Joe Kapp signs autographs during a ceremony at El Sausal Middle School in East Salinas. (Nick Lozito)
Paul Renteria was an 11-year-old kid growing up outside of East Los Angeles when Sports Illustrated published its 1970 cover story on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.
“I hated Joe Kapp because he kicked the LA Rams’ ass every year,” Renteria recalls of that summer. “[But] then it came out in Sports Illustrated that he was Chicano.”
Kapp had led Minnesota to the Super Bowl earlier that year. But the jarring headline, “The Toughest Chicano,” drew from Kapp’s earlier days in the Alisal neighborhood of East Salinas, playing catch using heads of lettuce with lifelong friend Everett Alvarez in fields near their elementary school.
For young Renteria, whose grandfather fought in the Mexican Revolution and later became a movie cowboy, the professional quarterback’s Latino heritage was a source of pride. And it meant something to Renteria that Kapp, like him, had grown up in a migrant neighborhood.
Just 40 days after the Kapp cover story, Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar was killed at Laguna Park in East Los Angeles — where Renteria played Pop Warner football each summer — while covering a National Chicano Moratorium march in protest of the Vietnam War. Salazar was struck by a tear-gas projectile fired by a Los Angeles sheriff’s officer.
“I was scared of the violence in East L.A.,” Renteria recalls. Laguna Park, which later in 1970 was renamed Ruben Salazar Park, had gangs that surrounded the athletic fields and schoolyards.
“When I’d go to football practice, there were 100 cholos out there,” Renteria said. “Joe inspired me because he ran over people. So I ran over people. On the field I could handle my own, and the cholos weren’t tough anymore. Joe inspired me, just by his style of play.”
‘These stories are important to working-class kids’
Renteria is now a California railway surveyor and actor (he starred in Miller Lite’s “Man Law” commercials, after lobbying beer companies to hire Latino actors). He was planning a trip to Sacramento for a railway meeting when he learned Kapp was to be honored at El Sausal Middle School in East Salinas, with the athletic field named in his honor. Instead of driving home to Los Angeles, Renteria detoured to the coastal city, sometimes called “The Salad Bowl” for its agriculture.
Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, a Stanford historian also from Salinas, organized the Sept. 29 celebration to honor a quarterback whose unique throwing style — Kapp didn’t grip the laces — and wobbly passes date to his lettuce-throwing days in Alisal. Kapp is the only quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl (with UC Berkeley), Super Bowl and Grey Cup (Canadian football’s title game). He’s one of eight NFL quarterbacks to throw seven touchdowns in a game, and was Cal’s coach for the miraculous last-second victory over Stanford known simply as “The Play.”
“These stories are important to working-class and immigrant kids,” said Rodriguez, who attended El Sausal and lived in East Salinas after his family immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, when he was 4. “When you’re living in poverty, it’s tough to have a sense of hope. Then you hear Joe’s story, and you’re like ‘Whoa!’ His story resonated with me.”
At the celebration, surrounded by family, Kapp entered El Sausal’s gates in a wheelchair. Now 84, “The Toughest Chicano” is battling Alzheimer’s that is believed to be brought on by football collisions. He has retained his sense of humor, though, and lets out a playful cry when shaking hands.
That sense of playfulness is part of what got him in trouble during a Canadian Football League banquet in 2011 when, at age 73, Kapp approached former on-field rival (and professional wrestler) Angelo Mosca with flowers as a peace offering. Mosca swatted Kapp in the head with his cane. Kapp hit Mosca with a right cross, knocking him off the stage, and kicked him in the rear. The video went viral.
The El Sausal ceremony was more civil, though Kapp couldn’t resist a joke when a school board member took the stage in a red suit. “I don’t know if I can do this because you’re wearing red,” Kapp called out from the front row, turning to the crowd. “Stanford. Ever heard of them?”
The California dream
Kapp was born March 19, 1938, to Florencia Eufracia Garcia, a Mexican-American coffee shop waitress — whom Joe calls “The Toughest Chicana” in his 2020 autobiography, Joe Kapp: The Toughest Chicano — and Robert Douglas Kapp, a blonde German immigrant who battled alcoholism. The family moved from New Mexico to Southern California when Joe was in kindergarten, and then to East Salinas when he was in the fourth grade. Robert’s fluent Spanish helped in selling cookware door-to-door in neighborhoods of migrant workers.
“Salinas was kind of a sanctuary city for migrants, and the Kapps are one of those families,” said Rodriguez, who, with the Stanford Program of International and Cross-Cultural Education, has created a lesson plan based around Kapp’s legacy. “They moved to California to flee the Great Depression. They go to find the California dream, and they find work in Salinas.”
Kapp and Alvarez were part of the first class to attend El Sausal Middle School, with Kapp living across the street from the campus in a housing project of converted military barracks. Alvarez was blocks away, but Kapp joked he had “the gated community.” Joe played for hours on the El Sausal basketball courts.
“In general, racial tension was not an obvious problem, but there were two distinct groups — Okies and Latinos,” Kapp wrote of Alisal in his autobiography. “I was Mexican and German. With my name and appearance, I was identified as more of a gringo than a Latino. But what you looked like didn’t matter to me — I cared about what type of person you were, and especially what kind of teammate you were.”
Alvarez, among the speakers at the El Sausal ceremony, told the crowd about how he and Joe “fell in love” with seventh-grade teacher Palmina Brunelli. Ms. Brunelli, now 94, answered questions from Salinas TV reporter Felix Cortez. She recalled taking Everett and Joe to the UC Berkeley campus, where Everett was blown away by the academics — and Joe by Memorial Stadium.
After Joe’s sophomore year at Salinas High, the Kapps returned to Southern California. Joe reunited with Everett in Berkeley years later — Kapp as a Cal quarterback and Alvarez visiting from Santa Clara University. Before Cal football dinners, Alvarez told the audience, Kapp would hide his former classmate between Cal teammates and into the cafeteria. A quarterback sneak.
Kapp was recruited to play football for one legendary Cal coach, Pappy Waldorf, and given a scholarship to play basketball for another, Pete Newell. As a junior quarterback playing for new coach Pete Elliott, Kapp led Cal to the 1958 Rose Bowl (the loss to Iowa remains Cal’s most recent Rose Bowl berth). On the basketball court, Kapp played tough defense as a reserve.
After being selected in the NFL draft, Kapp instead signed with the Canadian Football League. Following a 1961 trade from Calgary, Kapp led the BC Lions to the 1964 Grey Cup title.
Alvarez enlisted in the Navy and, in 1964, became the first American serving in Vietnam to be shot down and detained as a prisoner of war. He was held captive for nine years, and for his service was awarded two Purple Hearts. A Salinas high school is named in his honor.
In 1967, Kapp signed with the Vikings and, in 1968, he gained a reputation for his rugged play and leadership as the team earned its first postseason berth. In 1969, Kapp finished second in MVP voting, threw 19 touchdowns and led Minnesota to the Super Bowl, a loss to Kansas City.
It would be his last game with Minnesota.
Months after the Sports Illustrated cover story was published, Kapp signed a record four-year contract with the Boston Patriots, who were coming off a poor season. The team went 2-12 with Kapp. When Boston asked Kapp to sign a standard contract the following season, he refused. Kapp never played another NFL game. In 1974, he won a summary judgment against the NFL, citing restraint of trade, but never received compensation for damages.
‘The Bear will not quit’
Kapp took up acting for a few years, but couldn’t stay away from football for long: he returned to Cal as football coach in 1982. In his first game against rival Stanford, The Big Game, Cal used a series of laterals that culminated in a last-second, game-winning touchdown and toppled over a Stanford trombone player in the process. Kapp coached Cal through 1986, when the team finished with a 2-9 record but pulled off an upset of rival Stanford in Kapp’s final game.
Kapp later became a general manager in the Canadian Football League and a coach in the Arena Football League before retiring. He now lives in Los Gatos.
At El Sausal, a nervous Vikings fan — perhaps he saw the viral CFL video — eagerly waited to give Kapp a personalized hat. After the final speaker, a collection of fans, family, friends and media swarmed Kapp as his daughters, Emiliana and Gabriela, helped organize autographs.
At about this time, the bell rang and dozens more students surrounded Kapp, who had ditched his wheelchair and walked to the newly unveiled athletic field sign, designed by daughter Emiliana and Julio Gil of Central Coast Sign and Design. It reads “JOE KAPP FIELD,” along with “The Toughest Chicano,” and features an illustration of Kapp’s signature snarl under a single-bar facemask.
Then Kapp walked to a 1965 Buick Wildcat lowrider, driven by Debbie Martin of Lady Lowriders United. Kapp grimaced as he dipped into a sunken passenger seat, and the car drove away as students gave chase and “La Cucaracha” blared from the speakers at Joe Kapp Field.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.