Kimo von Oelhoffen

Feature by | Oct 2008 | Issue #21

Photo by Red Diamond

Kimo von Oelhoffen has one helluva handshake. The formidable grip of a 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound man who’s powered his way through 15 years as an NFL defensive tackle is obvious. But the same hands trained to rip through waves of offensive linemen evoke the warmth of an affable family man who owns one of eastern Washington’s most celebrated brewpubs.

I met Kimo at his pub, a sportsbar eponymously named Kimo’s. It’s one of several restaurants he co-owns with his business partners in the tri-cities area of Pasco-Richland-Kennewick. Kimo’s is distinctive for its outdoor patio overlooking the Columbia River, the bar that’s roped in like a boxing ring and the happy hour specials that have people lining up when the doors open at 4 p.m. From 4 p.m. – 6 p.m., pints of house-brewed craft ales are just a buck-50.

Kimo’s is also the only brewpub I know of that’s owned by an NFL pro. I’ve interviewed scores of brewers, but never a football player, and admittedly, I don’t know much about the game. When it comes to strategy I think of football as two opposing lines of “Xs” and “Os.” Someone yells “Hike!” and a bunch of crude arrows appear indicating that the “Xs” have moved one way and the “Os” another.

Kimo enlightened me. He spoke in terms that might have derived from a tai-chi retreat. He talked of “situational awareness” of “pressure points” and “first contact technique.” Football had entered the new age.

Another unexpected twist was that pro athletes are not all big sports fans. “I don’t watch much television or sports,” admits von Oelhoffen. “We didn’t have TV growing up. I don’t watch much football. Training videos, that’s about it.”

And he doesn’t drink. That was new to me; a brewpub owner that doesn’t drink except “maybe once or twice a year. If I’m out with the guys I haven’t seen in awhile, I’ll have a beer. I’m a Hefe guy.”

I knew a few things about von Oelhoffen before I met him: He grew up on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in a town so small his high school had no football team. I knew he played six years with the Cincinnati Bengals, six with the Pittsburgh Steelers, one with the New York Jets, and was now entering his second year with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2006, his efforts with the Steelers paid off with a Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks. I was hoping Kimo would bring the championship ring to the interview. I wanted a photo of him hoisting a pint of beer while wearing it. But it was not to be seen.

Kimo’s triumphant 15-year NFL career also earned him a certain notoriety. Two years ago Kimo sacked Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, who tore the ligaments in his leg. While Palmer remained sidelined with a career-threatening injury, the NFL Rules Committee reworked the rulebooks to make the kind of tackle Kimo landed Palmer with, illegal. The new rule is known as the “Kimo Clause.”

That got me thinking about Kimo’s job. Lots of us have job titles that aptly describe what we do—brewer, writer, musician. Kimo’s job title is “tackler.” That’s what the man does. And the fact that he’s earned tens of millions of dollars doing it suggests he’s pretty darn good.

Yet when I photographed him and taunted him to give me “that tough-as-nails, bad-to-the-bone defensive tackle scowl,” he simply burst out laughing. Spontaneous displays of macho aggression just aren’t part of his playbook.

Neither is vanity.

Kimo’s is a sportsbar with displays of sports memorabilia abounding. Several jerseys from Kimo’s teammates are framed and showcased throughout the restaurant, including one worn and autographed by Terry Bradshaw. But the place is remarkably devoid of Kimo-bilia. I asked him about it and Kimo indicated two photographs in which he appears. True enough, one image shows a player in uniform #67 towering to block a field goal. Another image hangs behind the bar.

But the restaurant’s general manager later told me what became of Kimo’s uniform. It was auctioned off at a charitable fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

I asked Kimo about beer, about the pro football lifestyle and about the few players whose habits of excess occasionally grab headlines. We spoke of Matt Leinart, the Arizona Cardinals’ star quarterback who had recently been photographed feeding a beer bong to a young woman kneeling before him at a hot tub party. The photos suggested a bacchanalian free-for-all and were plastered all over the internet.

Kimo dismissed any stereotypes of pro athletes as unrestrained party beasts. “That’s bull crap,” he asserts emphatically. “We’ve all been to parties. But most of us have families. And we’re constantly training.”

He told me about President Bush, who he met at the White House reception that traditionally follows the Super Bowl. “He’s taller than I thought,” Kimo says.

In the end, I decided the best thing to do was to step back and let the man tell his story. So I listened. Here’s what he told me:

Kaunakakai. Real small town. You look left. You look right. You’ve seen the whole thing.

I have eight brothers and sisters, but I didn’t grow up with any of them. They’re older. I spent most of my life with my grandfather on Molokai. He was a cowboy, a hard-nosed cowboy on Molokai Ranch. He ran horses, cattle. He ran the fields, he covered a lot of ground, but he was old. When I was in high school he was in his 90s.

I never played football growing up. I always wanted to, but we didn’t have the opportunity. I went to the University of Hawaii just for school. My plans were originally to go to dental school, but I have big hands and they said I wouldn’t be too good with those drills. [Laughs] Didn’t play football my freshman year. It was my sophomore year when I saw the other guys playing and I thought, “I could do this.”

I started out playing defensive line. A little bit of O-line. My second year I played offensive line through training camp. And that’s when my wife and I got married. Tondi was an athlete too. Basketball. She was the second woman ever inducted into the Washington Sports Hall of Fame.

I got drafted by the Bengals out of Boise State in ’93. I was a sixth-rounder, which is kind of low. There’s 32 people in a round so each team usually gets around seven draft picks, and I was on the sixth for the Bengals. I never really played much football. Just 21 games before the NFL. I broke the 5th metatarsal in my ankle playing basketball at Boise State. Broke it and re-broke it.

The Bengals, they get a tough rap, but their owners are good people. Pittsburgh was a great organization. Tradition. Principles. A commitment to winning. Great coaches. This is Pittsburgh: You’re in a bar and a fight breaks out. Everybody’s going nuts, duking it out. But if the Steelers score, they’ll all stop to cheer and the fight will stop. That’s Pittsburgh.

When I look back on Pittsburgh, the six years I was there, we had a core group of about 17-18 guys that were together for five of those six years. We went to two AFC championships and lost. Lost in overtime. The guys that I play with, man … you just want to get up and go to work for these guys every day.

The high point for me was watching those last few games that year [2006] and going into the playoffs on the road. That journey … the ability those guys had to sustain that focus, to always show up every day … The Thursday before the Super Bowl, we’re in there working an hour and a half late doing lifting. Same routine we did in week one. It was better than anything, what we were able to accomplish. And it took five years to get there.

My wife was at the game [Super Bowl]. She was rooting for the Seahawks! [Laughs] She’s from Washington. My friends from around here are all Seahawks fans. I actually ended up apologizing to everyone: “Aw, sorry. We had to beat the Seahawks!” [Laughs]

At the core of Kimo’s is the Rattlesnake Mountain Brewing Co., a 10-barrel brewery benefiting from the 11-year commitment of its original brewer, Doug Ryder. I’ve always enjoyed the name Rattlesnake Mountain. As an iconic Western place, the name perfectly depicts the broken, arid terrain 50 miles east of America’s hop-growing heartland, the Yakima Valley.

If you get there, treat yourself to the Smoked Porter or the Honey Red. The Winter Wee seasonal is outstanding too. And they’re justifiably famous for their burgers.

As I wrap up my talk time with Kimo, I ask him what he does for fun. He doesn’t have hobbies, he tells me. But his wife and three daughters quickly spring to mind when he reflects on his happiness.

I suggest we move on to take some photos and Kimo affably agrees. “Oh, I brought that ring,” he says. Then, reaching into his Carhartt pockets with the nonchalance of someone retrieving their car keys, he produces the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl Championship Ring. And with no prompting, he hands it to me.

The ring is stunning, captivating. Five diamonds sit like a winning poker hand across its top surface. Each of the diamonds represents one of the five Super Bowl championships Pittsburgh has won. The Steelers emblem is constructed of diamonds and the outer contours are rimmed with arched rows of more diamonds representing… well, they just represent more diamonds. I ask Kimo if I can try the ring on.

“Yeah, sure.”

It’s huge. It fits me the way the Holland Tunnel fits an eggplant. And it speaks of history, of the pinnacle of American victory, and of some serious mineralogy.

But when my eyes glaze and I start calling it “my preciousssss,” I know it’s time to give it back and reach for my beer instead.