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The Emotions of Sports: Joe Kapp, battle ready

Hart graduate Joe Kapp found himself in football’s biggest games and drew on experience each time

Posted: August 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Hart High graduate Joe Kapp (11) drops back to pass as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings during Super Bowl IV in New Orleans on Jan. 11, 1970. Kapp is the only American athlete to play in the Rose Bowl, Super Bowl, and Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup, and at each milestone, he was prepared by the one that preceded it.

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It was the summer of 1955.

Newly minted Hart High graduate Joe Kapp loaded into a cream-colored '39 Chevy he bought at a used-car dealership on San Fernando Road for $95 and began driving toward the University of California, Berkeley.

He didn't make it far.

"I never got out of town," Kapp laughs. "I can show you where it threw a rod. Luckily, the bus depot was a few blocks away, so I got on the bus and went to Berkeley. It seems like yesterday."

A blown engine wasn't going to stop the ambitious and outspoken quarterback from beginning a well-traveled football career that spanned the Rose Bowl, Canadian Football League's Grey Cup, the Super Bowl and "The Play."

Each was an athletic landmark, a peak that many people would give anything to reach.

And he was the only athlete to play in each one.

The anticipation was too much for some people. It was a chance to thrive for others.

For Kapp, it was a chance to put his experience into practice.

"I've been lucky, and I've worked hard to be lucky," he says. "That's where the payoff is, where preparation meets opportunity."

Kapp's preparation started at Hart High School as a football and basketball star, he says.

When discussing some of the more memorable moments in his career, including Super Bowl IV and the iconic band-is-on-the-field touchdown that gave Cal a 25-20 win over Stanford in 1982, the former player and coach refers back to the lessons he learned from former Indians head football coach Al Lewis.

He also keys in on milestone wins that shaped his thinking, like when Hart beat Ventura 47-46 in 1955 to share the Ventura League basketball title.

They were meaningful at the time, and invaluable as he prepared to lead the favored Minnesota Vikings against the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 11, 1970.

* * *

"Your lifetime is behind you. You are the sum of the coaching you've had, the experience you've had, the skill at my position - quarterback," he says, noting the work ethic that was developed early in his career.

"I was ready to go. We, the Vikings, we dethroned the Green Bay Packers, which get credit for being the all-time great team. But in the Central Division, we beat Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers for the Chicago Bears. We beat the Detroit Lions, an outstanding team, and we beat Bart Starr and the Vince Lombardi team."

In the postseason, Minnesota used a second-half comeback to defeat the Los Angeles Rams 23-20 in the first round, then topped the Cleveland Browns 27-7 in the conference championship game.

The Vikings carried confidence from the wins plus a 12-point edge into New Orleans for the Super Bowl.

Kapp recalls the week leading up to the game as dreary and full of distractions.

It would be easy to lose one's self in the moment and the hype, but Kapp was focused on the job at hand.

He says the game was just different back then. The Super Bowl was a still the crowning achievement, but it didn't have the mass-media fanfare that it carries today.

When it was time to take the field, his past experiences tempered the anticipation, Kapp says.

In 1959, he led Cal into the Rose Bowl against Iowa. It turned out to be the Hawkeyes' day as Iowa came away with a 38-12 victory.

Years later, Kapp took the British Columbia Lions of the CFL to the 1964 Grey Cup - Canada's Super Bowl.

The Lions beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 34-24.

But earlier in the season, he had dinner in Vancouver, B.C. with "Madam Monserrat," a famous opera singer, he says.

It still rings fresh in his mind today, and it was at the forefront before each big game.

"She sings all these beautiful arias," he recalls. "Having dinner, I said, ‘Madam, do you ever get butterflies?' She says, ‘My dear young man, if you don't get the butterflies, you can't hit the high notes.'
"We weren't overconfident in the Super Bowl," Kapp continues. "We were not underconfident, either."

Minnesota was simply overmatched physically by the Chiefs in the championship game, losing 23-7.

Kapp suffered a dislocated shoulder just before halftime, but kept playing. He finished 16-of-25 for 183 yards and two interceptions.

They were professionals, and they handle their trade as such - in victory and defeat, Kapp says.

There was much to learn from the game, particularly about preparedness.

On the play when Kapp suffered the dislocation, the offensive line had yet to master the blocking scheme.

He called it anyway.

* * *

Preparation was at the core of "The Play" 12 years later.

Kapp had just become the head coach at his alma matter entering the season, and the Golden Bears were playing archrival Stanford at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

Cardinal quarterback and future NFL Hall of Famer John Elway had just led his team down the field for what appeared to be the game-winning 35-yard touchdown.

There were only four seconds left in regulation, and Stanford was up 20-19.

Cal lined up for the ensuing kickoff with a season of experience and coaching behind it.

There wasn't a rah-rah moment or a get-one-for-the-gipper speech.

The coaching staff merely called for the hands team.

"We had prepared our plan. Everybody knew it," Kapp says. "The players knew it. There's no more coaching involved. They got to the four-second mark, and the anticipation's gone now. They know what to do."

"The players did all the talking, I was just there. I had done my work already."

The Golden Bears received the squib kick and proceeded to lateral the ball five times as the Stanford band began to pour on the field.

The play culminated with Cal defensive back Kevin Moen receiving the final lateral before colliding with a trombone player in the end zone during the game-winning touchdown.

The anticipation for "The Play" began when Kapp took the job as head coach, Moen says.

"The way the play developed and unfolded, you couldn't have scripted it from a standpoint of, ‘Hey this is what we are going to do,'" Moen says. "It was more built through the season of, ‘You never know what's going to happen, so keep playing.' I think that is really a tribute to him, to expect that which the end result of the last game, the last play was that kind of unique finish."

"It's not like a baseball field - you got to first base to second base to third base. You play grabazzo. You lateral the ball," says Kapp, referring to a game played during practice. "The anticipation was quickly converted. When you watch it on TV, we fell right in line. A blind lateral. A long lateral. You couldn't choreograph it. You had to see where the defensive player was or where the trombone player was."

"Grabazzo" or "grabazz," which loosely translates to grab-ass, was the key, agree Kapp and Moen.

It was a fun game that everyone played where laterals and long passes fostered a fun and free-thinking style of play.

Little did they know just how much it prepared them for one of the greatest moments in college football history.

* * *

Was there anticipation?

Absolutely.

But it was the kind that built throughout his life, through every chance meeting and local visited.

When the time came and that anticipation materialized into an opportunity, Kapp's life flashed before his eyes.

That's a good thing.

On Dec. 22, 1968, Kapp and the Vikings made the franchise's first trip to the postseason, only to lose to the Baltimore Colts and their relentless blitz in the first round.

A year after watching the game film religiously, he was ready to avenge the loss.

The next season, he torched the Colts for an NFL-record seven touchdown passes, a mark he shares with four other quarterbacks - Sid Luckman, Adrian Burk, George Blanda and Y.A. Tittle.

Kapp also used some of the Colts' defensive schemes as the coach at Cal, he says.

He didn't go into the game against Stanford or the final kickoff expecting to hear Cal radio announcer Joe Starkey's legendary call.

"Oh, the band is out on the field," Starkey says during the return. "He's going to go into the end zone. He's gone into the end zone."

Kapp's players didn't either.

But their coach had prepared them to do whatever necessary to achieve their desire result.

"Throughout the season, he instilled in us a sense to never quit, to keep playing hard right down to the end," Moen says. "The role of a head coach is to kind of set a tone as a team, set an experience. His demeanor and his attitude were felt in us all year. To me, the culmination of it was the game, not just the play, but the whole game. We went in as the underdog. Stanford supposedly was supposed to beat us."

It's a learning process that began early.

And his response dictated the next one in success and failure.

"I don't know my own phone number, but we beat Ventura 47-46 in the Ventura League my senior year," Kapp says. "That was a big win. Huge. You talk about hitting the high notes."

 

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