Kluwe falls into this last category, though to hear him tell it, he stumbled into punting. His childhood was defined by Ray Bradbury, not Ray Guy. Growing up in Southern California, he discovered a gift for speed-reading—about 15 seconds per page, he says—and put it to use tearing through sci-fi and fantasy tomes. That is, when he wasn't playing video games, acing advanced math classes and mastering the violin.
"He read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series when he was four and we said, 'O.K., we're going to have keep him from getting bored,'" says his father, Ron Kluwe, a project manager for a startup energy company. "Chris was always encouraged to explore his passions."
One of the passions Kluwe explored early on was athletics, and the boy (who would grow to stand 6'4") took to kicking a ball. Bolstered by his 1490 SAT score, Kluwe was recruited by Harvard but chose nearby UCLA instead, where he set several Bruins punting records, including total yards in a season (3,908). He signed with Minnesota in 2005 as an undrafted free agent. Eight seasons later he is still not a man defined by his job.
"Football is fun, and I like being able to do something well," he says. "I enjoy being with teammates, I enjoy the paycheck, obviously. [He'll make at least $1.3 million from Minnesota this year.] But once this chapter is done, I'll be on to something else. I'm not into watching the sport or the mystique and glamour." He's not kidding. A few years ago, for fun, Ron quizzed his son: Name all of the teams in the NFC. "I think he got 14 out of 16," Ron recalls. And this is the same guy who last month correctly answered a radio trivia question about the roles of hydrogen and methane during colonoscopy procedures.
Not surprisingly, Kluwe is deeply interested in the physics of punting. "It's a simple act, but there are a lot of complex parts," he says. "If I shank a ball off the side of my foot, is it because I dropped the ball too far off my body? I stepped too long with my second step? I let it come inside? I usually aim for the numbers on the right side of the field. That gives an angle where, if you hit the ball correctly, it will land on or outside the numbers and spin to the right."
He puts that analysis to good use. The Vikings, 4--2 following upsets of the 49ers and the Lions, are one of the NFL's pleasant surprises this season. By Columbus Day, Minnesota had already eclipsed its win total from last year's dismal 3--13 rebuilding campaign. Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has made quantum strides from that season, his completion percentage of 68.6, trailing only Robert Griffin III. Percy Harvin, leading the NFL with 49 catches, is quietly establishing himself as one of the league's elite receivers. And the secondary has improved dramatically behind veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield and rookie strong safety Harrison Smith. Last season Vikings opponents had a passer rating of 107.6, one of the highest in NFL history; this year it's 85.8.
But the special teams play, punting in particular, deserves praise too, says coach Leslie Frazier. "Chris's personality is ..." And here he slows to choose his word precisely. "Different. But he's steady, and he comes through in the clutch. Be sure to write about the Detroit game."
Sure. In Week 4 against the Lions, Minnesota's offense faced fourth-and-five near midfield, leading 20--13 with just under two minutes remaining. Detroit would get one last chance. But Kluwe's booming punt was downed inside the two-yard line, and 10 plays later the Lions' drive fizzled out at their own 44.
Kluwe waves off praise. "If the punter does the job right, then people don't notice. It's when you screw up, that's when people say, 'Oh, that's the punter.' [Says the guy who has served up three touchdown returns to Devin Hester, including, notably, the career record breaker in 2010.] Better not to get noticed."
In this case that's unlikely. Earlier in his career Kluwe may have been obscured on the Vikings, a franchise with a singular knack for drama and "shenanigans," as Loeffler puts it. Since Kluwe's rookie season in 2005, the team endured the infamous Love Boat episode (kids, get your parents' permission before Googling), the Cirque du Favre, the StarCaps supplements scandal and the (brief) second coming of Randy Moss. "Oh," adds Kluwe, "don't forget the collapsing Metrodome roof." But lately the punter has become a minor celebrity himself.