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Friday, July 5, 2013
The beauty of Chris Kluwe

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

For a man who gets labeled a lot -- Loudmouth Punter, Straight Guy Crusader for Gay Rights, Freedom of Speech Watchdog -- the truth is Chris Kluwe is nearly impossible to label.

He's not the moron that critics accuse him of being because he dares to stray from football into social commentary. If anything, the Oakland Raiders' new punter is an oxymoron. Can you be a fatalist and a utopian? A cheerful insurrectionist? A dyspeptic and an idealist? Kluwe is all of that. You know the guy must have something going on if Amazon's algorithm automatically pairs his just-released first book, "Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies," with humorist David Sedaris' latest when you go to the website to check it out.

Kluwe's frequently unique, scorchingly funny and sometimes controversial takes on life have led some people to call him the most interesting man in the NFL. Kluwe himself says his goal for the book was to give a "snapshot" of his mind -- which he has accomplished, all right, if you can imagine putting a highly unusual and hyperstimulated brain like his on scan and writing down everything smart, funny, important, outrageous, angry, finger-wagging and occasionally weird or profane that comes barreling through it until you hit 252 pages and someone yells, "Stop!"

Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo
Chris Kluwe, left, spoke up for Brendon Ayanbadejo's right to speak.

An excerpt that ran last week at Slate.com under the sub-headline "A tasting menu of pro football injuries" includes Kluwe's memorable description of a strained groin as something he would recommend "for those wishing to experience the joys of castration without the permanency." One of the photos in his book features his two young daughters astride a giant paper-mache insect and a caption that reads: "I, for one, welcome our new ant overlords, and our offspring who ride them."

Kluwe also strays far afield from humor or sports topics. He's heard the slams that nobody wants a punter -- the lowest of the low, even on the NFL food chain -- delivering social commentary. He works in an often-humorless league that seems intent on drumming the personality out of players, not encouraging it. His retort?

"When I'm on the football field, my focus is 100 percent on football," Kluwe said in a phone interview from the Los Angeles area this week. "Away from football, it's my life to live. I'm a citizen of the United States of America. … It's important to be engaged. To me, there are more important things than selling sneakers. Or having a mindset where you're only working for the company's quarterly earning share."

For a long time, Kluwe has blithely ignored the advice that athletes are routinely given to avoid talking about race, religion, sex or politics because no good can come of it.

He used to touch on all those themes plus football in the Out of Bounds blog he wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press when he played for the Minnesota Vikings through last season. But the online piece that went viral and brought him fame was a boulder he dropped on Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns on Deadspin.com in September. Kluwe wrote it in a fit of anger after hearing that Burns had written to Baltimore Ravens management suggesting that the team should "inhibit" linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo's support of same-sex marriage.

The article was an extraordinary bit of swordsmanship.

Great swaths of it are also unrepeatable here.

In addition to some lacerating observations, Kluwe deployed a shock-and-awe collection of obscenities that are remarkable for both their obscureness and his creative use of them in clusters. By the time Kluwe was through with Burns, he had drawn more blood than your average Tarantino movie. He also made a pretty strong argument that Burns was the one who probably should shut up -- or at least limit his remarks to just saying he disagreed with Ayanbadejo's position rather than trying to put a choke chain on Ayanbadejo's right to express one.

(Kluwe was gratified to open his mail not long afterward and find he had been sent a special commendation from the state of Maryland delegation for "my work on equality.")

The combination of Kluwe's sharp wit and I-don't-give-a-crap attitude in the Burns piece sent book publishers stampeding to offer him a contract to expand on what he thinks. About whatever he wanted to think about.

A lot of writers, especially first-time book authors, would whiff given that much freedom. Kluwe didn't. The contents page has 62 chapters, many of them quick takes consisting of no more than two or three pages. Kluwe was a history and political science major at UCLA and is a prolific reader of science fiction and futuristic/fantasy-themed books, and both influences show up in his writing and liberal beliefs.

Chris Kluwe
Chris Kluwe is trading purple for black, but that won't change his outspoken approach.

He's set down a lot of serious ruminations about fighting bigotry, protecting civil liberties and being aware of government intrusions on privacy. He's included a copy of the amicus curiae brief he filed with the Supreme Court after it agreed to consider the Defense of Marriage Act. (Kluwe works with Athlete Ally, among other organizations.) There are some boilerplate exhortations of why we should all live by the Golden Rule but also a chapter featuring Kluwe's final blog for the Pioneer Press -- an extraordinarily well-done challenge of the paper's editorial page opposition to same-sex marriage that is Kluwe's best writing in the book. It also doubled as Kluwe's resignation letter from the paper.

Kluwe shows his scalding sense of humor and eclectic interests at other times. He says if the principles he prefers to live by -- justice, empathy, honesty -- fail, there's always "Rage", which he also advocates, if used righteously. He offers riffs on "How to Write a Song" (he's a bassist in an alternative rock band called Tripping Icarus), why he loves Kurt Vonnegut and "Love, Dad," an often touching advice letter to his kids that -- he can't help himself -- includes the phrase "self-[bleeping] [bleep]beaver."

He is proud of his virtuoso swearing ability. "It is an art," he jokes. "To be really good, you've got to put the hours in. You've got to work at it."

But why does Kluwe love cussing so? "Because when you swear, people tend to get that you're serious," he answers.

So to recap, Kluwe is a brainy loudmouth dyspeptic idealistic pessimistic utopian punter/gay rights activist/champion of free speech/family guy who plays guitar. He's sort of Charles Barkley meets Bill "Spaceman" Lee -- but with more gravitas.

If you ask Kluwe what he calls himself, he jokes, "A nerd?" Then he laughs and says, "At heart, I'd say I'm probably an anarchist. Because if everyone did the right things, you wouldn't need a government because, you know, everybody would be doing the right things. But unfortunately, we're probably not going to reach that. … So I guess the way I describe the world I want to live in probably makes me a libertarian -- but not the sociopathic Ayn Rand type. I'm basically someone that believes if I'm free to live my life, then everyone has the right to be free to live their life."

There were some suspicions that Kluwe's exercising of his free-speech rights led the Vikings to draft a punter and cut him this offseason -- a charge Vikings GM Rick Spielman denied. The team says it was a salary-cap move. This though the 31-year-old Kluwe signed a veteran minimum contract with the Raiders.

When asked what he believes ended his eight-year stay in Minnesota, Kluwe says, "I honestly don't know what was said in meetings between the general manager and coaches. I've just basically said that I enjoyed my time there. I left as statistically the best punter in the franchise's history, and now I'm looking forward to trying to help a new team win."

Kluwe's signing with the Raiders two weeks later could be a match made in heaven. Oakland has a long history of giving players with personality a wide berth. The Bay Area is famous for the sort of freewheeling liberal politics that fit Kluwe's own. And being cut by the Vikings hasn't seemed to change him.

Why? On page 117 of the book, Kluwe gives one of his many reasons. He tells a story of a high school teacher who came up to him at a "Vote No" gathering he attended, "shook my hand and said these exact words: 'I want to thank you for speaking up. What you did will save children's lives.'"

"This really hit me, in a primal way I was not expecting," Kluwe writes. "A man who interacts with our youth every day, who sees their struggles and their triumphs and failures, told me that my words meant a child might find hope instead of despair, might dare to believe he could be accepted for who he is. … A child should never have to feel that way."

And so, rather than ask himself if he should risk speaking out, Chris Kluwe believes how could he not.