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California fullback Will Kapp, the son of Cal and NFL great Joe Kapp, poses for a photograph following the team's practice at Witter Rugby Field in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

When Will Kapp was just another freshman walk-on at Cal, he randomly was assigned a jersey. But a couple years later, the one he really wanted became available -- No. 22.

That happens to be the same number worn decades earlier by his famous father, Cal quarterback legend Joe Kapp.

"Somebody asked him, 'So you wanted your dad's number?' " Joe recalled, picking up the narrative. "Will said, 'No, that was my high school number.' "

Joe tells the story for a reason. The son might be following in his father's footsteps, but he absolutely is his own man.

Will, a fifth-year senior from Los Gatos, now is the Golden Bears' starting fullback and a key performer on special teams. It's a role he has earned because being a contributor at Cal never was guaranteed despite his name.

Major-college recruiters dismissed him as too small (5-foot-10) and too slow, and Will might have been bound for the Ivy League before Cal surprised him with its late invitation to walk on.

Even then, Joe -- a man who is synonymous with Cal athletics -- didn't push Will to his alma mater. He had never pressed his son to play football in the first place.

"He always wanted me to play the piano," said Will, laughing.

The younger Kapp has a laid-back personality with touches of his father's buoyant nature. If he has felt any burden trying to live up to his last name, he hides it well.

"My dad always preached that I need to find my own way," said Will, 22. "He never made a big deal about his past the way other people did. He's just my dad who happens to know all this stuff about football."

His dad, of course, also happens to be one of the most colorful sports figures in Bay Area history. The last quarterback to lead the Bears to the Rose Bowl, Joe later guided the Minnesota Vikings to the 1970 Super Bowl before coaching Cal in the '80s.

His plow-into-defenders playing style was featured on a Sports Illustrated cover with the headline "The Toughest Chicano" and once was described as "one half of a collision looking for the other."

Will didn't get his father's size, but he inherited his toughness.

Longtime Los Gatos High coach Butch Cattolico calls him "the most complete player" he's ever had -- a three-year starter who played both ways and carried a 3.9 grade-point average in the classroom.

"He would do things on the field that were amazing because we never taught him that stuff," Cattolico said. "I'm sure some of that comes from talking football with his dad."

Cattolico remembers talking football with Joe only once. The elder Kapp was careful to keep his distance, letting his son enjoy the game without parental interference.

"I've always had fun watching him because he plays with such enthusiasm," said Joe, 73, the father of four. "But I tried my best to stay out of it and just let him live his life. And I think he's done a pretty good job at it."

Carrying the weight of expectations, Cattolico believes, wasn't easy.

"Personally, I think Will had to fight it the whole way," he said. "That pressure didn't come from his father, but everyone else is looking at him and saying, 'Hey that's Joe Kapp's son. Let's see what he can do.' Well what he can do is become one heck of a football player."

Because of Will's stature -- Cal lists him, perhaps generously, at 225 pounds -- Yale, Columbia and the University of San Diego were the only schools to actively recruit him. But he jumped when Cal called.

"My whole life, I wanted to play football at Cal," he said.

Maybe his name helped him get to the door, but he kicked it down on his own. He worked his way onto the field, first on special teams and then at fullback. Last month, when Eric Stevens was lost for the year with a knee injury, Will became the starter.

A concussion early in the opener against Fresno State sidelined him for a week, but he was back last Saturday in the 63-12 victory over Presbyterian.

His statistics are modest. (Three carries for 14 yards and one pass reception for 16, along with two tackles and an assist.) But his prowess as a blocking back has validated Cal's faith in him.

"He's like a Tasmanian devil on the field," said Ron Gould, Cal's running backs coach. "He only has one speed, and that's 100 mph."

Joe is proud but also uncharacteristically restrained as he talks about the father-son connection. Leave me out of this, he said, and focus on Will. This is his moment.

"He's earned his place," Joe added. "I'm just an old bird sitting in the stands. But I've had the full experience now."

Will, now a scholarship athlete who will graduate this semester, jokes that he will be "retiring" soon. But for now he is reveling in his final season. When he meets alumni, they usually want to talk about his father.

"But among the students, nobody knows him," he said.

The only No. 22 they know is Will Kapp.

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.