Football is a kids' game, invented to give a lot of people a lot of fun. The minute a player loses sight of that fact, he's in trouble. Like the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. We forgot we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves out there. We forgot it was a kids' game, and we wound up playing in a redwood forest. Every time I looked up I could see those red tree trunks in front of me and on top of me and all around me. We didn't stay loose and have fun—in the traditional Viking way—and we played a poor game and they played a great one.
By having fun I don't mean goosing each other and telling dirty jokes in the huddle—although a little male humor doesn't hurt either. I mean doing your absolute best and enjoying it, because if you're doing your best you will be enjoying it. And if you're doing your best, then winning isn't so crucial. A football isn't round, and you don't always have control of whether you win or lose, but you do have control of your own effort and your own mind. If you can get enough ballplayers on your own club thinking this way, you can win anything.
I haven't missed many football games in my life, going all the way back to high school—like most pros, I've played with cracked ribs and a punctured lung and a torn knee and separated shoulder and half a dozen other injuries—and I've also never missed a postgame party. I've never missed the fun. I've known players who get a little injury and rush off to the hospital and don't make the party. Bull! Not me. I never missed one and I never intend to miss one. You play out there together and you win or lose together and you're all involved in this effort together and after the game you should party together.
Of course, there are certain players who will tell you that I never miss a party, period, and if they want to spread that propaganda, it's all right with me—mostly because it's true. I even showed up at the annual banquet of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes this year, at their invitation. At first I thought some terrible mistake had been made. Certainly I'm a Christian athlete, although I'm not exactly renowned for my piety. I was a little uneasy until I spotted Bobby Layne, the former quarterback, and then I felt like I belonged. And when I saw Dick Butkus, I really breathed easier. I went up to him and I said, "Whose ticket did you steal to get in?" and he said, "Why don't you go over in the corner and leave us humans alone?" Mutual respect, that's what we have. When people ask me if Butkus is the best linebacker I've faced, I won't answer. I hate to single out individual opponents. In the pro game, they're all good. I won't even vote for an all-opponent team. I rip the ballots up. They're all good. I'll bet you a cigar that you can't name one bad football player in pro ball. You lose!
I'm aware of my own reputation, and I enjoy it. I've been called "one half of a collision looking for the other." The adjectives you usually read about me are "unstylish," "brutal," "unrelenting" and sometimes "dumb." (That's when we lose; when we win, I'm a "great genius.") People take one look at the scars on my face and they assume that I spend most of my off-hours prowling around looking for fights, when the truth is that the fights are prowling around looking for me, and sometimes they find me. 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. You won't see me running out of bounds to avoid a little physical contact with a linebacker, and you won't see me ducking out the window when somebody wants to tangle. So I've been known to get in an occasional tête-à-tête.
Maybe this goes back to my Chicano childhood, and machismo. Machismo means manliness, a willingness to act like a man, and if a kid didn't have machismo in the polyglot neighborhoods of the San Fernando and Salinas valleys in California, where I grew up, he had it tough. When I was little I saw guys lying in their own blood at the corner of Mission Boulevard and Hollister Street in San Fernando. Sometimes the Mexicans would fight the Anglos; sometimes it would be the Mexicans and the blacks from Pacoima. They had gang fights going all the time and even an occasional shoot-out or knifing.
When we moved to Salinas in the California lettuce belt, we lived in a housing project with pickers, Okies, Arkies, blacks and whites and browns and purples. In the fifth grade a bigger kid called me "a dirty Mexican," and at first I didn't challenge him. But when I got home I brooded on what he had said. My sense of justice was outraged. My mother, Florence Garcia Kapp, is Mexican-American, but my father is of German descent; therefore, at worst, I could only be half of what that kid had called me. So I went back and found him and really whaled him. I didn't win the fight, but I got in some licks. That was machismo, not backing down, acting like a man. I think I violated the code of machismo only once: in the seventh grade, when two guys took my basketball and rolled it down the hill. I should have whaled them, too, but one of them was Bob Sartwell, the best athlete in Salinas, six feet tall and 180 pounds, and I chickened out. I've never backed down since. On that dry, dusty basketball court in Salinas, I would look around me and say to myself, "Well, if I'm gonna win this game I'm gonna have to kick somebody's butt!" That was valuable training for NFL football.
I went to the University of California on an athletic scholarship, mostly for my basketball, but if you have never heard of me in that connection, you may be excused. I arrived at Cal under the mistaken impression that I was the hottest athlete in town, but I was quickly disabused. Those big-city athletes had moves I'd never imagined. In football you had to play both ways in those days, and I started at quarterback on the freshman football team. The coaches didn't know where to play me on defense, so I played corner. Against UCLA's frosh team I had to cover a pass catcher who was a star hurdler. I played him about 18 yards deep and still he caught three touchdown passes over my head and UCLA beat us 32-0. I was never so humiliated in my life. We didn't get a single point on offense and I let them have three touchdowns over my head! I was ready to quit football, but the coach talked me out of it. He let me play outside linebacker in the last game against Stanford, and my lack of talent didn't show up so conspicuously there.
Cal was going through some tough times back in those days. The Golden Bears hadn't won a Pacific Coast Conference title in years. In my sophomore year we won three football games, and in my junior year we won two less than that. By the time my senior year came around we were classed as humpties, and we opened the season by losing to College of the Pacific, with Dick Bass, and then to Michigan State. Halfback Jack Hart and I were co-captains and we sat down for a little talk after that second straight loss. "This is it, man," Jack said. "We're either gonna turn it all around right now or we're gonna have another year like the last two."
"We've got to do something wild," I said. "We've got to shake the guys up somehow."