Remembering Joe Kapp: The Toughest Chicano in Sports History

 | May 11, 2023

Illustration by Nuestro Stories.

The Latino community is in mourning. Joe Kapp, a former soccer player, and coach, passed away on May 10 at age 85.

Kapp was a legendary figure in the Chicano community and a pioneer for Latino athletes.

A successful college career

Kapp was born on March 19, 1940, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was the son of a Mexican-American mother and a father of German descent. Kapp grew up in California, in the San Fernando Valley, and in Salinas. It was there that he learned to play football.

At the University of California, Berkeley, he became a star quarterback. Kapp led the Golden Bears to the Rose Bowl in 1958, where they lost to Iowa.

That same year, Kapp was named an All-American, received the W. J. Voit Memorial Trophy, and was recognized as the most outstanding athlete on the Pacific Coast.

It was his professional career that went down in the history books

In 1959, Kapp was selected 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. But the opportunity didn’t pan out, and the only option he had at the last minute was to play for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.

The following year, Kapp led Calgary to its first playoff appearance in years. Despite a knee injury, Kapp managed to play the entire season.

Two years later, the BC Lions, then the CFL’s newest franchise, traded four starters to the Calgary Stampeders for Joe Kapp. The Latin player led the team to a Grey Cup appearance in 1963 and its first win a year later.

It was then that Kapp became popular for the way he played — rough and even violent

Upon his return to the United States, he led the Minnesota Vikings in 11 of 14 NFL games in 1967, earning three wins, five losses, and three ties. A year later, he led Minnesota to its first playoff appearance.

From then on, the media and commentators called Kapp “The Toughest Chicano,” as “Sports Illustrated” described him on its 1970 cover.

“I’m aware of my own reputation, and I enjoy it,” Kapp told the magazine in 1970. “I’ve been called one-half of a collision looking for the other.”

“I think of myself as a gentle, fun-loving, peaceful person, but you can be all these things and still get in fights, especially if you don’t back down. And I try not to.”

Thereafter, the Boston Patriots signed him to a four-year contract, making him the highest-paid player in the league.

After a contract incident with the Patriots, Kapp never played again.

A professional career that ends in a lawsuit

After the problem with the Patriots, Kapp filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that did not bear fruit until 1977. After a review of the rules at issue in the case, the player reached a multimillion-dollar settlement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

Since then, Kapp appeared on several television shows and in movies. But in 1982, his career took a turn. Kapp was hired as head football coach at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley.

In the early 1990s, Kapp served as general manager of the BC Lions but was fired shortly after that. Similarly, he served as head coach of the Los Angeles Wings of the Arena Football League.

In 2016, the player was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which would eventually claim his life seven years later.

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