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.
This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2012 issue
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.
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.
It started last summer when, at the height of the NFL labor dispute, Kluwe took to Twitter under the handle @ChrisWarcraft and called multimillionaires Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and a handful of others at the negotiating table "douchebags," for what he perceived as greed in refusing to settle while mere millionaires went unpaid. Nate Jackson, a former Broncos tight end, responded on Deadspin with a blistering 1,271-word diatribe titled "Dear Chris Kluwe: When We Want the Punter's Opinion, We'll Ask for It (We Won't)." Kluwe fired back with an open letter of his own, employing a writing style that he says was forged on online gaming message boards. "You need to set yourself apart by having a logically sound argument coupled with really colorful profanities. That tickles a nerve in people," he says. "You're kind of funny! And you're kind of making a point!"
Kluwe struck again this season, taking to the Internet to blast Maryland state assembly delegate Emmett Burns, Minnesota archbishop John Nienstedt and Ravens center Matt Birk for their opposition to gay marriage. Though his brother-in-law is gay, Kluwe says his passion on the issue is stoked less by personal connections than by notions of fairness and empathy. "Just treat people the way you want to be treated," he says. "If I can get married to someone I love, why can't someone else marry the person they love?"
He laughs when he hears it argued that gay marriage corrodes society. "Look at the blasted wasteland Canada has become ever since they legalized gay marriage! The zombie apocalypse is everywhere!"
As you'd expect within any subset of the population, some of Kluwe's teammates agree with him, and others don't. But they all agree that it's rare for an NFL player—especially a punter—to be so outspoken on a controversial issue. "Chris is unique, but it's outside the office, the locker room," says Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. "If you're good at what you do and basically keep your mouth shut, guys respect [you]."
Adds Loeffler, "I don't paint plastic figurines. I think I quit that around the third grade. But to each his own. We all respect each other."
Already a hero in the gay community, Kluwe's status as a cult phenomenon was cemented when he recently posed topless for the gay magazine Out. His Twitter time line is flooded with calls for him to run for public office. (No chance, he says, before launching into a frighteningly informed diatribe about campaign-finance laws.) He enjoys similar status on WoW message boards. "Whenever a celebrity enters the community, it's a big deal," says Alex Ziebart, editor in chief of WoWInsider.com. "It's like learning that Barack Obama likes the same sports team that you do."
Sure. Sort of.
If all of this has echoes of the handsome football star inviting the marginalized outcast to sit at his cool table ... well, Kluwe doesn't see it that way. "We like to lump people into categories. He's a nerd. He's a jock. He's gay. He's religious. Whatever. Human beings are more complex and complicated than a single word," he says. "Football is part of my life but not the whole of who I am. Gaming is part of my life but not all of who I am. Balance all of those to be a complete human being. What was it Aristotle said—everything in moderation?"
In his current quest for moderation, Kluwe has lately throttled back on World of Warcraft, devoting many of those hours to his wife, Isabel, and two young daughters, 4-year-old Olivia and 2-year-old Remy. He plays bass in a Twin Cities rock band, Tripping Icarus. He is devouring David Weber's sci-fi series Safehold. Having declined an offer to invest in Curt Schilling's ill-fated video game company, 38 Studios, Kluwe opened a small tabletop-gaming and miniatures store, Mercenary Market, near his off-season home in Southern California.
"It's never boring," says Loeffler of the punter's presence. "He's always got something going on—a new idea, a new game, something that makes him curious."
Yes, for Kluwe there are real battles to be waged, challenges to be mounted, books to be read, interests to be nourished. But we know one thing: A troll rogue never backs down.