The legend of Jake Kupp The legend of Jake Kupp The legend of Jake Kupp

Jake Kupp, '64, became a star in Eastern Washington, the UW and the NFL

By Mike Seely | November 6, 2023

Jake Kupp was born in Pasadena, California, in 1941. In 1963, he returned there to play in the Rose Bowl as a member of the Huskies, and in 1969, he appeared in a Hollywood movie opposite Charlton Heston and his very hairy chest. Continuing the Kupp family's Southern California connection, Kupp's grandson plays professional football in Los Angeles.

In spite of all this, the elder Kupp is no Golden State glad-hander. Rather, he has spent most of his life in the Yakima area, surrounded by family and forever grateful for his experience as a student-athlete at the University of Washington.

Kupp, who moved to Sunnyside at a young age and starred in three sports at the Central Washington high school of the town’s same name, still can’t quite figure out how he got offered a scholarship by the iconic Husky coach, Jim Owens.

“There isn’t a lot of recruiting that’s done on this side of the mountains,” Kupp recalls. “I was very fortunate. It just so happened that Jim Owens was invited to speak at our football banquet when I was a senior. For some reason, and I still don’t understand it, he offered me a scholarship after the banquet.”

Kupp started as an offensive lineman for UW in the ’63 Rose Bowl, in which the University of Illinois defeated the Huskies, 17-7, in front of 96,957 fans in Pasadena. Among his more impressive feats was convincing Owens, a notoriously hard-nosed helmsman, to let him skip out on spring football practice so he could play for the school’s baseball team.

“That wasn’t easy,” Kupp says. “The thing that kind of paved the way a little bit for me was that [teammate] John Meyers played basketball. Even though basketball wasn’t during spring training, he still had a chance to play in two different sports. I tried my sophomore year and it didn’t work, then my junior year, I think [Owens] felt like I had enough experience in football to go out for baseball.”

Meyers’ presence would also prove helpful when Kupp was drafted in the ninth round of the 1964 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, who expected him to play guard. But the 6’3” Kupp was only 203 pounds at the time, in large part because UW had no proper weight room during his playing days. Hence, he said, “it was important that I put on some weight.”

Thankfully, the University had constructed a weight room by the time Kupp set to bulking up. Meyers and Jim Skaggs had just completed their first year in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and were back on campus during the offseason. After spending time working with that pair of pros, Kupp entered the league as a 229-pound rookie and reached 250 pounds by the time he made his way to New Orleans and the expansion Saints in 1967.

A tri-generational coin toss

It would be 20 years before the hapless Bayou team would post a winning record, but Kupp was a bright spot, making the 1969 Pro Bowl and earning induction into the Saints’ Hall of Fame 17 years after his 1975 retirement.

In 2018, the Saints decided to honor Kupp before a game against the Los Angeles Rams, which had on its roster a second-year wide receiver by the name of Cooper Kupp. Now one of the NFL’s finest receivers, Cooper is Jake’s grandson, and the two Kupps met at midfield that day for the pre-game coin toss, with each serving as honorary captain.

“It was really exciting,” he says. “They gave me explicit instructions that I had to wear a Saints logo during the coin toss, so I did that. But the minute I got off the field, I took my outer shirt off and had my Rams shirt on underneath. I sat down and this woman next to me said, ‘Weren’t you just down on the field representing the Saints?’”

In 2021, Cooper had 145 catches for 1,947 yards, with each statistic ranking as the second-best in NFL history. The following season, he was voted Super Bowl MVP. But the Davis High grad played his college ball at Eastern Washington University, in no small part because then-UW coach Steve Sarkisian wouldn’t give him the time of day.

“One time, [Jake] wanted me to come and watch Cooper play and asked me if I’d help get him into Washington,” said Bill Douglas, who, like Kupp, now lives in Yakima and played quarterback on the 1963 Rose Bowl team. “We went to an Eisenhower-Davis game. Cooper was good and I put a good word in for him, thought he was somebody they should take a hard look at. I don’t think he got an offer.”

“That was very disappointing,” Jake says of Sarkisian’s failure to recruit his grandson. “Cooper participated in a seven-on-seven that the UW put on. There was nobody that could touch Cooper. I had met Sarkisian at a function in Yakima, so I felt like I kind of had an in with him. I went over and talked to him and said, ‘Why don’t you have a look at him?’ And he kind of brushed me off.”

But there are no hard feelings, says Jake, who now roots for Sarkisian’s University of Texas squad because Arch Manning — the grandson of Kupp’s old training camp roommate, the legendary Saints quarterback Archie Manning — is a Longhorn.

‘You couldn’t meet a nicer person’

In the motion picture “Number One,” Charlton Heston plays a 40-year-old New Orleans quarterback named Ron “Cat” Catlan, who was in the final stretch of his career. In the ultimate fiction, he’d already won an NFL championship with the Saints, who didn’t win an actual one until 2009.

The scene Jake Kupp appears in is set in a locker room shower, where Heston is letting hot water flow over his head as he threatens to retire in front of his coach. Kupp walks by sheepishly, Moses’ undercarriage in his full view, if not the camera’s.

In the film, Heston grapples with whether to quit the sport and embark upon a belated professional career in either computers or car sales. (NFL players weren’t paid nearly as much then as they are now.) This is a situation Kupp had to navigate, with some turbulence, when he retired six years after the movie’s release.

“It was a difficult decision leaving New Orleans,” he says. “I had established myself very well. I had a fantastic job working for a developer. He built country clubs down there. I love the people, but New Orleans is not a place to raise a family. We had three young boys at that time and both my wife and I are from Sunnyside, so we just felt like, to be responsible parents, it was important to move back to where our roots were.”

The transition would not be as easy as one might imagine.

“My dream had always been to become a college coach, but I felt like it was important to start at the high school level to develop my own philosophy,” Kupp explains. “I’d heard that the high school coach at Sunnyside was leaving, and I called the superintendent and asked if he’d be interested in hiring me, and he said it was a done deal.”

But as they packed their bags, that same superintendent called Kupp to inform him that the outgoing head coach had promised his job to an assistant, and that this pledge had to be honored. The Kupps ventured to Yakima anyway, staying with his wife’s parents for a while. Kupp soon landed a job at an RV company called Trail Wagons, then with a fruit distribution outfit and a marketing firm.

“I just had a fabulous business career,” says Kupp, who never looked back.

“You couldn’t meet a nicer person and a nicer family,” says Douglas, his former teammate and lifelong friend (the pair competed against each other in various high school sports). “I enjoyed being around him whenever we’d get the opportunity. He was a great teammate and a tough competitor and just a fun guy to be with.”

“The opportunity that I had to go to the UW was really a turning point in my life,” Kupp adds. “Having grown up in Sunnyside, the population back in 1959 was something like 5,200 people. My plans at that time were to become a professional baseball player, but I had no idea how I was going to get there. The University of Washington helped me not only with my athletic career but also with my career after sports. I would encourage young people to really plan ahead, prepare themselves, and take advantage of the opportunities they have to go to college.”