Vikings' Kluwe does everything to his own beat
On the field, in the locker room, in his band or on Twitter, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is anything but ordinary.
Kickoff for the Packers game was roughly 19 hours away, but Chris Kluwe already had found his comfort zone. Not on the football field, but in a tiny room in a Minneapolis warehouse where his rock band practices three times a week.
"Did you bring earplugs?" he asked a visitor during a break.
Here, Kluwe is the bass guitar player for Tripping Icarus, a four-member group that already has played First Avenue and is busy writing songs for its second CD.
In his day job, he is the Vikings punter and having the best season of his six-year career while leading NFC Pro Bowl voting for his position.
But to call Kluwe an NFL punter would be like describing the Vikings' season as eventful: Both are accurate but don't come close to capturing the truth.
Kluwe marches -- or tweets in some instances -- to his own beat.
"He's a Renaissance man," said his mother, Sandy.
"He's like a diamond -- there's a lot of facets to his being," Vikings special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said.
"Definitely eclectic," long snapper Cullen Loeffler said.
Kluwe freely admits he wasn't exactly a dedicated student in school, but yet he recorded a perfect score on the verbal portion of the SAT without studying for the college admissions test and was recruited hard by Harvard and Dartmouth.
A talented violin player as a child, he learned to play bass guitar a few years ago after mastering the video game "Guitar Hero."
He's a voracious reader who has read hundreds, if not thousands, of books. A speed reader whose primary tastes are science fiction and fantasy, he knocks out a novel in a day or two.
He has also become so engrossed in the tabletop game Warmachine that he spends hours (often in the locker room) painting his miniature troops and hopes to compete in a national tournament someday.
Kluwe is the type of guy who can pick up a Rubik's Cube for the first time and solve it in 10 minutes.
"He's just naturally gifted," said his father, Ron.
He's also a pretty darn good punter. Kluwe has embraced the team's request to change his approach and focus more on hang time and placement rather than distance in order to help the coverage unit. The results are impressive: He ranks second in the NFL in net average and third in return yard average.
"He's willing to do the things that we need as a team," Murphy said. "I just can't say it enough, and it means so much to us as a team that he does that."
Kluwe's father is a chemical engineer, and his mother is the head of anesthesiology at a hospital in his hometown of Los Alamitos, Calif. His grandmother Lucy Woodward was an aerospace engineer and adventurer who climbed mountains all over the world, including Kilimanjaro at age 73. Woodward, who died in 2007, took Chris to Antarctica when he was 11.
The Kluwes realized they had their hands full with their first child from an early age. At 5, he was reading "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
"My wife and I looked at each other and said, 'Well, how are we going to stay ahead of him?'" Ron said.
That became a challenge at times. Kluwe devoured classes that intrigued him and ignored the ones that didn't.
"The classes that didn't interest me, I was kind of like, 'Ah, whatever, I'm going to read a book during class,'" he said.
He hated homework and preparing for tests. He had a standard reply for when his mom asked why he didn't study for tests.
"He would say, 'Why would I study? This way I can see if I learned anything in the class,'" Sandy recalled. "Isn't that annoying?"
Kluwe graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average while mostly taking Advanced Placement classes as a senior at Los Alamitos High School. He scored a 1,490 on the SAT under the former scale, including that perfect score on the verbal. He missed a few math questions because, as he said, "I hadn't taken a math class in three years because I had graduated out of calculus my freshman year. I didn't really study for it. I've never been one for studying. I just go off common knowledge."
Headed for L.A.
That approach was good enough to attract attention from some of the most prestigious schools in the country. But Kluwe had established himself as one of the nation's best punters and wanted to play Division I football at a high level, too.
"He came into the study one night and said, 'Dad, I just turned down Harvard,'" Ron said. "I said, 'Here's the deal, buddy: You're going to tell your mom that you turned down Harvard because I'm not telling her."
Sandy, who attended medical school at Penn for two years before transferring to UCLA, initially wasn't crazy about his decision.
"I was most displeased," she said, able to laugh about it now.
Kluwe ultimately signed with UCLA and graduated with two degrees, history and political science. He also met his future wife, Isabel, who worked in the football office when he was a recruit and helped show him around campus.
"He was pretty clueless, to be quite honest," she said. "I didn't know he was a football player. I thought he was a soccer player."
Then his SAT scores arrived a few weeks later and caught her attention.
"Those got passed around the office because you don't see those very often," she said.
Chris and Isabel have two daughters, the second born in October.
Punting and trouble
Soccer and baseball were Kluwe's sports of choice as a kid. He didn't start football until high school -- and that was only because he needed something to do in the fall. The other options were cross-country and water polo.
But Kluwe was a natural from the start. He had a strong leg as a punter and nailed a state playoff record 60-yard field goal as a senior. USA Today named him an All-America punter as a senior, and he became a Ray Guy Award finalist as a senior at UCLA.
He signed with the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2005 after being released by the Seattle Seahawks at the end of training camp. He holds the team record for punts of 50-plus yards and is closing in on the record for punts inside the 20.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing. He kicked the final three games of his rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was the target of some heated comments by former coach Brad Childress after Saints punt returner Reggie Bush lit up the Vikings in 2008. Childress was so irate that Kluwe kicked the ball to Bush that he brought in four free-agent punters for a tryout a few days later.
However, Childress repeatedly praised Kluwe's performance this season -- the punter signed a six-year, $8.3 million contract extension in 2007 -- and the team believes he deserves his first Pro Bowl invitation. Kluwe joked that the accolades feel much better than "I'll find four other guys."
The unknown comic
A whiteboard is near the entrance to the locker room. The team uses it to post messages about ticket requests, hotel arrangements and expected weather conditions for road games.
Kluwe uses it to deliver a punch line. He often scribbles jokes, illustrations and his own unique perspective on things that happen during the week or were said in a team meeting.
"There are a lot of people who look forward to coming in the locker room after the morning meetings on Saturdays to see what he conjured up on the whiteboard," former Vikings center Matt Birk said. "He never failed to deliver."
Birk, who signed with Baltimore before the 2009 season, said Kluwe's highbrow humor is something he misses.
"He is a funny, funny man," Birk said. "He strikes a chord with me. His sense of humor -- however you want to say it, quirky or dry -- that's right in my wheelhouse."
Kluwe is unpretentiously sarcastic with a dry sense of humor.
"He makes the locker room a lot of fun," Loeffler said.
Kluwe takes pride in his ability to make noted grump Steve Hutchinson laugh. "Hutch is a very deep, complex person," Kluwe said. "He's actually a really funny guy."
Kluwe uses Twitter as a comedic platform, and everything is fair game. He recently kept track of the number of times players cursed in the locker room after the team banned songs containing swear words in the weight room.
"We got to hear 'Put A Ring On It' by Alvin and the Chipmunks," Kluwe said. "That was pretty exciting."
Kluwe seems equally adept at discussing Alvin as he is at Aristotle. Perhaps that's a byproduct of his love of books. His mother said he would take a John Grisham book to school and be finished by the time he got home.
"He can read a book in about 25 minutes," Murphy said. "The first time I saw him do it, I thought he was joking."
Said Loeffler: "It's really incredible how fast he reads. We'll go on a road [game] and he'll pick up three or four books that are like 300 to 500 pages each and he'll finish them all before we get back. When he's flipping through the pages, you're like, 'There's no way you're reading that book,' but he is."
Kluwe's fascination with video and tabletop games spawned new interests such as Warmachine, a tabletop miniature game he began playing six months ago. He competes against other players at Tower Games in Minneapolis. His expertise at "Guitar Hero" led him to the stage.
"One of the achievements I unlocked was, 'Buy a Real Guitar Already,' " he said. "So I figured, 'Well, I should probably buy a guitar."
He took lessons, ultimately switched to bass and helped form his rock band 2 1/2 years ago. Tripping Icarus has recorded one CD and played about 15 live shows. Kluwe said he felt more nervous for the gig at First Avenue than punting in a regular-season game.
"It's a new situation," he said. "I've been kicking the football for 16 years now. I'm pretty used to it.
"If you hit a wrong note, you can tell. And you also have to worry about moving around and rocking out and everything. But it's a lot of fun. When you hear the crowd cheering, it's a blast."
By CHIP SCOGGINS, Star Tribune
Maybe I'm biased. Maybe it's been a slow year for the Vikings. But I, for one, think he's pretty awesome.
Try to find another speed reading football player that's been to Antarctica. That's right, there aren't any.
My next question is this: Who's your favorite player? Why?