By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
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By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Kluwe has agreed to be the centerpiece of a documentary on spinal-cord injuries, which will be used to lobby for a state law adding a surcharge to driving violations to fund curative research. His day began at 10 a.m., climbing into a wheelchair from bed, then rolling to a rehabilitation center for weightlifting, followed by a trip to a specialty-care children's hospital.
Now he's sitting with a group of young men and women who are also in wheelchairs, but not by choice. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the topic of the gay-marriage amendment.
"It's the same as discrimination," says Kluwe.
"I know it is!" the young woman concurs.
"Fifty years from now, our kids will be like, 'Why did we care about that?'" predicts Kluwe, a sci-fi aficionado. "'We gotta discriminate against the robots!'"
A punter's chances of actually sustaining the type of injury that would permanently confine him to a wheelchair are slim. But it's an illuminating exercise for a guy whose entire life has revolved around the excellence of his lower limbs.
The son of a doctor and a chemical engineer, Kluwe grew up in Seal Beach. Even as a kid, he excelled at sports—both as a baseball pitcher and a soccer goalie—and spent much of his adolescence trying to decide which one he'd rather go pro in.
"The kids didn't play football because they were soccer and baseball players," says his mother, Sandy. "Why would you play football? I didn't think he knew the rules of the game, to be honest."
But during the fall semester of Kluwe's freshman year at Los Alamitos High School, he decided to go out for the school's powerhouse football program. A decade of pitching in baseball had caused an abnormal separation in the growth plate of his shoulder, so on the advice of an orthopedist, Kluwe tried out to be a kicker.
With a little practice, Kluwe's soccer-ball-kicking skills translated well to booting the football. He attended a kicking camp the following summer, where the owners advised him he could have a future in the sport.
"They told me that if I worked at it, I could pretty much almost guarantee I could get a college scholarship, and they said I'd have a pretty good shot at making it in the NFL," recalls Kluwe. "So I was like, 'Well, that seems like the greatest job ever, so I think I'll practice.'"
Kluwe's chance to prove himself came in 1999 during his senior year at a playoff game against Loyola High School. With less than a minute to go, Loyola scored a field goal, putting them ahead by three points.
Los Alamitos got the ball back with 37 seconds to go. They started with a hook-and-ladder that bought them about 20 yards, then chucked a 7-yard pass and ran out of bounds to stop the clock on Loyola's 43-yard line.
The team figured it could either try a Hail Mary pass to the end zone or go for a near-impossible, 60-yard field goal, recalls Los Alamitos coach John Barnes, the winningest high-school-football coach in Orange County history. When Kluwe was sent in, the other team was so sure the kick was a fake that they called a timeout.
"I remember just saying, 'Hey, nobody's gonna expect you to make this, but don't miss it right or left. Kick it down the middle and see what you got,'" recalls Barnes. "And he boomed it."
The kick sailed straight through the goalposts, breaking the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section's playoff record for distance.
"The place went nuts," Barnes says. "They started chanting his name—'Kluwe, Kluwe'—the whole next three or four minutes while we got prepared for overtime."
The team came back and won the game. Kluwe was named a USA Today "All-High School" player, and his last-second heroics remain legend in OC prep sports—unheard of for a kicker.
* * *
"This is fucked-up," Kluwe thought as he lay awake in bed one night in early September.
The source of his unrest was an article he'd found earlier that evening on Profootballtalk.com, an insider site he frequents for sports news. It was about a letter from Maryland Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti regarding linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who had been appearing in ads advocating for gay marriage. Burns warned Bisciotti that it wasn't appropriate for a player to take such a controversial political position.
"I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions," Burns wrote.
After about 20 minutes of tossing and turning, Kluwe sat in front of his computer and organized his thoughts into a rebuttal.
"I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government," it began. "Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level."
Kluwe finished the letter in a little more than an hour and sent it to Deadspin, where he'd been tapped as a semi-regular contributor. Then he went back to bed and slept like a baby.