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In 1967, the year after the AFL-NFL merger, some teams were looking north for talent, among them the Houston Oilers, who reportedly offered Kapp $100,000 to join them for 1968, the year after his contract with the Lions would have expired. Kapp agreed, assuming that the discussions were confidential and the agreement perfectly legal. When he returned to Vancouver, he found that the CFL had suspended him indefinitely and that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had voided the Houston agreement, ruling that the Oilers had no right to negotiate with a player still under contract with another team. Kapp was a man without a country to play football in.
In desperation, he turned to John Elliott Cook, a semiretired San Francisco attorney, then nearing 70, who had represented John Brodie in his dispute with the merged hierarchy over an agreement Brodie had signed with the Oilers during the AFL's premerger raids on NFL quarterbacks. Cook established in court that Brodie was entitled to the $750,000 the Oilers had agreed to pay him and then some, even though he didn't jump leagues. Brodie had been Cook's only athlete client, and the aging lawyer was not at all anxious to take on another one. But Kapp sought him out in his Lake Tahoe retreat and importuned him so vigorously that Cook, admittedly taken with "the boy's candor and charm," took the case. Threatened with another potentially disastrous day in court, the NFL backed down. Kapp's contract was finally awarded to the Vikings, who had also been bidding for him. The Oilers were reprimanded, and British Columbia was reimbursed for the loss of its star quarterback. Kapp signed a three-year contract with Minnesota for the same reported $100,000 per season Houston had offered.
In eight seasons in Canada, Kapp had passed for 22,725 yards and 136 touchdowns, and he remains to this day the third-leading alltime CFL passer. But the NFL had to be convinced, and Kapp went about establishing his credentials in his customarily direct way. In his first offensive series in an NFL game, against the Rams, he addressed his opponents—who were leading 23-0 and laughing—across the line of scrimmage just before the snap from Center Mick Tingelhoff: "——you, Rams, and——you too, Deacon [Jones]! Let's see how good you are." Kapp's courage and unflagging confidence quickly won over his new teammates. Here was a quarterback who seemed to enjoy contact as much as any middle linebacker. "Other quarterbacks run out of bounds," said his coach, Bud Grant. "Kapp turns upheld and looks for a tackle to run into." One memorable Kapp collision occurred in the NFL title game of 1969. With the Vikings safely ahead of the Browns, Kapp decided to run with the ball when he couldn't locate a receiver. In his path was Jim Houston, the 240-pound Cleveland linebacker. Houston hit Kapp a lick, and after a midair flip, Kapp landed fiat on his back. He got up. Houston didn't.
"Joe was a hitting quarterback," says Cal Assistant Coach Ernest (Pokey) Allen, who was Kapp's teammate at Vancouver. "The other players appreciate that. It's hard not to be motivated by somebody like that. As a defensive back [and sometime quarterback], I rated quarterbacks by what they did after an interception. If they went for the tackle, they earned my special respect. But you can count on the fingers of one hand the ones who did. Actually, I can't think of anyone but Joe. And he went for that tackle with a vengeance."
In the '69 season Kapp quarterbacked the Vikes to the Super Bowl. Though he was derided for his wobbly passes, he tied an NFL record that year by throwing for seven touchdowns in a 52-14 rout of the defending NFL champion Colts. The wobble, says Kapp, is attributable to his habit of hastily grabbing "the seed" anywhere he could get hold of it, not necessarily with his fingertips on the laces. Kapp and the Vikings were the darlings of the '69 season. It was Kapp who coined the team battle cry, "Forty for Sixty"—40 players for 60 minutes, and with Kapp as the topkick, the Vikes seemed more like a commando unit than a football team. They finished the regular season 12-2, the losses coming in their first and last games, and they buried Cleveland 27-7 for the league title. Kapp was voted the NFL Player of the Year in five different polls and was selected as the team's Most Valuable Player. At a banquet Kapp startled the celebrants by rejecting the award. "There is no one most valuable Viking," he said, citing the team's one-for-all, all-for-one credo.
Kapp also became the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only player to quarterback a team in the Rose Bowl, Grey Cup and Super Bowl? Of these, alas, the Grey Cup would be his only win. The underdog Kansas City Chiefs trounced the Vikes 23-7 on Jan. 11, 1970 for the AFL's second straight Super Bowl win, and Kapp suffered a shoulder injury late in the game after being tackled by the Chiefs' Aaron Brown. He was a battered loser, but he won the admiration of his conquerors. "He's a sorry passer and really not a great quarterback," said Chiefs Defensive End Jerry Mays, "but he's a great leader. I hated to play against him. You felt his presence no matter where he was, on the sidelines or on the field. He'd look at you and challenge you with his eyes. When I think of him, I think of his eyes."
Super Bowl IV was virtually Kapp's swan song as a player. He and the Vikings couldn't agree on a new contract, and on Cook's advice, Kapp held out. He finally signed as the NFL's equivalent of a free agent with the Patriots for three years at $200,000 a year—at least he thought he did. Even though he did not report until well into the season, Kapp took a fearsome beating behind a porous Patriot line in 1970. At one point, he says, he was asked to serve as player-head coach, an offer he declined. As it was, the Patriots went through two coaches, Give Rush and Johnny Mazur. Of Mazur Kapp now says, "He went to Notre Dame, was an ex-Marine and he smoked cigars. Any one or even two of those things you can live with, but not all three."
At the conclusion of that dreadful season, Kapp was informed that the contract he had signed was merely a "pro tempore" agreement to play one season. In order for him to continue to play with the Patriots, he was told, he must now sign an NFL standard player contract. Kapp sent the standard contract to Cook, who advised him not to return it because it seemed clearly unconstitutional. Besides, as far as Cook was concerned, Kapp already had a legitimate contract, many of the provisions of which the standard contract would negate. On July 16, 1971 Kapp was ordered out of the Patriots training camp. He sat out the entire 1971 season. On March 27, 1972 he filed an antitrust suit against all 26 NFL teams, asking damages from each one for forming a "group boycott" and depriving him of his right to earn a living. Kapp was 34 at the time, an age when many NFL quarterbacks are in their prime.
On Dec. 20, 1974 Kapp appeared to win a major victory when U.S. District Court Judge William T. Sweigert in San Francisco issued a "summary judgment" which found that the standard contract and the NFL's reserve system were "patently unreasonable and illegal." One of Kapp's attorneys, Moses Lasky, forecast damages for his client in excess of $10 million.
The trial to determine damages for Kapp began in Judge Sweigert's San Francisco court on March 2, 1976 before a jury of two men and four women. One floor above, Patty Hearst, a bigger drawing card, was on trial for bank robbery.