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Rob Becker: Once an All-Star, Always a Caveman

Article in 2007 All Star Football Program by Dick Sparrer

Rob Becker discovered a couple of hidden talents when he was a student at San Jose's Pioneer High School in the early 1970s—he found that he had an extraordinary talent for the game of football, and that he also had the ability to make people laugh.

One, of course, had nothing to do with the other.

For Becker, football was no laughing matter, and when he stepped onto the field to play football for the Mustangs no one was laughing. After winning all-league second team honors as a defensive tackle in his junior year, he was an all-league first team offensive guard for coach Jerry Method's undefeated Pioneer team that won the Santa Teresa Athletic League championship in 1973. He also won a spot on the all-Central Coast Section first team that year and earned a berth on the South roster in a new game called the Santa Clara County All-Star Bowl.

It was that game in August of 1974 that started the series that continues today and would become known as the Silicon Valley Youth Classic Charlie Wedemeyer All-Star Football Game.

At the time, football was Rob Becker's passion. His future, though, would be in comedy. It was by sheer accident that Becker found his humorous side. "There was a folk festival at the school, and I decided I was going to do that," recalled Becker some 30-plus years later. "I decided to write a song for my girlfriend, sing it and play the guitar. But I got so nervous, I forgot the words."

What could have turned out to be an embarrassing moment to remember turned into a life-changing event he'll never forget.

"I just told the crowd that I couldn't remember the words to the song I wrote," he said. "I kept talking about how much I put into it and how hard I'd worked on it. I was just improvising, and the crowd was laughing, so I kept going."

After finishing his first stand-up comedy routine, more impromptu than improv, Rob Becker was a hit.

One of his fellow students at the time was Kevin Pollak, who would go on to become a successful actor and comedian, and who was already doing stand-up at the time in San Francisco.

"Kevin ran backstage and said that was one of the best routines he'd ever seen," said Becker. "I told him it wasn't a routine, that I just said whatever came into my head. And he said, 'You should really think about becoming a comedian.' "

It would be years later before Rob Becker actually heeded Pollak's advice and followed a path that led to a successful comedic career. He would write the popular "Defending the Caveman" routine, performing the one-man show on Broadway and at venues across the country. At the time, though, he was more interested in being a football player.

Coming off of his successful senior season of high school football, Becker was selected to play in the first ever summer all-star game.

"I was really excited about it," said Becker of his all-star selection. "I remember they came to the school and interviewed us. It was an honor just to be interviewed, but to be selected to play in the game ... I was in heaven."

"It was just a great group of guys," he recalled of the South team in the summer of '74, "and it was great to be with a bunch of guys who just loved the game. We had a lot of camaraderie on that team."

Becker played for the South in that summer game. He remembers that his team won 48-36, and that Millard Hampton returned a kick-off for a touchdown. He also recalls that Hampton went on to win gold and silver medals in the Olympic Games.

What he doesn't remember, though, is that as a two-way lineman he was going up against the likes of future National Football League players Doug Cosbie (Dallas Cowboys) and Don Schwartz (St. Louis Cardinals and New Orleans Saints).

Becker was invited to walk-on at San Jose State University in the fall of 1974.

"I figured I'll walk on, show them what I can do and have a scholarship in two weeks," he said. "I had a lot of confidence then."

It didn't quite work out that way. Becker found himself on the taxi squad. "I went to the coach and asked him what I had to do to break into the starting line-up, and he said I had to beat out one of the guys in there," said Becker. "Well, at Pioneer I had been known as the king of the 1-on-1 — it had been like that since I was a sophomore. So I thought, here's my moment."

Unfortunately, Becker had the misfortune of going head-to-head with San Jose State star Dave Wasick, who would go on to be drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and ultimately inducted into the school's sports hall of fame.

"I lined up against him, and the next thing I knew I was on my back and seeing stars," said Becker. "I figured I must not have had the right angle. The trick is to get lower than the other guy, so the next time I got lower and fired out — and I saw even more stars."

"As I was laying there, I lost the will to live," he joked. "I wasn't used to losing, especially that bad. It was demoralizing. I gave up that day."

As it was, football's loss turned out to be comedy's gain.

Still, it would be years before Becker would return to the stage. After a few years at San Jose State and a few more operating Togo's sandwich shops in San Jose and the North Bay, he heard about a club in San Francisco that was looking for talent.

"I heard that they would put you on and it was where comics would start," he said. "I had no stage experience except for forgetting my song, but I thought I'd go down there and try it."

"All I could hear was my heartbeat in my ears," he added. "The next thing I knew, they were shining the flashlight in my eyes to get me off the stage. I thought I'd bombed. I hadn't heard any laughter — all I could hear was bump-bump, bump-bump."

Becker figured his career in comedy was over and headed back to Santa Rosa and his Togo's gig. But he had taped his performance and decided to play the tape on his trip home, just to hear just how bad he really was. There were all the laughs he hadn't heard while on stage.

"I had a minute of stuff prepared and it wasn't working, so I started to improvise," he said. "I started thinking, I'm pretty good at this."

Becker's comedy turned to the relationships between men and women, and "people started laughing really hard," he said. "I just tried to explain things from a guy's point of view — what a guy would be thinking."

The routine evolved into "Defending the Caveman," the longest running solo play in Broadway history. Becker married Erin in 1986, and the two started having discussions about the difference between men and women, and "the two of us would just start laughing," he said. "Men and women are like two different cultures. We would have these discussions, and within a short period we'd be laughing."

Becker took his act on Late Night with David Letterman in 1989, and two years later debuted his one-man show at The Improv in San Francisco. It was an overnight success.

"Caveman is a hilariously insightful play about the ways men and women relate that has both sexes roaring with laughter and recognition," according to the Caveman website. "In the audience, lots of affectionate nudging goes on during the performance and couples are commonly seen strolling out into the night holding hands." There are some comedians known for their side-splitting humor, but with Rob Becker it's more like side-bruising humor. A man attends with his wife, and she elbows him in the ribs as she laughs hysterically every time Becker's line describes her husband — which is about every one.

"A man doesn't just watch the TV," Becker will say, man actually becomes the TV."

Or, "If I try to read the paper, Erin will talk to me, because she knows she can read the paper and talk to me at the same time. I have to put my finger down." The side-bruising humor was the result of Becker's three years of informal research of anthropology, prehistory, psychology, sociology and mythology.

"I always thought that cavemen bopped women on the head," he said. "We all have a negative image of the caveman, but it turns out the caveman was a pretty good guy and that men and women were pretty equal."

It was that message that he took the stage, and the humor resonated for men and women alike. So popular was his show that he played every major city in the United States and has since licensed it to allow others to now perform the routine all over the world.

Becker has formally retired from performing the Defending the Caveman routine, and he is content living in semi-retirement in Marin County with his wife Erin and children Callaghan, 14, McKenna, 12, and Tierney, 8.

Don't be surprised, though, to find fatherhood unearthing those talents he discovered so many years ago at Pioneer High School and to see Rob Becker making a comeback.

And it won't be on the football field.