Life has defining moments. For Joe Kapp, a former quarterback and football coach, it happened when he was a student at El Sausal Middle School in Salinas and went on a field trip to UC Berkeley. It’s a trip many kids in Salinas go on every year to get exposed to higher education; when Kapp was there, the football field stood out more than the classroom, and he thought one day he would play there.
He started out playing football with heads of lettuce as a child. Kapp went to UC Berkeley and played for the Golden Bears in 1956. He also became the first in his family to graduate from college.
After college, Kapp played professional football in Canada for eight seasons, winning the Gray Cup in 1964, and four seasons in the NFL. He brought the Minnesota Vikings to their first Super Bowl in 1970. He is also one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to throw the most touchdown passes (seven) in a game.
Kapp returned to his alma mater in 1982 as the Golden Bears’ head coach and led the team for five years. During his first year, his team pulled off one of the most dramatic finishes in college football history, simply called “The Play”: five lateral passes on a kickoff return to score the winning touchdown against the Stanford Cardinals as time expired.
He was also a pioneer in free agency. He sued the NFL, claiming the standard contracts were unconstitutional, which led to the league’s practice of allowing players to solicit or negotiate contracts with any team.
Kapp is recognized as a relentless player and leader and warrior for his teammates. One fellow Chicano proud of that legacy is Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez, a historian and Salinas native. “He never forgot where he came from,” Ornelas says. “In any interview he talks about how his time in Salinas really shaped his identity.”
Ornelas started a quest to know more about this Chicano quarterback. He met Kapp and his family and interviewed them, and now he wants to interview others from Monterey County who knew him as well. Ornelas is also advocating to rename El Sausal Middle School’s athletic field after Kapp, as the Joe Garcia Kapp Athletic Field.
Ornelas also attended El Sausal, but at the time he had no idea he and Kapp had walked the same hallways. “I would have been a much different student,” he says. “I would have been inspired by his story.”
On June 2, J.J. Kapp sent a letter to Salinas Union High School District board recommending they name El Sausal Middle School’s athletic field after his dad. The letter was signed by more than a dozen supporters, including Kapp’s childhood friend Everett Alvarez; Jose Gil, athletic director at Alisal High; and Assemblymember Robert Rivas, D-Hollister.
Simon Salinas, a former Monterey County supervisor, says he and many others call Kapp “Joe Cachucha” (cap in Spanish). He says Kapp impressed him when he saw him interacting with youth, not just for his coaching skills but “his ability to connect with young people and to tell his story.”
Salinas says it is key for younger generations to have role models that have shared their same challenges and struggles.“For our kids, Joe Kapp was a Chicano, a Mexican American who succeeded,” Salinas says. “They never should feel they don’t have what it takes.”
According to SUHSD’s facility naming policy, the board can name a building or facility after people, living or deceased, who have made outstanding contributions in Monterey County or at the state, national or international level. Before adopting any new names the board would hold a public hearing where people can provide input.
Ornelas agrees kids and teens need role models they can feel proud of. “We have a generation of kids that are almost embarrassed to say they’re Mexican or Mexican American,” he adds.
Kapp and his family started a scholarship fund in 2018 at UC Berkeley, called the Joe Kapp and Family Scholarship Fund, to help Chicano and Latino students. Now 83 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, Kapp lives in Los Gatos.