In some parallel universe, perhaps there's an Orthodox rabbi who frequents lobster boils and pig roasts. Maybe there's a tofu concessionaire working a UFC event or a socialist hedge-fund manager. Here on planet Earth, however, there is a comparably incongruous figure. In the NFL—province of macho men glistening with testosterone, bastion of conformity, citadel of single-minded intensity—Chris Kluwe works as a punter for the Minnesota Vikings. But when he is not booting the ball he talks with charismatic intelligence about religion, history and politics. Especially politics. He writes manifestos on hot-button issues and challenges elected officials to debate. With no shred of embarrassment he admits to devouring science-fiction novels, painting tabletop figurines and generally behaving in such a way that a cast member on The Big Bang Theory might accuse him of geeking out.
Kluwe claims that only once in his pro career has he played the "I am a professional athlete" card, but it wasn't to get into a restaurant or club. He went there to gain admission into the Flying Hellfish, a top-tier guild in World of Warcraft. We know that WoW is a MMORPG—a massively multiplayer online role-playing game—spoofed in a particularly hilarious South Park episode. (Cartman: "You can just hang out in the sun all day tossing a ball around—or you can sit at your computer and do something that matters!") But the Flying Hellfish guild?
Kluwe slows his usual rapid cadence to explain: "A guild is a group that plays together. I was a troll rogue named Loate, a stealthy guy who sneaks around. Each dungeon has different bosses and different mechanics you have to figure out. One boss may have lava popping up in parts of the room. Another boss may enrage—all of a sudden he'll start doing more damage. We communicated mostly on Ventrilo, an Internet protocol." And here Kluwe changes his voice to mimic such a conversation: "Hey, who's tanking him? Why are you suddenly invisible?"
One of Kluwe's fellow guildies was a California architect. Another was a nurse in Oregon. ("He's a Packers fan, so we talk a lot of s---," says Kluwe.) A third was a Texas landscaper. How did Kluwe know this? "We met at various functions. And at BlizzCon. We were ranked third in the U.S. at one point."
Third in what?
Yes, along with dwarves and lava-spewing dungeon bosses, Kluwe, 30, effectively kills the dumb-jock stereotype. It was an NPR host who recently wondered aloud, Is Kluwe the nerdiest player in the history of the NFL or the most athletic nerd ever? "One of the smartest people—not athletes, people—I've ever come across," says Vikings defensive tackle Fred Evans, Kluwe's lockermate. "Great guy. But is he wired a little different? Oh, yeah. Never had another teammate like him. Never will."
And yet maybe Kluwe isn't such an anomaly. What, after all, is the NFL but the world's most popular war game? Consider: 53-man squadrons with bellicose names like Raiders and Buccaneers and, well, Vikings represent the honor of a region. They dress in garish uniforms and tricked-out headgear. (Have you seen Justin Tuck's face mask lately?) In weekly contests they defend territory and advance a prized object toward a small, protected zone. The ultimate quest: winning a "Super Bowl"—something that to the uninitiated surely sounds no less ridiculous than thwarting the mightiest gnome or surviving the Burning Crusade.
Here's Kluwe describing the Flying Hellfish: "You have all these different people with different roles. If someone screws up, there's a chain reaction—you might cover for them, but then you're weakened. So everyone works together." Not an hour later here's Vikings long snapper Cullen Loeffler waxing eloquent about his team's harmonious locker room: "You bring in people from all over the country, all different backgrounds, for a common goal. Everyone does their job, and we win as a team."
Not unlike characters in World of Warcraft, NFL figures come in a variety of shapes and sizes, perform distinct roles and are endowed with different powers. Linemen of superhuman dimensions block and tackle. Sleek position players get the glory and riches but also shoulder blame in defeat. And there are specialists, physically unremarkable men—kickers and punters—who seldom dispense or absorb much violence, and who are considered expendable should they screw up. (See: Cundiff, Billy.) On the other hand these specialists' professional life spans, experience points, in the gaming vernacular, can far exceed those of other players.