I’ve always contended that I stopped rooting for the home team when I started betting on games, but as the snow piles up outside my window, I am reminded that it’s a bit more complicated.
Gambling and journalism — the two passions of my life outside my family — may not seem compatible at first blush. Neither of those pursuits makes me blush, but what does embarrass me is that before I could devote myself to those callings, I had to get over being a Vikings fan.
But that was the boy Gelfand — a callow lad who was still in thrall of the local teams. If there was a coming of age that changed my opinion of athletes in general, it came on the evening of Dec. 3, 1967. (I pause to let you do the math, and then we will move on.) The scene was my family’s back yard.
It was a night much like the one I peer out into from the warmth of my home office. A cat purrs; the soft clicks of the keyboard are like nothing so much as the cadence of serenity. There are no scores to nervously follow. And yet in my mind, faintly after all these years but still engraved in my aural memory, I can still hear the sounds of fists exploding against the face of a Minnesota sports legend.
It had been a difficult season for the Vikings. The Purple had a record of 3-6-2 when the Packers came to town. The Vikings had defeated the Pack 10-7 back in October. The macho, pugnacious Joe Kapp had been the quarterback that day. The Packers, thirsting for revenge, were here to even the score on their way to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings let the game slip away at the end, and Kapp took the blame for the 30-27 loss.
Three years later, in a Sports Illustrated story, Kapp spilled the details of a fight that hardly anyone outside the team knew about. I was one of the few who knew what had happened, although I was watching the wanton violence as a noir movie, lit only by the reflection of the moon off a fresh layer of snow.
In the SI story, Kapp revealed that he tossed down a couple of shots of tequila before heading out to a team party at a fan’s house. And no, the soiree did not take place in our house.
Having arrived at the party, Kapp recounted, “I went downstairs to a gloomy corner of the basement to wallow in my despair. Somebody was already there, wallowing in his despair. It was Lonnie Warwick, the mighty hillbilly from West Virginia and Tennessee, the ex-fighter who had been working on a railroad section gang when the Vikings had signed him.
Kapp had grown up in a San Fernando Valley housing project, surrounded by tough and sometimes desperate kids whose parents picked lettuce. Bloody fights were routine, and Kapp, embracing the macho mentality, never backed down. Now, at 29, he was finally getting his first taste of the NFL, having been signed by the Vikings after playing in Canada.
And he wasn’t going to back down on that fateful night, although I would guess that had I started to gamble earlier, my money would have been on Warwick.
As Kapp went on to tell the story:
“We sat there for an hour or so, sipping tequila and commiserating. We told each other what a great football team the Vikings had, and how we’re going to win the Super Bowl next year, and how we were the closest bunch of athletes ever assembled…”
And then, per Kapp: I said “It’s too bad I had to blow that game for us today.”
“You didn’t blow the game,” Lonnie said. “The defense lost the game.”
“No, no, Lonnie,” I said. “Don’t try to make me feel better. I blew it.”
He climbed to his feet, looked down at me and said, “Listen you crazy Mexican, I told you we lost the game, not you. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
The two gladiators, Kapp said, went on like that for a while until they decided to go settle the matter in the fan’s back yard.
As the two rolled around in the snow, they eventually landed in our back yard. We figured out quickly it was Warwick and Kapp because when they weren’t inflicting bodily damage, they spat out each other’s name.
I have no idea how long they were at it. Kapp claims it went on for maybe five minutes, but it seemed longer. And while Kapp described it as a fight, it sounded more like a mugging. Eventually, Minnesota’s great defensive end, Jim Marshall and linebacker Roy Winston extricated Kapp from under Warwick’s body and, much the worse for wear, the two left.
As Kapp told the story, they visited the same eye doctor the next day, where they were told, much to their relief, that they had not lost a significant portion of their sight.
I, however, lost some of my innocence that day. I suppose that a true fan would have witnessed the event and been thrilled to know that Kapp and Warwick were real men, Wild West cowboys who defied the norms of a civilized society.
For some reason, though, I was mostly just disgusted.
I put it all together three years later. By then, I was a student journalist (not in that order) at the University of Minnesota, and watched from a front-row seat as at least three Gopher basketball players beat the crap out of a couple of Ohio State players.
There was nothing thrilling about that disgusting display of raw hatred and violence. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen under the guise of a sporting event, and although the Kapp beating paled by comparison, the two events later fused in my mind.
From then on, the concept of the home team was just a fraud and a game was either a story that I could tell or an intellectual challenge — in other words, gambling — that was a desperately needed diversion.
Now, all these years later, I wished I would have asked Joe about what happened in our back yard so long ago. He’s still alive — he’s 81 now — but I doubt he remembers much if anything about that night. Alzheimer’s has stolen his memories, and I imagine that all those fights and even more concussions have a lot to do with his accelerating dementia.
For old Vikings fans, Kapp’s legend grows. For a guy who gave up the myths on a night like this one, Joe’s story is just another reminder that in real life, happy endings are, indeed, the stuff of fiction.
After going 2-0 last week, the bankroll stands at $1,190, but I address you now in a turkey-induced stupor and need plenty of rest and recreation before giving up all my profits. Still, I am contractually prohibited from just passing on all the games, so here I will proceed cautiously.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Two weeks after the ugly-in-every-way game that ended in the Browns defeating the Steelers 21-7, the officials will be on high alert while the offenses figure to be again in low gear for a contest that fits the definition of a revenge game. The Steelers will probably be without their best player, JuJu Smith-Schuster, last seen being double-concussed by the disgusting Browns defense.
Pittsburgh will, for better or worse, also be without second-unit QB Mason Rudolph, who had the bad taste to be hit over the head with his own helmet by Myles Garrett, now suspended indefinitely. More injuries pending, but I would opt for the under anyway. The Steelers have gone under in 16 of their most recent 21 games, and a lousy day in Pittsburgh may find these warriors playing in the mud and the blood and the beer.
The pick: Browns 17, Steelers 13 — Under 39 for $40
New England at Houston
The Patriots don’t have a whole lot of offensive weapons right now, but it hardly matters. Their defense is light years ahead of every other team’s, and what they can’t accomplish with their brawn they can get done with Bill Belichick’s brain. I keep waiting for Deshaun Watson to unleash his fury, but Houston is 8-3 under this year, and yet the total is still a lofty 45.
The pick: Patriots 21, Texans 17 — Under 45 for $60