Joe Kapp, a Latino Pioneer, Earned his Way to the Super Bowl

Four decades after Joe Kapp’s NFL career ended, he still reflects on one word: ganar.

“It’s a wonderful Spanish word because it means to win,” he explains.  “But it means more than the English word to win. It means to earn. Los ganadores, the winners, are people that not only win, but they earn the right to win.”

He pauses, adding wryly, “I only know 12 words, but I really know the meaning of them.”

The term is also a fitting way to describe Kapp, the former quarterback once dubbed “The Toughest Chicano” on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In the history of Latinos in football, Kapp has yet to receive his due. Often it seems that he receives perhaps a footnote, when he is deserving of an entire chapter. 

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Kapp was the first Latino quarterback to start a Super Bowl, when he led the Minnesota Vikings to Super Bowl IV against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1970, the last AFL-NFL World Championship Game before the leagues merged. (In that same game, Tom Flores became the first Latino quarterback to win a Super Bowl ring, albeit as a backup to Len Dawson, the game’s MVP.)

However, Kapp did more than bring the Vikings to the Super Bowl. He brought Latino culture to the NFL.

“It was con mucho orgullo that I was the first Latino quarterback to play in the Super Bowl,” he says. “But you live every day with your heritage. It’s not something that just jumps out on a Super Bowl Sunday. 

"Our way of life, I’ve shared with everybody that’s ever been around me. In the old days, we used tequila as a painkiller," he added. "We’ve always been aware of salsa and the power of frijoles and family, things that you carry with you.”

At a time when the Chicano Movement was reaching its peak, Kapp was speaking Spanglish before it was mainstream, and he introduced the NFL to machismo in his own way.

If Kapp played today, he’d have a million Twitter followers. His three-part, first-person essay for Sports Illustrated, penned in 1970, provides open and incredibly entertaining insight into one of the game’s true characters. Kapp displays an honesty that would make a modern-day publicist cringe, but his candor endeared him to his teammates and fans. 

“I think I was a very popular player because everyone says how much fun I was having out there,” Kapp says. “I get, to this day, autograph requests from an old viejo in Texas or somewhere that appreciated the way we played, and it’s fun. I ain’t white bread, it’s tortillas.

“I was not monolithic,” he adds with a hearty laugh. “I had fun playing, and I think it showed. I think it isn’t just a Latino personality that you bring. You bring your sense of humor and your pride and your passion into the game.”

It was the passion that drove Kapp, who earned every snap he ever took. After leading the University of California to the Rose Bowl in 1959, Kapp was drafted by the Redskins in the 18th round (No. 209) that same year. 

When the team didn’t contact him, he took his talents to Canada. He played eight seasons in the CFL before getting his shot in the NFL. Three seasons later, his team was in the Super Bowl.

“There’s a great bullfighter’s prayer: Que Dios reparta suerte. May God provide the luck,” Kapp recalls. “There’s an attitude that you take into the arena when you compete, and definitely, the Super Bowl is the highest level in football.”

Luck would not be on the Vikings side on the afternoon of Jan. 11, 1970. The Vikings lost 23-7 to the Chiefs despite being overwhelming favorites. Kapp was knocked out of the game with an injured shoulder.

In his essay for Sports Illustrated the following summer, the quarterback gave the Chiefs full credit for their win that day. He also offered one of the most succinct, poignant descriptions of loss in sports: 

“Do you know what happens when you lose the Super Bowl? The world ends. It just stops.”

But ultimately, life goes on. Kapp played one more season, then retired from the game.

He went on to coach at his alma mater and was at its helm for one of the greatest plays in college football history, “The Play,” when Cal won in last-second fashion with the Stanford band on the field. 

He founded the “What Do You Want To Be?” Foundation, which serves at-risk children and works within Latino communities.

The game goes on as well. Eleven years after the Vikings’ Super Bowl loss, Jim Plunkett became the first Latino quarterback to win football’s biggest game, leading the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XV. Decades later, Tony Romo, then Mark Sánchez have been touted as the next great Latino quarterback, although neither of them has yet to reach the game’s pinnacle.

Joe Kapp may not have won the Super Bowl. But when it comes to deserving recognition for his place in the game’s history, he’s earned it.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino.

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