Joe Kapp has led a crazy eventful life from leading the University of California to it’s last Rose Bowl appearance to playing in the CFL, to being a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. Kapp is a man that played by his own rules and never worried what anyone else thought of him. Joe Kapp played college football at the University of California, Berkeley, where he led the California Golden Bears to a Pacific Coast Conference championship in 1958 and the 1959 Rose Bowl, where they lost to Iowa. This remains California’s most recent Rose Bowl appearance. Kapp was named an All-American in that same year. He was also awarded the W. J. Voit Memorial Trophy in 1958 as the outstanding football player on the Pacific Coast. A two-sport athlete in college, he also played on the California Golden Bears men’s basketball team and was a member of the 1956–57 and 1957–58 squads that won the Pacific Coast championship.
Kapp was drafted in the 18th round of the 1959 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, who owned his rights to play professional football in the United States. After the draft, Washington did not contact him, so his only choice was to accept the offer from Jim Finks, the general manager of the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Kapp joined the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL for his rookie season in 1959. The following year, Kapp led Calgary to their first playoff appearance in years. The season was a difficult one, because he injured his knee against the Toronto Argonauts early in the season, but did not miss any games, because he played heavily taped.
In 1961, the BC Lions, then the CFL’s newest franchise, traded four starting players to the Calgary Stampeders for Joe Kapp. The move paid off for the Lions when Kapp led the team to a Grey Cup appearance in 1963. The following season, Kapp led the Lions to their first Grey Cup victory in 1964. However, the Lions proved unable to defend their championship in 1965.
By that time, Kapp had proven he was an elite quarterback, and also developed the reputation of being a tough player and a great leader. While most quarterbacks dislike being hit, Kapp was the opposite. He loved to hit and when he took off on a run he’d try to run over defenders.
Before the 1967 season, Kapp made the decision to return to the U.S. to play pro football. The AFL’s Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Houston Oilers were heavily pursuing him.
Kapp ended up signing with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in a multi-player “trade” between the CFL and NFL teams, one of the very few transactions to ever occur between the two leagues.
The Minnesota Vikings in 1965 had drafted running back Jim Young out of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He had spent the 1965 and 1966 seasons with the Vikings, but wanted to return to Canada. The BC Lions were very interested in acquiring Young, but the Toronto Argonauts had his CFL rights.
The Minnesota Vikings general manager was Jim Finks, who had brought Kapp to Canada in 1959, and their head coach was Bud Grant who had faced Kapp while coaching the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Both Finks and Grant thought Joe Kapp would be the best replacement for Fran Tarkenton who had been traded to the New York Giants. To make this transaction possible, the BC Lions traded all-star defensive lineman Dick Fouts, and future Canadian Football Hall of Fame running back Bill Symons to the Toronto Argonauts for the CFL rights to future Canadian Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Jim Young. They then managed getting Kapp waived out of the CFL.
The Minnesota Vikings managed getting Jim Young waived out of the NFL, which allowed the BC Lions to sign him. The expansion New Orleans Saints wanted Young and it took some work from Fink’s to keep them from claiming Young.
Kapp, waived from the CFL, was free to sign with the Minnesota, who had previously claimed his NFL playing rights from Washington.
1967 was Kapp’s first season in the NFL, and he started 11 of 14 games for the Minnesota Vikings, compiling an unusual record of 3 wins, 5 losses and 3 ties. Kapp completed only 47 percent of his pass attempts with 8 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Joe also scored 2 rushing touchdowns. Of note, the team was winless without Kapp starting at quarterback.
In 1968, Kapp led the Minnesota Vikings to their first ever playoff appearance, losing to the Baltimore Colts, 24–14.
On September 28, 1969, Kapp threw for seven touchdown passes against the Baltimore Colts, which still stands as the all-time record with 7 other players . Kapp led the Vikings to a 12–2 record, and a berth in Super Bowl IV after defeating the Cleveland Browns 27–7 in the last NFL Championship game ever played. However, he was unable to lead the team to victory in the Super Bowl, as the Vikings lost 23–7 to the Kansas City Chiefs. In 1970, the NFL and AFL consummated a merger that had been agreed to in 1966, and the NFL Championship game was no more after 50 years of NFL competition. On July 20, 1970, Sports Illustrated dubbed Kapp “The Toughest Chicano” on the cover of its weekly magazine. He received the team MVP, but refused the team MVP award, saying, “There is no one most valuable Viking. There are 40 most valuable Vikings”
Prior to the 1969 season, the Minnesota Vikings had exercised the option clause of his contract, so Kapp had played the entire season without a new contract. It was unusual for teams to use the team’s option and not to offer a new contract prior to a season. This dispute made him a free agent for the 1970 season, by the NFL’s own rules.
Despite being a Super Bowl quarterback, no teams in the NFL made contact with Kapp until September of the 1970 season, when the Boston Patriots signed him to a four-year contract, making him the highest paid player in the league. Pete Rozelle stepped in and forced the Boston Patriots to give up two number one draft picks as compensation to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Boston Patriots of 1970 were a poor-performing team and the late-arriving Kapp played poorly himself that season, leading the team to the league’s worst record at 2–12. When the year ended Pete Rozelle demanded that Kapp sign a Standard Player Contract. After conferring with his lawyer and the NFL Players Association, Kapp refused to sign a new contract.
With the top pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected a quarterback, Jim Plunkett of Stanford. Kapp reported to the newly renamed New England Patriots’ training camp in 1971 and was turned away. The headlines in the Boston papers read “KAPP QUITS!”. After this incident Kapp never played again, his 12-year career as a professional football player was over.
Kapp started an anti-trust lawsuit vs. the NFL claiming the standard NFL contract was unconstitutional and a restraint of trade. He won the Summary Judgment after four years. The court had ruled that Joe Kapp’s trade was indeed restrained. It was two years later (April 1, 1976) in the trial for damages, that the jury decided that Kapp was not damaged.
Although Kapp was not awarded any damages, in 1977 the rules at issue in the Kapp case were later revised, a new system was instituted, and a multimillion-dollar settlement was made between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
The always colorful Kapp in 1982, was hired as the head football coach at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. He had never coached before. In his first year as head coach, he was voted the Pacific-10 Conference Coach of the Year.
In December 1981, Kapp made a promise to the football team that he would not consume any of his favorite alcoholic beverage, tequila, until the Golden Bears reached the Rose Bowl. As of March 2011, the Golden Bears have yet to return to the Rose Bowl and Kapp has resorted to drinking rum instead.
Kapp had several philosophies while coaching at Cal. He called his special teams the “special forces.” He told his players to play “One hundred percent for 60 minutes.” He also wanted the players to have fun. On Sundays, he would have his players play a game of “garbazz,” described as a mix of basketball and football where the only objective is to pass the ball downfield. There are no football rules such as offsides or forward passes.
Kapp was the coach during The Play, the famous five-lateral kickoff return by the Cal team to score the winning touchdown on the final play of the 1982 Big Game against arch rival Stanford.
During the 1986 college football season, the Bears lost to Boston College, defeated Washington State, then lost to San Jose State. Following an embarrassing 50-18 loss at Washington on October 4, Kapp expressed frustration unzipping his pants in front of the Seattle media. He was notified that he would be released after the 1986 Big Game, played in Berkeley. The Bears responded to the student section’s pre-game chants of “Win one for the zipper” by beating the #16 ranked and Gator Bowl-bound Cardinal 17–11. This gave Kapp a 3–2 record in the Big Game. He was carried out of the stadium amid chanting from the student section, “We Want Kapp!”, echoing a cheer from his playing days with the Boston Patriots.
Joe Kapp may not have been the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, but he was most certainly one of the toughest most colorful players in the history of the NFL.