A stalk of celery was the straw Joe Kapp used to stir his drink, a Bloody Mary with six limes and a couple of shots of tabasco sauce in a heavily salted glass. Each in its own deliberate way -- the drink and the drinker -- unusual, theatrical. Now, he is the football coach at the University of California, but 15 years ago, Kapp was on center stage during Super Bowl week, being celebrated as the roughneck quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. Had the Vikings beaten Kansas City in Super Bowl IV, Kapp's tequila-and-tumble, no-guts-no-glory style might have made him the workingman's Joe Namath. But the Chiefs won, 23-7, and late in the game, when a hit from Aaron Brown dislocated his shoulder, the wax of invincibility that stiffened Kapp's wings melted, and, like Icarus, he fell to earth.
"How do you measure it?" he asks. "Clever people and grocers -- they weigh everything. I'm not clever enough. Heh, heh, heh." His hair is aggressively gray. His eyes are like bloodstones, chunks of deep green randomly, subtly flecked with red. He will regularly pull the string that blows them wide and wild, and when he laughs, the combination produces a look and a music that goes beyond mortal and nearly into demonic. People say Kapp is not offended when he is compared to Zorba.
"You put a team together, a group of people, and then it's a series of strokes. It's like a painting that you're constantly working on, and it's finally finished only at sundown, when the gun goes off," Kapp says, his hands making brush strokes as he talks. "The difference between winning and losing is an inch, a breath, a blink. If enough people in this painting -- in this group effort -- do a little bit more, you're liable to win." He leans forward, his face large and square, like an icebox, and says, "It's a fine, fine line. I try to learn something new every day. That's what I learned from the Super Bowl."
A conversation with Kapp does not ride a smooth road; he searches out detours for the joy of a bumpy ride. It is sometimes unclear which question Kapp is answering, but most of the fun in eating an artichoke is peeling away the leaves. "I played every down, every play like it was my last," Kapp says, somewhere between here and there. "I try to teach that now: live every day like it's the last day of your life. You don't have to win -- if you've given it your best effort -- because even if you do win, it's never the ultimate. You always have to saddle up and play it again; if there's a breath of life left in you, saddle up and get ready for the next one." The eyes are very wide now. "It's all in the going. You understand what I mean?"
He takes a gulp of his drink.
He is about to change direction.
"Of course, we teach them to make that last stroke a winning one," Kapp says, moving quickly lest something grow under his feet. "Competitors, that's what you want. People that have to win. It's a type of madness. Heh, heh, heh. In football there is day-to-day madness." He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Pride is a very important part of madness." And now he is laughing again. "Who's to say it's healthy? Heh, heh, heh. Who's to say? I've had some young men in my program who are too healthy. Too sane. Go be a doctor. You show me some great football players, I'll show you some madness."
Kapp will not be drawn into comparing his quarterbacking style to either Dan Marino's or Joe Montana's. In truth, there are few comparisons, only contrasts. Kapp threw an ugly ball and relished contact; he is a broken bottle next to the porcelain Marino, a clumsy leap next to the balletic Montana. But if you must compare quarterbacks, to be fair there are questions you must ask, and he rattles them off: "How much help do they have? Are their defenses strong? Do they have offensive line help? Receiver help? Running help? Coaching help? Management help?" Satisfied that he has made his point -- that Marino and Montana have sterling, not plastic ware, to eat with -- Kapp says, "I was very proud of my so-called wobbly passes that ended up in a winning effort. My definition of being a quarterback, of what I have to do as a quarterback, is, win! It depends on how much help you have, partner. Sonny Jurgensen. The greatest passer. Great offense. But no defense, so he can't win." Kapp shrugs his shoulders. What can you do? Marino, Montana, Kapp can't relate; Doug Flutie, on the other hand. "When I see a quarterback with protection breaking down, having to leave the pocket, making something happen out of nothing, well, it doesn't necessarily remind me of me -- let's just say I've been in those shoes a lot." Kapp likes guys who can do it without much help. Those are the guys, Kapp says, who have heart. El corazon and la tequila will do it every time.
It's been three years since Kapp returned to his alma mater as its football coach. He says he doesn't like to look at records, perhaps because his has gone from 7-4 to 2-9. But every day, he says, is a joy. "This isn't work for me. If it was work for one second, I wouldn't do it. Everything I do, I do to be happy." Kapp adores this place, and when he recruits players he tells them how if they come here they can see the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay and redwoods, palms, oaks, spruces and cypresses, how they can study at great libraries and visit great art museums, how they can hear beautiful music. He spreads out his arms and tells them, "This is it. This is the center of the universe." If it were 1969, Joe Kapp would be wearing flowers in his hair.
On Sunday, amid a spread of tacos and hot sauce, Kapp will watch the Super Bowl from a room somewhere inside Cal's Memorial Stadium. Watching with him will be 22 recruits. They will surely ask him about playing in the Super Bowl, and, heh, heh, heh, he surely will look for the madness in their eyes.