Chris Kluwe is currently a free agent NFL punter. Kluwe punted for eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, from 2005-12, before the team released him. The Oakland Raiders cut Kluwe before the start of the 2013 season in favor of Marquette King—a move that Kluwe understood.
Kluwe is known for his understanding—of football, of civil rights, and how to treat people sincerely, even if those people are competing with you for a roster slot in the NFL (which he wrote about for MMQB.com here).
I spoke with Kluwe about all of the above. I thought about writing an old-fashioned profile on Kluwe, but after speaking with him and witnessing his intelligence and profound thoughtfulness, it became evident that my words would only clutter the substance he provides on his own.
Megan Armstrong: Did you ever have any reservations about playing in the NFL?
Chris Kluwe: No, not really. I mean, to me, it was always, since I played punter, I wasn’t really that worried about contact. And it’s a great way to make a living if you can do it. So, I never really had any reservations.
Kickers aren't involved in the most violent aspects of the game, so the ever-popular conversation about long-term health is assumed to not apply to you, but what risks do kickers experience that other players don't?
A lot of leg and back injuries just from the fact that the kicking motion is pretty hard on your lower body, and you tend to overexert one side over the other.
So, your hips get unbalanced and that leads to lower back problems and you can tear hamstrings and groins and what not. But, I mean, it’s not as much the head angle, but walking later can sometimes be fun.
Have you ever just been nailed by someone on a special teams play? Or made a significant tackle on a specials teams play? Can you remember a specific play where you were involved in one of the most violent aspects of the game?
Oh yeah, I’ve been blindsided a couple times. There was one time, it was in Chicago actually, Brendan Ayanbadejo. He caught me on a punt return. Hester starting going one way and then cut back to go the other, and right as I turned around, Brendan had gotten like a 15-yard run up and just clocked me.
So, that one didn’t feel too good.
And then, there was another one in Jacksonville—I want to say it was about three or four years ago—where I was trying to go make a tackle on a guy and forgot to keep my head on a swivel, and the guy just blindsided me and put his shoulder pad right in my sternum.
So, got the wind knocked out of me for a solid minute or so.
Have you ever been on the flip side of that where you make a tackle on somebody and save a touchdown or something?
I’ve saved some touchdowns, but I wouldn’t really call it a tackle. More so a getting run over and then the guy trips and falls. I mean, my goal is to either trip them up or force them to cut back so that the other guys on the team can get a better angle and bring them down. I know my limitations.
What is the most nervous you have ever been as a football player?
I don’t know. I think every time you step out on the field you get that case of nerves because you’re out there doing your job in front of everyone else.
But you learn how to ignore it and push it to the side, and I don’t think there’s ever been a single situation where I’ve been more nervous than anything else. It’s just kind of the general, okay, I’ve got to do my job.
How do those nerves as a football player contrast with the nerves you feel when performing with your band [Tripping Icarus]?
It’s different in that being a football player, you’re kind of removed from the audience since they’re 50 or 60 yards away, whereas when you’re on stage, people are right there, right in your face.
And it’s really cool to get that immediate feedback from people you could reach out and touch if you wanted to.
You’re an NFL punter. But you also have written a book. You’re a bassist in a band. You contribute Deadspin and to MMQB.com. You play video games. You’re a civil rights advocate. How does all that come together and factor into defining who you are?
I think it’s all from a common foundation of what my parents taught me growing up, which is, if you’re going to do something, do it to your best ability.
And for me, no matter what I’m doing, if I’m choosing to do it, then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. So, you know, if that’s playing football, if it’s playing video games, if it’s writing articles, whatever it is, you’re going to get 100 percent from me.
So I think that’s got to be the underlying commonality in all of them.
Have you always wanted to be a football player growing up or did you want to do some of these other things that you are also doing?
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew I was good at athletics. I played soccer and baseball growing up, and I wanted to be either a soccer or baseball player.
And then when I got into high school, I found out I was really good at punting and kicking a football, and so it looked like, okay, this is going to be the way to proceed going forward.
And from that point, it was like, okay, well, this looks like it’s something that would be fun to do that I can hopefully make a living out of, and I just kept working at it.
Your outspokenness is with the right intentions, and you’ve mentioned before that you can’t keep your mouth shut, but have people ever reacted negatively to you for what you support?
Yeah, I mean, you get that pretty much with everything because there’s always going to be people who agree and people who disagree with you. The key thing is looking at it in your own mind from a rational reasoned perspective.
Is what I’m doing the right thing? Is what I’m doing leading to helping people, giving them more freedom or is it leading to oppressing people? Is it not leading to not letting them live their life?
And I think as you can honestly look at your motivations and figure out why you’re acting the way you are then it’s okay if people disagree with you because you’ll have a solid foundation.
Do you think that people react to you differently than they would a regular person that supports civil rights because you’re an NFL player?
Yeah, I think there’s part of that because athletes are considered role models in our society, whether you consider that right or wrong. That’s just the way it is.
I think for a lot of people, they look at it like, ‘Wow, there’s a football player who is not just talking about football,’ which is unfortunate because there’s a lot of really smart guys in the NFL.
I’ve had lots of great conversations with guys. But you don’t really hear about them that much because they go out on the field, take care of their business, and they go home, and no one really ever talks about it.
Have you always been this outspoken or did something happen along the way to trigger how outspoken you are?
Yeah, I’ve always been fairly outspoken. Just mainly to my friends and family. And I think it’s really the rise of social media—stuff like Facebook and Twitter—that allows a lot more people to see that because with social media, you can put something out there and if people like your message, or if they dislike your message, they’ll pass it along.
They’ll show it to other people. Whereas if you say something to your friends, maybe they say it to five or six of their friends and that’s the end of it.
Now on social media, you say something and 30 people pass it on to 30 people they know, and then it goes viral. And then all of the sudden there are hundreds of thousands of people looking at this. It’s a much different propagation of information than 10, 15, 20 years ago.
I watched you on Ellen, and she inducted you into the Ellen Hall of Fame. What do you ultimately want to do with the platform that football has created for you?
Try and talk to people and help them realize, help make them aware that there are important things in the world that we need to know about, that we need to talk about.
And chief among them is treating other people the way we’d like to be treated—the concept of empathy—because when you look at the historical record, civilization has a 100% failure rate. There’s never been a society that has withstood the test of time.
So, if we don’t figure out how to change that, then we’re going to keep ending up in the same place. I think a pretty big cause of that is when people don’t treat others with empathy—when they don’t treat other people the way they’d like to be treated—because that leads to conflict.
Any group who is being treated differently, who is being oppressed, they are going to want the same rights and the same freedoms that everyone else has.
And again, if you look at the historical record, it always comes down to that group trying to get those rights and freedoms.
You’ve been in the hot spot, the NFL locker room, which seems to be like people watching you guys like mice to see how you guys react to these social issues all the time, but what have you seen? Is it overplayed from the outside how much it’s unaccepted in an NFL locker? What is the actual atmosphere you’ve experienced?
I think there’s a perception that NFL players don’t think about the outside world—that all they think about is football—and that NFL players aren’t very intelligent.
That’s a very flawed perception because people don’t see guys in an environment other than on the field or when they make the news, which is generally for something bad.
So, you’re working with a very limited set of information, whereas a lot of guys—like I said—are very intelligent.
You also have a lot of guys who are very dumb.But it’s a very good cross sampling of society in that you have men from all different walks and types of backgrounds, and they all come together in one area, just like we do as a culture [and] as a society.
So, what you see is, as society changes, you see how those changes are reflected in the NFL locker rooms because it’s composed of young guys coming out of college.
There’s not very many old people in the NFL. In the locker room, you can see these tidal shifts emerging because it is composed of these younger generations constantly coming out and through.
Have you gotten really close with people whom you wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for the NFL, on teams that you have been on?
Yeah, definitely. Case in point: my longsnapper in Minnesota, Cullen Loeffler, he’s from Texas. Probably [a] pretty staunch Republican. We’re basically diametrically opposed in what we enjoy doing.
I enjoy sitting inside playing video games, nerding out and reading geeky stuff, and he is outdoors hunting, fishing, going on a boat somewhere—the polar opposite.
But we’re great friends. We got along fine. We still talk and text each other. It’s really one of those situations where we were together for so long that we got a chance to know each other.
How would the NFL be different if Chris Kluwe was commissioner?
Wow, that’s a loaded question. That’s a tough one because the thing is as Commissioner, it’s a tough spot to be in, in the case of football, because at its core football is an inherently violent game. And there is no way you can ever take that away from the game without making it something other than football.
And so, as a Commissioner, you have to balance the idea of safety and keeping players healthy versus what people want to see.
As a society, that’s on us, what we want to see.
People vote with their wallets. And right now, they’re voting that we want to see big hits, we want to see guys running fast and running into each other and big highlight plays. That’s what we will pay money to watch because that’s reflected in how well the NFL has been doing.
So, you have to balance that: Okay, this is what people want, this is what they’re willing to pay for, versus what is the long-term damage being done to players here? What are the lawsuits we’re going to have to deal with? Is this ultimately detrimental to the game?
So, it’s a very fine balancing act to walk, and I don’t think I would want to be the one to walk that because you’re literally talking about weighing money versus the long-term health of people who play the game.
What do you think the best gift football gave to you is?
The ability to do whatever it is I want to do in life. The freedom to have those choices available. To be able to have a platform to talk to people. That’s a very powerful thing to have, and it’s something that I recognize that football is what allowed me to do that.
There is a huge difference between me saying something on social media just as me and me saying something on social media as an NFL football player. People regard it in two different ways.
What is the proudest you have ever been, in the NFL or elsewhere?
When my children do the right thing.