With the ball in the air, Will Kapp came charging down the field at full-speed. The special teams demon found his man clad in powder blue. The two collided full force, head-to-head.
Kapp doesn’t say anything as he runs back to the sideline. He didn’t have to.
“He had blood screaming off his face,” running backs coach Ron Gould says.
The force of the hit drove Kapp’s helmet down, causing blood to spout from his nose until midway through the second quarter of the Oct. 29 matchup with UCLA.
Kapp’s reaction was even louder than the blood. The Cal football team’s starting fullback refused to miss any time, so the trainers tried to stop the bleeding whenever the defense was on the field and Kapp was off it. They repeatedly had to wipe Kapp’s jersey clean.
“I was just real bloody-looking,” Kapp says. “I sorta like it.”
The blood-soiled jersey only added to the fifth-year senior’s wild man appearance. Looking at his official Calbears.com picture is more like viewing a criminal’s mugshot than a college kid’s photo. There’s no expression on his scruffy face framed by scraggly, unkempt shoulder-length hair.
He may look grisly, but remove the helmet and the pads. His eyes are gentle, not menacing. Dimples soften his face. Even his locks held back in a bandana appear more boyish than defiant. His speech doesn’t have much of a flow to it, disrupted by a tone that seems part surfer, part skier. He prefers to keep his answers short and his hearty laugh long.
Put him on a football field, and everything changes.
“He’s like a savage, like a modern-day savage,” tight end Spencer Ladner says.
When you take the physical element out of the equation, however, the so-called savage is more civilized than most.
Put the American Studies major in a class with a heated discussion on race, and he’s subdued. Rather than imposing his views with brute force, his laid back off-the-field persona takes hold. Kapp listens intently and watches the melee unfold.
“I take it easy,” he says. “If someone’s going to have their way, they’re going to have their way.”
Kapp is writing his thesis on the implicit racism of college football, which he says is a pervasive problem. But ask him to elaborate, and he doesn’t want to get into it. He doesn’t want to seem confrontational.
It’s a situation he’s very close to, but he’s still able to detach himself from it to examine the problem.
There’s no detaching from football. Kapp had to fight his father to even get on the field, and he’s waged his share of battles on it.
Will’s dad is Joe Kapp of Cal football lore, the coach during “The Play” and the quarterback of the Bears’ last Rose Bowl team in 1959.
But the elder Kapp didn’t want his son starting too young, or even following in his footsteps.
The perpetually barefooted child channeled his boundless energy elsewhere. By nine, he had a black belt in taekwondo. By 12, he had been tossed from several Little League Games for barreling into the catcher.
Will continued to press his father to let him play, and Joe finally let his son suit up as a seventh grader. It wasn’t long before the boy grew into a 5-foot-9, 190-pound star tailback/linebacker at Los Gatos High.
Joe took a very hands-off approach when it came to the game but was instrumental in training Will’s mind.
“He instilled in me what it takes to be successful,” Will says. “It don’t matter how big or talented you really are. This game is so mental. What really matters is how smart you are and how tough you are. That’s attacking someone attacking you.”
Will held on to that mentality through the many hurdles he faced. The undersized Kapp got offers from non-FBS schools San Diego, Yale and Columbia. While many dream of going to the Ivy League, Kapp wasn’t pleased with his limited options. He dreamed of playing for the team he grew up rooting for.
At the last minute, Cal made him an offer as a walk-on. He couldn’t crack the depth chart at fullback, so he brought his intensity to special teams. When Eric Stevens tore his ACL in August, Kapp stepped into the starting role.
His extreme physicality may make him seem unhinged, but he brings a balanced approach to the game. That mentality, and his dogged work ethic, make him easily one of the most popular guys on the team.
“People love him because of who he is and what he stands for,” Gould says. “If you watch the sidelines and you see him running down on the kickoff, all the eyes will be on him, because he’s the guy that generally makes the tackle. That’s respect.”
All eyes were on the fullback last Saturday against Washington State. On a fourth-and-one, Kapp’s first and only carry of the game was called. He took the ball and spun off a defender. A hole opened, and Kapp darted 43 yards to the end zone for his first career touchdown.
“I was surprised that it broke open how it did,” Kapp says. “I was just running as fast as I can, hoping that my hamstrings wouldn’t cramp or I wouldn’t get caught. Once I scored, it was just amazing.”
Kapp’s speech quickens, his eyes dance. When it comes to talking about his sport, Kapp is unbridled. He’s comfortable wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Kapp’s season may be remembered by that one play, but his career is defined by his tenacity — whether that be on the field or in the kitchen. Put a plate of chicken wings in front of Kapp and prepare to be amazed.
“He won’t stop until he eats pretty much the whole thing,” tight end Spencer Ladner says. “He’ll suck the marrow out of the bone. He’ll eat the char off the pan that just grilled something.”
Kapp doesn’t clean bones to make a spectacle of himself. He just can’t imagine eating them any other way.
“The closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat,” Kapp says.
But it’s more than just a bizarre eating habit: Kapp attacks wings the way he attacks life. He’ll grind away until he gets to the best part.