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Joe Kapp’s style wasn’t pretty, but the Hart High product persevered

Note: This story looking back at Joe Kapp’s football career first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News on July 20, 1999. Kapp, who played at Hart High in Santa Clarita and became a star college quarterback at Cal and in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, died Monday, May 8, 2023, at age 85.

Those old NFL films were never kind to quarterback Joe Kapp. Even with baritone-voiced narrator John Facenda eloquently describing Kapp and his purple-clad Minnesota Vikings, nothing could gloss over those awkward images on screen.

There was Kapp, a two-sport standout from Santa Clarita’s Hart High, lofting sputtering passes better suited for duck hunting season. Then there was Kapp running, or better yet, lumbering down the field. Arms flailing and legs churning, even in open space Kapp somehow managed to run right into an opposing tackler.

It was ugly.

But definitely effective. Kapp’s teams always won – the Vikings made the Super Bowl in 1969, he led Cal to the Rose Bowl in 1959 and, when he played in Canada, the British Columbia Lions won a Grey Cup. Kapp was always a big reason why.

Even at Hart from 1953 to 1955, the Indians’ fans grew to appreciate Kapp’s contradictory playing style. Not much style, but plenty of substance.

“He’d throw that darn ball end over end and every which way,” said George Harris, 89, Hart’s principal when Kapp was there and a former coach. “But darned if the ball didn’t get there. It didn’t always look good, but Joe got the job done. That’s for sure.”

Kapp plays right along with the perception. With a father of German descent and a mother from Mexico, Kapp left the Santa Clarita Valley in 1955, and he has lived an interesting life. There have been plenty of highs – reaching the Super Bowl is up there – and more than a few lows. He returned to Cal as the head coach in 1982, but he left under a controversial shadow five years later.

Through it all, Kapp has persevered. He might not always take the direct route, but Kapp manages to reach his intended destination. Besides, the longer route just gives him more time to enjoy the ride.

“If you look at my life, the one thing you can definitely say is that I’ve been there,” Kapp said. “And I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Kapp and his family first came to the San Fernando Valley from Salinas in the early 1950s. They moved to Santa Clarita two years later.

“We went from sleepy San Fernando to sleepy Newhall,” Kapp remembers.

Although Kapp was known as much for his colorful personality as his talent as a professional player, he was quiet and reserved in high school, according to Harris.

“I don’t think he discovered girls until his junior or senior year,” Harris said.

Though shy around campus, Kapp flourished in basketball and football. He was an excellent, if not refined, athlete.

At Hart, Kapp was a better basketball player than a football player. In fact, when coaches from Cal first showed interest in him, it was for basketball.

But while Kapp liked basketball, he loved football. His fondest memory at Hart was leading the Indians to a 47-46 upset victory over a powerful Ventura squad in 1955.

“That was my greatest claim to fame at the time,” Kapp recalls. “It was at their field, and they had a tremendous team and, as I recall, we ended up tying them for the championship. It wasn’t too bad for a school with about 300 kids.”

The dream of attending Cal started when Kapp was in the seventh grade in Salinas. His class took a field trip to the Berkeley campus, and Kapp fell in love with the pristine surroundings, huge football stadium and tall buildings.

“I remember thinking ‘What do I have to do to come back here?’” Kapp said. “I guess if you’re wondering where it all started for me, that was it right there.”

Kapp left Newhall for Berkeley in the summer of 1955. As if a precursor to the turns his life would ultimately take, even that trip was strange.

“I hopped into my ’39 Chevy and it blew a rod about five minutes into the trip,” Kapp said. “I waited on the side of the road for about five minutes, then I caught a bus to Berkeley.”

It didn’t take long for Kapp to make his mark at Cal. As a sophomore, he became the starting quarterback and led the Golden Bears to a 20-18 upset over John Brodie’s Stanford team in the 1956 Big Game. He took Cal to the 1959 Rose Bowl, one year after the Bears had won one game.

Cal hasn’t returned to the Rose Bowl since.

Kapp ended his college career by earning first-team All-America honors by both the Football Writers Association of America and Time Magazine. For his career, he completed 154 of 303 passes for 2,023 yards.

Kapp received little notice from NFL teams after graduation, so he went to Canada, where he played for eight years. He led the British Columbia Lions to the Grey Cup championship in 1964.

By then, the NFL was intrigued by the unorthodox quarterback who wasn’t pretty to watch but always seemed to get his teams to win.

“Sure it didn’t always look good, but I was having fun out there,” Kapp said. “I didn’t care how we did it, just as long as we got the job done.”

He signed with the Vikings in 1967, became the starter by the fourth game that season, and in 1968 led Minnesota to its first-ever playoff game. The following season, Kapp led the Vikings to the NFL championship and a berth in the 1969 Super Bowl, where they eventually lost to the American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs.

After his playing days, Kapp did some acting – he appeared with Burt Reynolds in “The Longest Yard” – and seemed content with a career in Hollywood.

But when Cal courted him to take over its struggling football program in 1982, he couldn’t resist.

In five seasons, Kapp’s teams went 13-30. He left in 1986.

“We fought some academic battles, but I’d like to think we were part of helping to revitalize the interest on campus and the program itself,” Kapp said. “We did some good things.”

Kapp lives in Los Gatos with Jennifer, his second wife, and children Emilina, 12, Gabriela, 7, and Will, 10. His son from his first marriage, J.J., is a public defender in Santa Clara.

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