Vikings’ Kluwe marches to his own tune
MINNEAPOLIS – The boy who would become the coolest punter in the NFL was brilliant in a way no teacher could comprehend. And so unsure of what to do with the young Chris Kluwe(notes) in the back of the room, who understood everything already, they let him sit by himself and read. This was just as well. By the age of 6, he had devoured the entire “Chronicles of Narnia.” By 9, he had skipped grades – twice. And as a teenager when he gave up the violin for sports, his father remembers the instructor weeping for the beautiful music Kluwe would never make again.
His mother, a doctor driven by fabulous degrees and academic accomplishment, saw great things for her oldest son. She imagined a mind humming with all the dazzling thoughts of the truly gifted. She saw awards and achievement and a planet grateful for his brain. She was sure he would want these things too, which is why she now sighs into the phone.
“He could have found a cure for cancer,” Sandy Kluwe says, her voice rising then stopping abruptly with the tone of a mother resigned.
“And he’s not,” she adds.
Instead he has taken his childhood of Shakespeare plays, Advanced Placement classes and the Johns Hopkins curriculum that Sandy put together in the year she home-schooled him and found a living punting footballs high into the air for the Minnesota Vikings. Most of the rest of the time he plays video games like “World of Warcraft” or his current favorite, a zombie thriller called “Dead Island.” He also plays bass guitar in a grunge band that has become one of the most popular acts around Minneapolis.
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And when he gets bored – because invariably the husband and father of two young children still manages to get bored – he posts on Twitter under the name @ChrisWarcraft. And this is when he gets into trouble.
If you are into the NFL and know anything about social media, you have undoubtedly seen Chris Kluwe’s work. Maybe it was the drawings he did on a whiteboard in the Vikings’ locker room before the lockout mocking the owners for their greed. Or perhaps it was the hilarious and profane parody he made during the lockout of the movie “The Downfall of Hitler” in which the irate Fuhrer rages in English subtitles: “I just drafted Peyton Manning(notes) on my fantasy football team and you’re telling me the only time I’m going to see him on TV this year is on (bleeping) FOOTBALL COPS?” And it was hard not to miss the tweet he sent out after Donovan McNabb(notes) was traded to the Vikings. Kluwe offered to give his jersey No. 5 to the new quarterback if McNabb promised to mention Kluwe’s band Tripping Icarus in five news conferences.
But the Internet moment that dwarfed all others, the one that made screaming headlines and propelled him from punter anonymity to blogger stardom, came near the lockout’s end when he responded to a rumor that an agreement was being held up while Manning, Drew Brees(notes), Logan Mankins(notes) and Vincent Jackson(notes) tried to get exemptions from the franchise tag in exchange for settling their lawsuits against the league. “Sigh,” he tweeted, “Once again greed is the operative byword. Congrats Brees, Manning, Mankins and Jackson for being ‘that guy.’ ” The post sent ripples of shock through the league, for nobody does this kind of thing to players with the stature of Manning and Brees. And if someone does, it is almost certainly not a punter.
“I’m sure if you are doing a story on him you have to leave a lot on the cutting room floor because there’s so much,” says Brian Murphy, the former Vikings special teams coach who is now with the Carolina Panthers.
There is not another player in the NFL quite like Chris Kluwe. He is that ridiculously smart kid with the genius parents who loses himself in video games and doesn’t care if it seems socially unacceptable. He talks excitedly about the games he buys and then figures them out so well that within a matter of days he is no longer interested. His SAT score was 1490 and he turned down a scholarship to Harvard to go to UCLA, breaking his mother’s heart. He explains away his solid but not overly impressive high school GPA of 3.3 by saying: “I didn’t apply myself.”
Even in a world where almost all of his teammates play video games, Chris’ obsession is considered strange. Most football players like sports games, like “Madden” or “FIFA Soccer” or “NBA 2K.” But Kluwe doesn’t like sports video games. In fact it is the lone genre he ignores, preferring science fiction and fantasy. While his teammates spend hours in position meetings, he sits at a computer outside the locker room hurling insults in a World of Warcraft chatroom.
And then there are the miniature fighters from the board game Warmachine that he collects and paints, proudly showing them to unsuspecting dinner guests.
“It took me a few minutes to realize he was trying to show me these little miniatures that he painted and then he fights them,” says Loeffler, still unsettled by his first visit to Kluwe’s home years ago. “It was the first time I met an athlete who painted miniatures. It was something I had no comprehension of. Who was it on ‘Dodgeball’ that had the unicorns? It was a similar encounter.”
Kluwe’s wife, Isabel, does not share her husband’s fascination with video games, never absorbing the scope of it until they moved in together as students at UCLA. “It was an immediate red flag,” she says. But it wasn’t until they were married during his last year of college that it fully became clear how much he was consumed. She says the games “have led to a few arguments along the way,” yet she has become numb to the whole thing, realizing how bad it is only when her friends and family are over and see Chris huddled over a computer.
Chris is not a football fan. He doesn’t follow other teams’ games. He’d prefer to play sports than watch them. The beautiful, wide flat screen television in his living room isn’t even hooked up to cable. When his father, Ron, asked him after the Vikings’ first game who the team was playing next, Chris shrugged. Heck if he knew. Ask him if he understands football and he says that after six-plus years in the NFL, he’s starting to grasp the sport’s finer points. His responsibilities during games revolve around two things: punting the ball and holding it when kicker Ryan Longwell(notes) attempts field goals and extra points. These tasks he performs flawlessly.
But while other punters and kickers consider themselves connoisseurs of football, he freely admits he has other interests. He laughs that his workday lasts for less than an hour. After that, his leg gets fatigued and he can’t really punt anymore. He says he is “inherently lazy.”
“Football seemed to be the easiest way to find funds to do all the other things I want to do,” Kluwe says. “You just have to go out and kick for 45 minutes a day.”
For that he makes a little more than $1 million a year, which he recognizes is an astronomical sum. Yet he also sees the $4 million and $5 million a year deals some punters and kickers have received and wonders about his next contract.
Isabel, whom he started dating his first year in college, loves football. She worked in the Bruins’ football office as a student when he was recruited from Los Alamitos High School in Orange County and sat with him when he attended UCLA games after committing to the school. He’d bring a book and Isabel spent the game talking to his father. At times she is as perplexed by his lack of interest in the game as she is with his video game obsession or his penchant for putting things on Twitter that she always expects to lead to fines and yet never does.
In fact football was something of an accident for Chris. He loved playing baseball and soccer growing up and planned to play both in high school. However, soccer is a winter sport in Southern California and the last period of the school day at Los Alamitos was dedicated to practice for those on sports teams. Since he didn’t want to have to rearrange his schedule once soccer season rolled around, he went out for the football team as a kicker. The tryout consisted of all the kicker candidates lining up and trying to knock a ball through the goalpost.
Chris was the only one to do it.
The summer after his freshman year, Ron took him to a local kicking camp. The first day one of the organizers took Ron aside and told him he thought Chris could be pretty good as a kicker.
“Why do you say that?” Ron asked.
“He’s outkicking all of our camp counselors, and all of those are current players in the Pac-10,” Ron was told.
Kluwe might act like he barely cares about football and seems more interested in his video games or his band or calling out Hall of Fame quarterbacks on Twitter, but make no mistake: He can punt. “He takes it very seriously,” Murphy says.
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In the corner of the Vikings’ indoor practice facility there is a contraption made of ropes and pulleys. It is designed to strengthen leg muscles and Kluwe is forever climbing in, building a leg that is already powerful. Coaches and teammates say his strength is the height he can get on his punts, sending them sailing up toward the roof of the Metrodome and then down with a deft plop that flattens them before the goal line.
“His punts are very coverable,” Murphy says.
If only Kluwe’s behavior away from the game was as controlled.
Isabel Kluwe was on the East Coast visiting family when the message she and Chris now call “that infamous tweet,” the one about Manning and Brees, hit the Internet.
Her first reaction upon seeing the tweet was “Oh my God.” Then, fearing Chris’ career might be blowing up before them – that he would be ostracized from the league for implying that two of its most beloved players were greedy – she tried to rationalize what was happening. “He’s not stupid, he doesn’t take lightly what he says,” she said to herself. Surely he must know what he was doing.
Several months later, Chris laughs at the frenzy.
“I regret nothing!” he shouts.
He says this in jest, but the fact is he doesn’t regret what he did that day. The information coming out at the time suggested the CBA might be held up while Brees and Manning fought the “franchise tag.” He says his parents taught him to never ignore injustice. If he saw something wrong it was his duty to say something. So say something he did.
“It made all the players look bad,” he says. “It makes all of us look like we want to just get paid.” And because there was still no football and because a punter had just thrown mud at two of the most beloved stars of the game, Kluwe was suddenly very much news. Word came to him quickly that Brees was not looking for something extra, but the tweet was out, his opinion had been expressed and notes were coming in from players saying they agreed with what he said. They too were turned off the by rumored proposal.
Then came the essay on the website Deadspin written by former NFL tight end Nate Jackson in which he tried to disembowel Kluwe for the tweet.
“Punters are at the absolute bottom of the totem pole on an NFL roster, the very last man,” Jackson wrote. “If the team plane crashed on a deserted island, he’d be dinner as soon as the food ran out. Most of them know this and understand it is in their best interest to keep quiet.”
The day the Jackson piece hit the Internet, Isabel was back at home in Orange County when she heard the pattering of a computer keyboard combined with the sound of her husband chuckling to himself. She walked into the room to find Chris writing a response to Jackson. “Can’t you just let it go?” she asked.
But, of course, Chris could not let it go. And among the Vikings’ players and coaches accustomed to his searing wit and vicious attacks, they knew Jackson never stood a chance.
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“My first thought was, you don’t want to get into an intellectual battle with Chris Kluwe,” says Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell.
“It was quintessential Chris Kluwe argument,” Murphy says. “You think you’re in the middle of it and then the next thing you know he is so far past you, your head is spinning.”
Near the top of the 17-paragraph screed Kluwe sent to Deadspin in response to Jackson was the following passage: “Let’s be honest here. Yes, I am a punter. Yes, I don’t run routes, or zone block, or cover receivers. Apparently, though, neither did you, which is the only explanation for your total lack of statistics.”
Thinking about it later, he chuckles.
“I’m one of the skinniest people on the team so I would probably be eaten last,” he says. “But it’s one of those things. I mean if I can’t handle [being teased for being a punter] you’re probably not going to last in the NFL. You’re not doing the same job as everyone out there and it’s something you have to handle.”
One day, anxious to try a new video game, Chris picked up “Guitar Hero.” At first he was interested to see how fast he could move his fingers to the lights flying by on the screen, but it drove him to a new thought: He wanted to learn to the play the guitar. Ironically, this was around the time he began corresponding with Andy Reiner, the executive editor of Game Informer magazine who also happened to be a guitarist between bands. When Chris happened to mention that he was now the best “Guitar Hero” player around, Reiner said maybe Chris should learn to play a real guitar.
Kluwe said he would like that very much.
Maybe Reiner didn’t quite understand his new video-gaming friend. He figured it would take Chris a couple years to grasp the nuances of being a guitarist. So he was shocked when six months later Chris could not only play the guitar but was ready to join the band Reiner was trying to put together with his friend Matthew Meeks, a drummer. They started three years ago, going through all kinds of incarnations in those early days, even working with a female singer who wanted a blues sound. Eventually they stumbled across Jesse Damien Revel, an intense singer and guitarist who embraced the grunge sound Reiner loved.
They began writing and practicing, each member bringing new material that they painstakingly turned into song after song until they had enough to record an album. The only problem was they didn’t have a band name. The four of them walked out onto a loading dock outside their building near downtown Minneapolis they use for practice and tossed out ideas.
“We tried to find a name that wasn’t taken by a crappy metal band in Des Moines,” Kluwe said.
Finally somebody suggested “Tripping Icarus,” and this sounded as good as anything, even though it meant nothing.
“I tell people it means whatever you want it to mean,” Kluwe says.
He is asked about the band: Is it a hobby? Is it serious? If the Vikings cut him and he signs in Denver, will the band still exist?
“Hopefully we will become rock stars and make a whole bunch of money,” he says. “But it’s definitely something I take very seriously and the guys on the band take seriously. We do put a lot of time into it and we hope people enjoy it. And I would love it to be a career after football stops because then you would go from one impossible dream to another impossible dream.”
Kluwe stops. “How many times can you win the lottery in your lifetime?” he asks.
No one should doubt that he would be the one to find out.
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