On November 4, 2018, the 6-1 New Orleans Saints honored their legendary offensive lineman Jake Kupp before they took the field to take on the 8-0 Los Angeles Rams in an obvious NFC Championship preview. Making the event a little more special, Rams head coach Sean MCVay decided to make Cooper Kupp, Jake’s grandson, an honorary captain. The two met pre-game during the coin toss, serving as an improbable family reunion.
Life of a Saint: Jake Kupp
Jake Kupp’s journey began in California where he spent the first five years of his life. After spending his next five years in Nebraska, Kupp and his family made a more permanent move. Kupp’s grandfather, an immigrant from Switzerland, decided to spend his retirement years alongside his brother in Sunnyside, Washington. The rest of the family decided to follow.
As Kupp progressed through high school, football didn’t occupy his attention or passion the way it eventually would. Kupp shared, “I was more of a baseball player. I was a pitcher. When I got into high school, I made varsity as a pitcher. I didn’t make the varsity football team until I was a senior. Football was kind of a delayed thing. I always thought, and I dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. Somehow, thankfully, football got in the way.” Kupp was also a standout basketball player during those years.
University of Washington
Just a 3-hour car ride away, the University of Washington seemed like an obvious choice for Kupp. But it was, in fact, the University of Washington that chose him. Kupp Explained, “Jim Owens was the head coach at the University of Washington. By chance, he had come over and spoke at our football banquet my senior year. I don’t know how it happened because Sunnyside had a population of about 5,000 people. It was kind of unique that he came to Sunnyside and somehow, on the spot, offered me a scholarship. We didn’t go through what they go through today with the commitments and what have you. It was interesting and that was the only offer I had, so that’s where I ended up.”
As Kupp progressed through college, he continued to bolster his effectiveness on the football field. He used the lessons learned and skills acquired throughout his life to that point, as the foundation. Kupp credits some of the raw talents to basketball for athletic skill and baseball for coordination. As far as technique, that really surfaced in college. “But, where I was so fortunate was at the University of Washington, they really stress technique. We spent a lot of time on it. In fact, when I was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, they said that most players coming out of the University of Washington had about a 2-year head start on most other players because of the focus on developing technique.”
Heading to the NFL, the only thing Kupp lacked was size. Kupp left college as a 203-pound offensive lineman. Kupp said, “It wasn’t until after I graduated, after my senior year football season, that they finally built a weight room. I had an opportunity to work out with some pro football players that had come back to school after they had graduated. So, I got a chance to work out with them and prepare myself for my first year in the NFL.” While the timing wasn’t great, it was enough time to help Kupp to fulfill his dream to play on Sundays.
Kupp Heads to the NFL
“No way did I expect to be drafted. I didn’t even know what day the draft was”, Kupp shared. Nevertheless, Kupp was drafted in the ninth round of the 1964 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Aside from the hard work put in by Kupp on and off the field, along with the luck of his family moving to the right place for him to succeed, Kupp cited another reason he succeeded in reaching the NFL. Kupp offered, “I would have to say, without a doubt, it was Gil Brandt. Gil was the personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys and I didn’t think I had a chance to be an offensive lineman at 203 pounds. You don’t think a lot about going into football. I was playing baseball at the University of Washington and I thought my best chances were to be a pitcher in the major leagues. That’s where my focus was. For some reason, and I’ll never understand it, Gil Brandt drafted me at 203 pounds, as an offensive lineman to come to the Dallas Cowboys.” He then continued, “. In fact, to give you the story behind it, I didn’t even know that they had a draft. I was out and I got a call from my wife and she heard on the radio that I was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. She said, ‘Do you want to play?’ I said, “Do I want to play? I’m ready to sign right now.’ So that’s how it happened. There wasn’t a lot of thinking about it. My goals and dreams just kind of came together in that way.”
Just like that, Jake Kupp’s life had changed forever. Not taking anything for granted, he immediately began to increase his focus on becoming an NFL mainstay, working on himself both physically and mentally. Regarding his physical preparation in going from a 203-pound graduate to a 229-pound NFL rookie, Kupp recalled, “I can remember our weight room was down in a basement below the coach’s office. When I was done lifting weights, I would have to hang onto the rail to get myself up the stairs. I would exhaust my legs. I would give everything I had.”
But more important to Kupp was the mental focus. He continuously revisited the notion that you must believe you’re deserving or you won’t make it. Kupp then laughed as he recalled, “The first time I went up against Bob Lilly, a one-on-one pass protection drill, I came up out of my stance and there wasn’t anybody in front of me. He was so quick that he had gotten around me before I could even see him.” While some would be intimidated or discouraged by the situation, Kupp just chalked it up as a learning experience and an opportunity to get better. Kupp’s internal visualization of greatness would be a key component of his success throughout his NFL career.
Kupp’s Early Years in the NFL
Jake Kupp spent his first two seasons as a Dallas Cowboy in ’65 and ‘66. Unfortunately, Kupp wasn’t a good fit for where the Cowboys wanted to go, offensively, and he was traded to the Washington Redskins. “I can’t tell you how tough that was because you could see, even at that point, that Dallas being ‘America’s Team’ was in the making. I loved Tom Landry. He was just a fantastic coach. The talent there was out of this world. When I got traded to Washington, it was really hard. I understand why they did it. At the time I weighed about 230. They really utilized a running attack. I think my forte was pass blocking.”
Looking at Kupp’s frame and weight, Washington decided Kupp would be best utilized as a tight end, a position he had played with some success in the past. Kupp, playing behind All-Pro Jerry Smith, would have a limited role with the Redskins. Although Kupp’s size prevented him from being viewed as an offensive lineman by the Redskins, it didn’t stop teammate Sam Huff from yelling, “Lineman down field” every time Kupp went on a pass route.
NFL Expands to New Orleans
New Orleans was awarded the NFL’s 16th franchise in 1967 and Jake Kupp was one of the many players who would find their way into the Big Easy that inaugural season. The move fit Kupp for several reasons. He explained, “In New Orleans, they immediately told me they were moving me back to guard, which was good news for me. I was also starting to gain a little weight. I was probably up to about 235-240. I knew I was a good pass blocker.”
Aside from the good position he was in professionally, he also was having fun. “. It was fun for me because I was rooming with Jim Taylor. Paul Hornung didn’t pass his physical, but he was part of the team. Billy Kilmer, Doug Atkins, I mean, it was just a great place to be, being around all that talent. I really enjoyed my stay there.”
Kupp’s personal situation was great, but like many expansion franchises, there were obstacles. “. It was challenging in New Orleans because they would bring in players by the busload that were released from other teams as they were trying to develop this new team”, Kupp shared. He also mentioned, “I had a little bit of a problem with our offensive line coach. He and I didn’t quite see eye to eye. I ended up getting traded to Atlanta half way through the season.”
Round Trip to Atlanta
Hard to conceive in 2019, but Kupp had two individual contracts with New Orleans Saints, one for 1967 and another for 1968. Only the balance of Kupp’s 1967 contract was traded to the Falcons. Kupp would finish out the 1967 season in Atlanta knowing he would return to New Orleans again in 1968, possibly to revisit the same offensive line coach that led to his trade in the first place.
Despite the rushed process of learning Atlanta’s offensive lingo, Kupp made a good impression on both the coaching staff and his teammates. “I jelled very quickly. I had two teammates from college, Junior Coffey and Jim Norton, who played with Atlanta. Then I made friends with the offensive line. Errol Linden was our offensive tackle and he ended up in New Orleans with me.”
Kupp then mentioned two things he took away from his brief stay in Atlanta. “All in all, it was really a positive experience for me for two reasons. One is, I had a lot of success. In those remaining games, I think I had the highest score of all the offensive lineman. The second was that I met Brad Ecklund, our offensive coach in Atlanta. He turned my life around. He treated me with respect. He valued me. He’s not alive today, but I just can’t tell you what Brad meant to me.”
Kupp Goes Back to New Orleans
“At the end of the season, New Orleans had my 1968 contract. I had to go back to New Orleans. I couldn’t see going back to the situation I had with that offensive coach. I just felt like I would end up right back where I was. I wrote the Saints and said, ‘I’m not coming’”, Kupp emphasized. Although the Falcons expressed interest in a trade to keep Kupp, the Saints demand of a first-round draft choice was something Atlanta couldn’t afford. Kupp then assumed he would just sit out the entire 1968 season until that second contract with the Saints expired.
Fate had other plans.
”New Orleans hired Brad Ecklund. The minute they hired Brad Ecklund, I said, ‘I am a New Orleans Saint!’ I can’t tell you what that meant to me and the rest of my career. It was the best thing that ever happened to me”, Kupp exclaimed. Kupp was back where he wanted to be with the coach he wanted to work under. One other thing Kupp was looking forward to was seeing the faithful Saints fans. “The thing I remember most about New Orleans is the fans. If you look back at every game, you’ll see the fans got so excited. It kind of made it easier for us.”
Despite all of the good in New Orleans, success eluded the Saints, never having a winning season during Kupp’s nine-year stay. Kupp said, “I remember a newspaper article that I read, and it said that every time you lose a game, you die a little bit. There’s really a lot of truth in that because people don’t realize what it’s like being a football player when you lose. You’re just crushed the night after a game. Now, think about doing that year after year after year.” But anytime one of those crushing losses found him, Kupp went right back to the mental focus he had worked so hard on mastering. It also helped that he was surrounded by people he cared for and respected. “I just adored the guys that I worked out with. Those names I mentioned, Kilmer, Doug Atkins, and guys like Ernie Wheelwright, they were all special.”
Kupp would become an offensive captain in 1969, a title he is still very proud of. “In 1969, I don’t know if it was Coach (Tom) Fears, or it was the team that voted on me, but it really, really meant a lot to me. Not only did it mean a lot to me as a player in New Orleans, but it also prepared me for the future. I feel that one of my gifts is my leadership skill”, Kupp stated. Those leadership skills developed in New Orleans would be beneficial later in life in the business world for Kupp.
Jake Kupp, the Actor?
Jake Kupp, along with many other New Orleans Saints, were cast members in the 1969 film, Number One, starring Charlton Heston. When asked how this came about, Kupp had some laughs as he shared those memories. “For some reason, no one had great expectations for us in 1968. So, they utilized our team and it really was somewhat of a distraction. They were filming during the season. On days off, we would go down and they suited us in different uniforms. Some of us would be Saints and some of us would be our opponents. During the games, they’d have the actors on the sidelines and they’d film them with the crowd behind them. I remember Charlton Heston was introduced during one of the games. He was wearing number 17, Billy Kilmer’s number. If I’m not mistaken, Heston ran out on the field. It was a fun experience for us all. What was so unique about it was that all the football players wanted to be actors and all the actors wanted to be football players. The actors would be out, throwing the ball around trying to hone their skills. As the players, if they would do a drill on the field and then call the team up for a huddle, all of us were fighting for position in front of the camera. I had quite the scene with Charlton Heston. It was a shower scene. It was a nude scene from the back side. It took about three hours to tape it. Both of us came out and we looked like prunes.”
A Stellar Career
Jake Kupp would go on to have an incredible 12-year career in the NFL. The number of accolades Kupp enjoyed both while playing and since retiring are impressive. A few worth noting are his spot on the 1964 NFL All-Rookie team, being named a Saints captain five times, a Pro-Bowl in 1969 and being named to the All-Saints 25th, 40th and 50th Anniversary Team. When asked if any of these carried any more weight than the others, Kupp said, “All of them are very meaningful to me. For a football player, when you’re in the midst of the game or your career, you’re putting so much into the game that you’re not aware of the impact of your career. It isn’t until after you retire.”
Kupp retired after the 1975 season and, admittedly, had some issues adjusting to life without the game he loved. “I’ll say this, and I know it was in my case and I think it’s the case for most football players, it took me about two years to get over retiring. You just put so much into the game. I was in somewhat of a depressed state. I had developed hypoglycemia. I just went through a very difficult time. People just don’t realize how much you love the game and how much it means to you. To leave it, and in my case to move back to the state of Washington, I was completely away from football. I lost the stage I was on and I had to develop a new career. To this day, I still dream about football every night. There’s just such a loss.”
Time has helped healthat wound for Kupp. But despite heading off into the business world, football found its way back into his life through his family. Kupp’s son, quarterback Craig Kupp, would end up playing his way into the NFL. “Being able to be part of his career was fun. In fact, I acted as his agent. I negotiated his contract with the Giants. It was special to still be connected to football.” The NFL would call the Kupp name more recently with the emergence of Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Cooper’s brother, Ketner Kupp also played with the Rams this past pre-season. Football has been a central part for Jake Kupp nearly all his life. “There’s just something about being able to stay connected with the game. My wife and I just about travel to every one of the Rams games. We just travel around the country following Coop around. It can’t get any better than that.”
The combination of family and football is what made that moment on November 4, 2018 so special, a moment 77-years and three generations in the making.