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Before UND had Matt Waletzko fighting for an NFL Draft spot, it had new Vikings assistant Chris Kuper

Kuper, taken by the Denver Broncos in the 2006 NFL Draft, is the last UND player to be selected apart from Kenny Golladay, who transferred to Northern Illinois after two seasons in Grand Forks. UND offensive lineman Matt Waletzko is looking to join the list this weekend.

Kupertwo.jpg
Chris Kuper, shown here on the offensive line at UND in a game against the University of South Dakota, is now the offensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings.
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GRAND FORKS — As the 2006 NFL Draft began, Chris Kuper sat in Grand Forks at the house of Greg Lotysz, a former UND All-American who acted as something of a hockey billet family for the Alaska native.

Told by his agent he could be selected anywhere from the third round to going undrafted, Kuper – a 6-foot-4, 300-pound guard for the then-Fighting Sioux – awaited his fate.

“That seems like a huge net to throw on a player,” Kuper said. “Back then, the draft was two days. I was on the edge of my seat toward the end of the first day, then the second day, I really felt whatever happens, happens.”

When Kuper was selected in the fifth round (161st overall) by the Denver Broncos, he didn’t know what to do.

“The exposure to any of this stuff … there weren't a lot of people telling me how that was supposed to work,” Kuper said. “I got a call, and I don’t remember if it was Mike Shannahan or Ted Sundquist, but they told me I was drafted and I hung up immediately.

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“They called me back. They said I had some media obligations, and I had to stay on the phone for another 20 minutes.”

Kuper was a small-school NFL Draft offensive line prospect with a wide range of pre-draft projections who hoped his senior all-star game performance and combine testing numbers were enough to get noticed by NFL decision-makers.

Now 16 years later, the same could be said for UND tackle Matt Waletzko. With 2022 NFL Draft projections pegging Waletzko anywhere from the second round to the seventh round, Waletzko is hoping his showing at the Senior Bowl and his measurements at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis shoot him up NFL draft boards.

Regardless of where he’s ultimately selected this weekend, Waletzko and Kuper will be tied together in UND football history. Apart from Kenny Golladay, who transferred to Northern Illinois after two seasons at UND, Kuper was the last UND football player to be taken in the draft.

UND in the NFL UND football NFL draft picks since 1980.
Year First Last Round Pick Pos. Team
1980 Dale Markham 11 287 DT Chiefs
1981 Todd Thomas 5 124 OL Chiefs
1987 Tracy Martin 6 161 WR Jets
1989 Norm McGee 11 307 WR 49ers
1989 Monte Smith 9 236 OL Broncos
1991 Dean Witkowski 9 229 LB Packers
1999 Jim Kleinsasser 2 44 TE Vikings
2006 Chris Kuper 5 161 OL Broncos
2017 Kenny Golladay 3 96 WR Lions
SOURCE: Grand Forks Herald

Kuper was a longshot from the start. Out of Anchorage, Kuper’s two scholarship options were UND and Western Washington.

“The technology wasn’t where it is now with Youtube and social media, where you can be your own advocate,” Kuper said. “As a high school kid growing up in Alaska, there’s not a lot of exposure in recruiting.”

Kuper’s connection to North Dakota was his defensive coordinator in high school was a UND alum who sent Kuper’s tape to Grand Forks.

“It came down to affordability and opportunity to play early and that’s why the choice was made,” Kuper said. “I wouldn’t change it, obviously. It has done wonders for me as a human, a dad, a father. Some of the best connections I have are from Grand Forks.”

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Similar to Waletzko’s experience at the Senior Bowl, Kuper started to believe his NFL aspirations at the East-West Shrine Game.

“I didn’t have a great week of practice until the third day,” Kuper said. “I was all over the place the first couple of days of practice. I probably didn’t look pretty. The third and fourth days, I started to tighten up and figure it out. I thought if I could get a couple more of these tweaks, I can play with these guys. If these guys are going to the NFL, I stood up and was fine.”

Coming out of a small school didn’t provide a chip on his shoulder, Kuper said.

“To be honest, I was a little freed up from that pressure,” he said. “I had no notion of what was going to happen. Once I realized I belonged in the NFL, I was able to play that way – like, I wasn’t supposed to be here anyway. So I am going to play as hard as I can and absorb as much as I can and that allowed me to play freer.”

ChrisKuper.jpg
Chris Kuper, shown here playing for UND against St. Cloud State, was selected in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos.
Photo courtesy of UND Athletics.

Although the draft process was foreign to Kuper and he celebrated with his family, he knew the toughest part of his journey was yet to come.

“Sometimes you think I made it, I’m done,” Kuper said. “As I look back, the hard part is staying with a team. Getting there is easier. Keeping a job in the NFL is the tough part.”

Kuper started 79 of 90 games while playing his entire eight-year NFL career with the Broncos. In 2010, the Broncos announced they had signed Kuper to a five-year deal worth $25.5 million, a contract that made him the second-highest paid offensive lineman in Broncos history at the time.

That same year, the Broncos announced Kuper was one of three team captains.

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Kuper credits his long career to eating and breathing his job. He listened, asked questions and studied.

The fortunate circumstance was also a benefit.

“The system was perfect for me,” Kuper said. “Coach Shannahan and the wide zone played to my strong suit of athleticism – the second-level reaction and being able to run with these guys in the NFL. Sometimes you might be stuck and buried in the depth chart.

“A lot of growth comes from experience on the field. You’ve got to do things in practice, but it’s controlled. When it’s a game, the guy across from you is getting paid who knows what to beat you up the field or dent you in the run game. That’s where you get your chops and figure out how to play with these guys.”

During the regular-season finale in 2011, Kuper suffered a gruesome broken ankle injury that ended his season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl that year but withdrew to have surgery.

A three-time captain, Kuper received the Ed Block Courage Award in 2012 as voted by his teammates. He retired in 2014.

“I was constantly trying to tweak my game,” he said. “As you get injuries and start to bang up and get older, you can’t do some things you do as a young player. When your body doesn’t move the same as it did when you were 23 … longevity had to do with learning new technique and hiding the stuff I wasn’t good at.”

That ability to rise up from a small-school background and overcome some physical limitations has been an asset in coaching.

Jim Kleinsasser
Jim Kleinsasser (left) signs a football for a fan Saturday before the 2009 UND Green-White scrimmage at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. With Kleinsasser are Chris Kuper (center) and Weston Dressler (right). Herald photo by John Stennes.

Kuper’s first NFL coaching job came in 2016 as offensive quality control coach with the Miami Dolphins. He was elevated to assistant offensive line coach in 2017 and 2018. He became assistant offensive line coach in Denver from 2019-2021.

Kuper was recently named Minnesota Vikings head offensive line coach.

“A common question is why can’t a guy like, let’s say, Champ Bailey, be a great coach?” Kuper said. “I’m not saying he wouldn’t be, but Champ was the most elite athlete and brain for a defensive back. He might not be able to tell you how to fix a problem because he’s never had that problem. He’s always been elite and faster and used those attributes. I didn’t fall in that mold. I had to work through those problems.”

During the week of the Super Bowl, Kuper interviewed with new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell which ultimately led to his new position.

“It’s going great so far,” Kuper said. “I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to be the offensive line coach. I’ve been in an assistant role or an assistant to the assistant for my first six years. Those are valuable years where you’re learning how to teach and learning what you think you know as a player that you don’t necessarily know. There’s a progression to it.”

If Waletzko is able to make it in the NFL, Kuper will pass the baton as the last UND alum in the NFL – a label he took pride in wearing for many years.

“It was a badge of honor,” Kuper said. “Jim Kleinsasser had a hell of a career and Chad Mustard had a couple of years there, then there was a long period I was the only guy. I held that as a badge of honor. I’m proud to have gone to the University of North Dakota and represented it at the highest level.”

Related Topics: UND FOOTBALLUND SPORTS
Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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