EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Chris Kluwe knows the tenuous nature of playing in the NFL, when jobs can be won or lost every week. He’s had his job in question previously but has lasted eight years as the Minnesota Vikings’ punter.
So, when the team unveiled new uniforms on Thursday, Kluwe praised the new look but also questioned in a tweet whether he’ll ever get to wear them. It was a curious comment coming from the outspoken punter.
Now, after Minnesota selected UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round of Saturday’s NFL Draft, the question is a legitimate one. And another important question is whether Kluwe could be on the outs with the Vikings because of his outspoken nature.
Kluwe, who’s received increased public attention in recent months for his stances on political issues, including same-sex marriage rights, said Saturday he really didn’t foresee a punter being drafted despite his uniform tweet two days earlier.
“It’s just the nature of the business that no one is ever truly safe in their position,” Kluwe said. “That’s just how the NFL works.”
Last season, Kluwe, 31, set a career high with a 39.7-yard net average, and his 45.0-yard gross average was the third-best of his career. Yet, now Kluwe is staring at competition with Locke and also T.J. Conley, who was signed as a free agent earlier this off-season.
“I don’t know, I’m not in those meetings,” Kluwe said about the team drafting a possible replacement. “That’s not something that I’m there for. I’d like to think that my body of work stands for what I can do on the field. I’ve been the best punter in Vikings’ history, and I think the punt team had a fairly good year last year. All I can do is go out and play.”
Kluwe owns the Vikings’ best career gross punting average of 44.4 yards and is second in team history in career net average (37.3). But after a somewhat tumultuous season in which Kluwe struggled at times and gained more attention for his off-field persona than his on-field performance, Minnesota decided to make Locke the first punter drafted Saturday.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman denied the decision had anything to do with Kluwe’s frequent forays into the media spotlight.
“This was just another normal personnel move, it had nothing to do with Chris Kluwe’s off-field concerns,” Spielman said. “I have no issues if Chris Kluwe wants to express his opinion. That’s his right. That’s his freedom of speech. This is just a football decision to bring in a guy to come in and compete.”
During a midseason slump, Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said “those distractions are getting old to me,” when Kluwe was speaking up for former Oakland Raiders punter Ray Guy after Guy’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame.
Kluwe has also been a proponent for same-sex marriage rights, supporting legislation to combat California’s Proposition 8, which has gone to the United States Supreme Court. Kluwe earned attention for a scathing letter he wrote on Deadspin.com targeting a Maryland delegate who had chastised the Baltimore Ravens and their outspoken linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo.
“It’s just something I think it would be a shame if that was a reason why,” Kluwe said of being cut for being outspoken. “Then I think the NFL would have to take a long, hard look at itself. The fact is you have guys playing that have been arrested for many different things. If I was to lose my job for speaking out on human rights, I don’t think that says very many good things about the state of football.”
Kluwe and Locke, both former UCLA punters, have met, though talked only a bit. Kluwe said he’s looking forward to getting to know Locke and is willing to talk to the rookie about life in the NFL.
Kluwe, who said he would like to finish his career in Minnesota, doesn’t want to be cut and would welcome the challenge to compete for the punting job with the Vikings. Spielman also said, “right now” he envisions the job being a competition.
“I don’t think it would be (awkward to compete with Kluwe),” Locke said. “I’m just going to come in and compete. Either way, you’re competing with somebody in the NFL no matter where you go. I’m just going to come in and do my best.”
Spielman said the team had Locke rated as the best punter in the draft. Though a competition might develop, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings cutting a fifth-round pick.
“That’s my mindset always,” Kluwe said about competing. “Every single year I’ve played, every single week I’ve played, I knew I could get cut any time. So, I’m always competing to keep my job.”
The hope for Kluwe is he doesn’t lose his job because of his public stances. However, it won’t cause him to change if he does.