Family comes first. That's how Joe Kapp was raised, and those are the strongest memories that still remain for the former quarterback, even as the details of some of his impressive personal accomplishments on the football field fade from recollection.
Kapp is the only quarterback to have the distinction of playing in the Rose Bowl, Grey Cup and Super Bowl. The Mexican-American broke ground in another role when he was head coach at Cal for five years. He also served as president and general manager of the BC Lions, one of the teams he once played for in Canada. In whatever capacity he served, he did so as a proud Latino. Kapp forged his own path in the game of football.
Yet the sport he dearly loved appears to have extracted a high price. Kapp, 79, now copes with the effects of Alzheimer's disease. A 2012 study published in Neurology magazine found National Football League players are three times more likely than the general U.S. population to die from neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's.
Sometimes a memory from long ago comes to Kapp with crystal clarity, like the score of a high school basketball game his team lost. Other times, he struggles to remember events of a few minutes ago. During a recent interview, Kapp's humor and charm shone through, and his pioneering story remains as special as ever.
Some answers are edited for clarity.
Question: Where did it all start for you, Joe?
Kapp: I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was the oldest in the family. My mother was Florencia Garcia and my father was Robert Kapp. He was blond, blue-eyed, but in northern New Mexico, everyone spoke Spanish. He spoke Spanish better than he spoke English. He did sales and he spoke street Spanish fluently.
When did you leave New Mexico and what sports were you playing by then?
Kapp: Just before the war [World War II], we landed in San Fernando, California. I played every sport -- except hockey. Football was good for me, but how do you get people to play with you, other than catch? Basketball you can do on your own. You can dribble and shoot baskets on your own. I played basketball and made all-Southern CIF, going to Hart High School in Newhall. It was a little school. We got beat by San Fernando High once by 38 points.
What happened next?
Kapp: We started in San Fernando, then we went to Salinas. In Salinas, it was more rural. A lot of good athletes played in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
Did your Mexican-American family face any discrimination in California at that time?
Kapp: There was prejudice along the way, but we fought through it. We were happy. We weren't sad.
How did you work to improve as a quarterback?
Kapp: We used to live in a project that had an electricity building and I got up there and made a circle. I made three of them and I wore out balls throwing at the circles. They'd bounce back and I'd throw again. I couldn't have done that if I didn't love it.
Basketball and football were my favorites. We lived across the street from the high school. I got a job at the school sweeping the gym floor as a kid. That gave me the key and I shot baskets for hours at a time.
Why did you decide to go to University of California at Berkeley?
Kapp: I was the oldest of five kids. I offered to stay home and help, but my mother said, "No. You have this opportunity to go to school." I went to Cal because they let me play basketball and football. I didn't want to play baseball anymore. It was too slow. You've got to wait for the ball to come. It wasn't for me.
What was it like at Cal as a student-athlete involved in two sports?
Kapp: When you go to Cal, academically, it's a lot of hard work. I had a tremendous education at Cal. If I didn't take advantage of it, I'd have been stupid. I still played basketball. I think the coaches thought that if they kept me happy playing basketball, I could contribute more to the [football] team. Once again, I got the call of the ball. I did the work to participate in the game of football at a high level.
Playing in the 1959 Rose Bowl, how did that feel?
Kapp: Cal hasn't been back to the Rose Bowl since. I was one way in football. Football was a team game and if you were going to play with me, we were going to play with teamwork and dedication -- all the things that used to matter.
What are your other memories of that Rose Bowl team?
Kapp: There weren't too many Latinos. People didn't think at first I was. Kapp, the name, isn't Latino. At Cal, we had Bob Gonzales, the fullback. We had a great halfback, Hank Olguin. I was partial -- I gave the ball to my Latino friends.
How did you end up starting your pro career in Canada?
Kapp: When I got finished at Cal, [the NFL] didn't call me. So I went to Canada, to the Calgary Stampeders. The rules of the game aided me. A running quarterback had an advantage. But I kept working on my passes. Kids think improvement happens overnight. That's not true. You've got to get out and work on it. Calgary ended up trading me for four players, to Vancouver. It was a big deal at the time.
Looking back, how did being Latino affect your career in sports?
Kapp: I made and had relationships that are stronger than the average person has in their life. In a Latino family, you learn responsibility and love. Tough love. I had the benefit of that. You don't have to be on a football team to have strong relationships. Sports aren't all of life.
From your NFL days, are you proud of certain game performances in particular?
Kapp: I still have [an NFL] record for touchdown passes. (Kapp, playing for the Minnesota Vikings, threw for seven touchdowns against the Baltimore Colts in 1969; he is tied with seven other QBs for the record.) I could have thrown eight or nine, but we were beating them already. It didn't make sense.
You earned a reputation in the NFL as a very tough player. Did that take a toll on you?
Kapp: I'm paying the price for all that now. I have arthritis pretty bad. I've been hit in the head too many times and I'm a half a bubble short of level.
You also helped change the NFL and player contracts when you sued the league in 1971. What do you think of player compensation now?
Kapp: I read they're going to pay a player $50 million? I got four tacos and an enchilada.
What are your days like now?
Kapp: I'm lucky as hell to have saved enough to have a little ranchito here in Los Gatos. I've got a great wife and kids, grandchildren. So the migratory quarterback has settled down. I'm here on the porch. The sky is as blue as it's going to be. I'm 15 minutes from the ocean. I'm very happy.
What has been the biggest lesson in your life?
Kapp: Always do your best. I got that from my mother. If you're going to do something, do it as best as you can. She taught me that. If you're going to go for it, go all out. It all starts with attitude. You've got to be very tough, very strong and be as smart as you can possibly be and you'll get somewhere.
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