moved in 1982). However, a decade before Plunkett and Flores won their first Super Bowl in 1980, there was another Mexican-American quarterback who guided the Minnesota Vikings to a Super Bowl: Joe Kapp.

Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to a Mexican-American mother and a father of German heritage, Kapp explained that while his father was blonde and blue-eyed, the unique Nuevo Mexicano culture made it so that “in northern New Mexico, everyone spoke Spanish. [My father] spoke Spanish better than he spoke English…he spoke street Spanish fluently.” From New Mexico, the Kapp family moved to Salinas, California, living in housing projects with lettuce pickers.

Kapp learned to play football on those lettuce fields, and it was also in those housing projects where Kapp developed a toughness that defined the rest of his life. “If a kid didn’t have machismo in the…neighborhoods…where I grew up, he had it tough,” Kapp explained. “Sometimes the Mexicans would fight the Anglos; sometimes it would be the Mexican and the blacks from Pacoima. They had gang fights going all the time and even an occasional shoot-out or knifing.”

In football—a sport that values toughness above all—Kapp earned a respect that overcame his actual ability.

Kapp’s athletic talents led him to the University of California in Berkeley where, besides playing on the basketball team, he quarterbacked the team to a Rose Bowl appearance. After college, in 1959, the NFL’s Washington team drafted him in the 18th round but never contacted him. Thus, Kapp signed a contract to play in the Canadian Football League where he remained for 8 seasons before reaching the NFL.

Growing up in an environment that, above all else, valued toughness, influenced how Kapp played quarterback. He was a barroom brawler, someone who even started fights with teammates. The first fight occurred while playing in Canada; it left him with a scar across the jaw, courtesy of a bottle broken and raked across his face. The gash required 100 stitches and came within a half-inch of severing his jugular. Kapp never pressed charges since, as he explained, “we were teammates and we’d both been drinking, and it was one of those things.” Similarly, in his first year in the NFL—in 1967 as a 29-year-old, third string rookie quarterback—Kapp fought a Viking defensive teammate after each refused to let the other take blame for a loss. As they drank tequila and expressed that blame should fall on them, the disagreement escalated to a fist fight.

Kapp built a reputation based on toughness, and as a player that didn’t allow others to intimidate him.  In football—a sport that values toughness above all—Kapp earned a respect that overcame his actual ability. Further, as a Mexican-American, Kapp served as a uniting force between white and black players. “[When] I got to the team,” Kapp recalled, “there were some parties going on with the Wall Street gang over here and maybe some over here with the black guys…I said, ‘hey man, why don’t we have a party together, you know, I’m a Mexican…I get invited to both, why don’t we all have a party.’” Despite being the team’s unquestioned leader, as a quarterback Kapp was anything but graceful. Still, his play was affective enough to lead the Vikings to a Super Bowl IV appearance.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Leading up the game—where the Vikings were 13 point favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs—newspapers across the country mentioned his unconventional talent. The Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph called him, “Minnesota’s ugly duckling quarterback,” while South Dakota’s The Daily Republic noted that the “mighty Mexican” was an “anti-hero.” Rochester, New York’s Democrat and Chronicle, stated “Kapp has been labeled half-passer, half-Mexican and half-collision.” When a reporter told Kapp he didn’t have the classic passing style since his passes wobbled rather than spiraled, he responded, “So I’m not a classic passer. Classics are for Greeks. I’m a winner.”

His ability, or inability, to throw the ball, even led a few reporters to theorize the reason he didn’t throw a perfect spiral was because Kapp did not use the football’s laces. And in their minds, the reason for this was because Kapp learned to pass by “heaving lettuce heads in Salinas, and there are no laces on lettuce.” (Surprisingly for a quarterback who lacked natural throwing ability, Kapp is tied for the record of most touchdown passes in a game with 7.) He is also the only quarterback to have played in the Rose Bowl, Super Bowl, and the Grey Cup—the Canadian Football League’s championship—though he lost two out of the three, including the Super Bowl.

Few, if any, get out of playing professional football without long-lasting effects. This was especially the case with Kapp.

In one of the Super Bowl’s biggest upsets ever, the Chiefs beat the Vikings by the score of 23 to 7. The loss included Kapp getting knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury. “Do you know what happens when you lose the Super Bowl?” Kapp asked rhetorically. “The world ends. It just stops. There’s been all this build up, all these bruising games, all this study and preparation and strain, and then it ends. There’s not even a fanfare.”

After the Super Bowl loss, Kapp never played with the Minnesota Vikings again. He didn’t show up for the 1970 training camp, despite being on the Sports Illustrated cover which read, “The Toughest Chicano: Viking Quarterback Joe Kapp.” Kapp and Vikings management disagreed on how much he was worth. The team offered him a 3-year contract at $100,000 per season, Kapp asked for $1.25 million over 5 years. Kapp would eventually end up on the New England Patriots before sitting out the 1971 season, again, to protest his contract. In March of 1972, Kapp filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, arguing the league’s “standard contract[s] restricted his freedom in the pro football marketplace.” Kapp became a pioneer in the player’s fight towards free agency.

As most who played close to a half-century ago, Kapp’s name gets increasingly lost in the shuffle. When remembered, it’s usually for negative reasons. Devoid of context, his overall statistics seem mediocre. In fact, before Super Bowl XLVII, Complex compiled a list of the 15 worst quarterbacks to play for the NFL’s championship; they listed Joe Kapp as the worst. His name also gets mentioned when discussing the long-term health effects of football.

Few, if any, get out of playing professional football without long-lasting effects. This was especially the case with Kapp, who played in a different era of football—and society—where there was an added value to toughness; or, in his world, machismo. Recently, he’s been public about his struggles with Alzheimer’s and other symptoms associated with CTE.

Film producer Al Ruddy (R) and Joe Kapp (L) speak onstage during ‘The Longest Yard’ screening during day 4 of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016. Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Turner
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Kapp—a litigant in former player’s lawsuit against the NFL that claims the league withheld and downplayed the effects of concussions—will donate his brain to research after his death. But even at his advanced age and declining mental health, Kapp’s personality and toughness remain. At 73-years-old, Kapp got into a fistfight and knocked down a former opponent while on stage at a banquet honoring them. He has also spoken of writing an autobiography; one title he’s contemplated is Fuck You.

Joe Kapp played only 4 seasons in the NFL. He is not as deserving of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as Jim Plunkett or Tom Flores are—who remain outside of serious consideration despite their clear qualifications—but Kapp was a pioneer. Long before the NFL celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and before built themselves a Hispanic fan base in the tens of millions, Joe Kapp became the first Latino quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl, and perhaps more importantly, he help spark the fight against the NFL’s ever-present control of players.