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Jim Kalafat: From the gridiron to American Gladiators

Jim Kalafat: From the gridiron to American Gladiators
Jim Kalafat: From the gridiron to American Gladiators
Jim Kalafat: From the gridiron to American Gladiators
Posted at 12:18 PM, Jul 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-29 14:18:01-04

GREAT FALLS — Montana has produced many professional athletes over the years, but perhaps none have lived a more interesting life and career than Great Falls native Jim Kalafat.

From 1989-96, Kalafat went by the name Laser on the hit competition TV show American Gladiators. He was known for his astonishing athleticism, fierce competitive streak and imposing physique.

The national audience might not know what came before his stint on television, but Montanans are well versed. Kalafat was a two-time all-state football selection at Great Falls CMR, while playing for the legendary Jack Johnson.

He went on to a record-breaking career at Montana State, where he is still considered one of the best linebackers in school history. From there he jumped to the professional ranks, landing with the Kansas City Chiefs before moving to the CFL and eventually signing with the Los Angeles Rams.

A devastating injury in his first game of the season would end his career. But when one door closed, another opened and he joined American Gladiators for an iconic run.

These days Kalafat, who goes by the name Jim Starr, lives with his wife in California following a long, successful career in the fitness corporate world. They’ve since become busy entrepreneurs with their most recent venture, 365 Achieve It, designed to give back to business owners with a dream.

MTN Sports recently caught up with Starr while he visiting Great Falls as part of a long road trip from his home in Corona Del Mar, Calif. to the northeast coast of Maine and back. That conversation can be found below.

MTN SPORTS: Hey Jim, I imagine California can be a little overwhelming at times, especially during a pandemic. So, getting to come back to Montana, is it kind of peaceful for you?

JIM STARR: “I’ve always considered Montana my home. I left here in the early 1980s, right after college, to go play professional football, which is how I got to California. I played ball for the Rams and got hurt, which just made California where I lived. But I still really consider Montana my home. All my best friends are here. John Enott, Kirk Timmer, Scott Lankford, Frank Velock, I mean, all these guys that I grew up with since elementary school. My mom still lives here, my sister lives here and my brother lives in Missoula. So it's really nice to come back and I just love Montana. It’s home.”

MTN SPORTS: Tell me about this road trip you’re on, you guys went about as far away as you could get, huh?

STARR: “Since the COVID hit, California is kind of a crazy place to live. And so, early April, we decided to take our RV and go across the country. We left California and we went to all the way to Lubec, Maine, which is the farthest northeast corner of the United States. Went to the Canadian border and turned around. Then we went up to Vermont, New York, went to my wife's hometown that she hasn't been back since she left high school in Michigan, and went to South Dakota and ended up here in Great Falls, Montana. So we just surpassed 11,000 miles. It's been wonderful. We're fortunate enough to be able to do this in our life at this point. It's been probably a trip of a lifetime.”

MTN SPORTS: Tell me about your upbringing, what life was like in the Kalafat household? Obviously you're a competitive person, your brother, Joe, is a competitive person - so was athletics kind of at the forefront for you guys?

STARR: “Yeah, I think so. My parents never pushed us into athletics. I think you either are an athlete or you're not an athlete, and I was athletic at a young age and played every sport in junior high and high school. I still remember playing down here at Jaycee Park and playing flag football, and all of us would pretend to be someone that we weren't, like Larry Csonka or whatever. And I just wanted to play professional football, didn't know how to get there. But we had a coach in junior high, coach Leland and he got us working out at a young age, when we were 13 or 14 years old. And I just loved working out and lifting weights and getting in good shape, and it just transpired from there. And as I got into high school, I found out I was a pretty good athlete.”

MTN SPORTS: What were your years at CMR like, playing for a legend like Jack Johnson?

#MTTop40: Jim Kalafat became a record-setting star on Montana State’s defense
Jim Kalafat was an all-state running back at Great Falls CMR but turned into one of the all-time great linebackers at Montana State. (MTN Sports photo)

STARR: “I think everybody knows Jack. He’s an icon and he is a hero of mine. As an athlete, if you can have a coach that can motivate you and put an emphasis in your life where there's respect, and he cares about that athlete, that child, that young kid - that’s what Jack did. I don't know if you went to his retirement a few years ago, but you just saw the outpouring of love that all these athletes and parents have had for coach J and his wife. He’s just a wonderful human being. I owe him much of my success, not only on the field, but off the field, as well.”

MTN SPORTS: How'd you end up at MSU?

JIM STARR: “I played tailback in high school, and graduated at 200 pounds and I was a leading rusher in Montana at the time. And I had quite a few scholarship offers outside of Montana, but I wanted to be a Montana boy. I had a recruiting trip to both UM and MSU, and MSU won me over. MSU at the time in the early 80s was the school to go to, to play football at, in my opinion. And I went to Montana State and I had a good recruiting trip with coach (Sonny) Lubick and some really good coaches, Sonny Holland. And I just had a real great connection with those coaches and picked MSU.”

MTN SPORTS: When you finished your senior season in 1983, I know it must have been hard to miss out on that 1984 national championship season?

STARR: “I was with Kirk Timmer last night, we went over for dinner. Kirk was on that team and Kirk and I were roommates. And yeah, I missed it. It’s the one thing in my life I wish I would have been on because I had an opportunity. My senior year in college, I missed four games because of an ankle injury. But I played that fourth quarter of the fourth game that I missed and could have gray shirted. I had another year of school either way. And my parents told me to gray shirt. But, as an athlete, you don't think of next year. You think of now and how you can help your team. And I went in that fourth quarter and I lost my eligibility, and had I not gone in on that fourth quarter, I would have been on that championship team. That's one thing in my life I wish I would have been a part of, but other things happen and it is what it is.”

MTN SPORTS: Nonetheless, you left a pretty impressive legacy there. All kinds of records still stand - but first, tell me about the shift from running back to linebacker. How did that come about?

STARR: “My junior year we had a new coach come in by the name of Doug Graber. And Doug was a hard nose, tough football coach. And we had a winter conditioning where he had us all get up at five in the morning, go to the fieldhouse by 5:30 and it'd be two hours, and I'm talking two hours of the toughest workouts. Even now, I look back at my lifetime of all the workouts I did, and those two hours were intense. And he knew that my dream was to play professional football. And he came to me after winter conditioning and said, ‘Hey, Jim, your mentality even here in winter conditioning is not that of an offensive guy. You have that mean streak in you. What do you think about trying inside linebacker?’ I said, 'Let's give it a shot.' So my spring season going into my junior year I just excelled. It was a spot that, man, I wish I would've played it all through high school and the first two or three years in college. you know, and I ended up breaking all kinds of records. I had 202 tackles my junior year and I even though I missed those four games my senior year, I still ended up at 178 tackles. They were unofficial records because the NCAA did not start keeping official defensive records until the early 1990s, but they're real records. So I just have to thank Doug Graber for seeing that side of me that I really excelled at. And boy, I just loved it. It just fit my mold so perfectly.”

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Jim Kalafat holds the top four marks for single game tackles in Montana State history. (Courtesy: Jim Kalafat)

MTN SPORTS: I was just looking back at the single-game tackle records and you own the top four spots. The overall record was 30 tackles at Nevada. But I’ve also heard 32. I mean, what is your mindset when you’re having a game like that?

STARR: “A good analogy really is blacking out, which is what happened with me. I'll be honest, I could not ever really recall what I did in a game after the game until I watched game film. And I actually was sort of amused with and taken aback a little bit because I actually blacked out. I would go through a game not knowing what I was actually doing, even though I was so in tune to what I was supposed to do. I watched a load of film. I took film home every night and watched it and watched it, and I just became a surveyor of the game. I never realized what kind of game I had until I watched that game film and it still astonished me. I just kind of zoned out. It made me feel alive, you know?”

MTN SPORTS: Let’s talk about your pro career a little bit. I know it was always your dream to play pro ball, and you did - but I doubt your career turned out the way you imagined?

STARR: “My agent was Ken Staninger out of Montana, and unfortunately Ken passed away a few years ago, and he and I were very good friends. The United States Football League came around my senior year and it was their first year. And they drafted me to the San Antonio Gunslingers, and they only drafted two linebackers, and unfortunately they never called me for two weeks, you know, a new organization. Ken told me, ‘I think you're going to get drafted, but I'm not sure. And since the San Antonio Gunslingers didn't call you for two weeks - I don't know if that's really a good option for you.’

“I look back at the end hindsight, I wish I would have probably went with San Antonio. If everything worked out and I had no injuries, I think getting two to three years under my belt there and getting some good playing time would have helped me more in the NFL and even up in Canada. But I did not get drafted in the NFL. I went to Kansas City and Doug Graber was their defensive coordinator for the defensive backs. And he and I talked quite a bit and he said, ‘I think you're going to get drafted. I can't promise you.’ But I did not get drafted. And unfortunately it is what it is.

“I went to training camp in Kansas City, and in the fourth preseason game I was really close to making the team, but I fractured an ankle and it was another bad injury. And so they sent me home and I went back to college for another semester. And then I went up to Canada with the Toronto Argonauts. It’s kind of a goofy league up there. They can only have so many Americans on the roster and when you’re injured they trade you around. It just wasn't my idea of what I wanted. And then the Los Angeles Rams signed me in '87 and I got hurt in my first game and that was the end of the career. Nobody would ever even look at me after that.”

MTN SPORTS: What was the injury?

STARR: “I was running down on a kickoff against the Saints and a guy just happened to hit my arm in just the right position. I fractured a scapula and punctured a lung, crushed my larynx and I lost my voice. It took me about three years to heal it from that injury. And it was a devastating injury, very painful. And that was end of my career, you know?”

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Jim Kalafat during his time in the CFL (courtesy: Jim Kalafat)

MTN SPORTS: How tough was that emotionally to reach your dream of playing in the NFL, and then to see it end like that?

STARR: “I think any athlete out there thinks it's always going to last a lifetime. And I never thought about that could be my last play ever. And when it happens, it's emotional. There was some tough times for me. Deep depression, wondering, 'What am I going to do with my life?' because your life is so filled with a schedule, and you know exactly what you're going to do, and that's taken away and now you're basically jumping into society and you've got to figure it out on your own. And there was a lot of depression, a lot of tears and wondering what I'm going to do with my life. And fortunately something else came around and when I needed it to be.”

MTN SPORTS: How long after the NFL career ended did you start with the Gladiators and how did the opportunity come about?

STARR: “So in 1989 I was looking at my life, and it had taken three years to heal up from that injury. Fortunately, the Rams paid me well to heal up. And I was actually in the academy for the Los Angeles Police Department, and so I was going to be a LAPD officer and I was supposed to report to training in January of 1990. I had an agent at the time, because I was doing commercials at the time just to fill a void and make a little money, and my agent called and said, ‘Hey Jim, there's this show called American Gladiators. You want to try out?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah’. So I try it out. And they called me and said I’ve made the show, but I have to report in the second week of January.

“So I know I have to make a decision. Do I want to become LAPD or continue being an athlete? It took me about five minutes to choose the show. And I think I made the right move because I was on the show for eight years and jeez, it just took off. That was before internet and social media and it just grew organically, just by word of mouth because they never ran commercials for it. It started as late-night TV, and when the show ended in 1997, eight seasons later, I think we were in 64 different countries and had all kinds of memorabilia and it just it was a good time.”

MTN SPORTS: Were there any moments in those early days when you first started American Gladiators where you wondered what you’d gotten yourself into?

STARR: “Yeah, the first two to three years on that TV show they wanted you to really become Hollywood and come up with catchphrases and stuff. And that's just not me. I'm a serious kind of guy when it comes to competition. And so that was the tough deal. And then a producer came in our third season and said, ‘Just be who you want to be. If you're Laser, be Laser. Say whatever you want on camera and don't be a show off.’ After that it just clicked. I think the signature year for us was that third season, it just took off and people just loved it. Even though there was a crap load of injuries on that show, man, I've had 16 surgeries from that show, but boy, I loved every minute of it.”

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Courtesy: Jim Kalafat

MTN SPORTS: Where did Laser come from? Did they give you that name?

STARR: “No, I came up with it. Most of the Gladiators in the beginning were given their names by the Samuel Goldwyn Company who owned the show, and they couldn't come up with a name for me. And we were sitting in the producer's office and I said, ‘How about Laser?' because I was thinking laser beams are fast, lightning quick. And they said, ‘That's it, you're Laser.’ And that was it, yeah. So it's pretty cool.”

MTN SPORTS: What was the atmosphere like in the locker room with the other competitors and amateurs? Was it kind of like a football team?

STARR: “Yeah, it was good. They never had us fraternizing with the contestants. We filmed all of the show in a matter of about three and a half weeks. So we did two shows every day for four days on, two days off. So we never really got any rest periods, but they never wanted us to become friends with the competition, which is normal on my end because if I become your friend, I probably don't want to rip your head off. But all the Gladiators, we were teammates even though we were competing with one another, because all of us wanted to be the best of the best at every one of those events: Joust, Powerball, The Wall, Hang Tough. I truly wanted to be the best athlete and the best Gladiator and never get beat in any one of the events that we had. I just excelled, and I was one of the smaller Gladiators when I first tried out. I was about 220 pounds and got to 225. And then my last year I was down to 218 and I think that was just a perfect weight for me because I was athletic and strong at the same time.”

MTN SPORTS: You mentioned 16 surgeries. How physically taxing was the show?

STARR: “I got a few injuries in football, but nothing like I did in the Gladiators in the eight seasons I was on. I had eight surgeries during the run and I've had 6-7 surgeries since the show ended, just things that lingered. Most of them shoulder surgeries, you know, torn rotator cuffs, and they keep flaring up. But it is what it is, it’s part of being an athlete. I’m 58 years old now and I still feel pretty healthy. There’s days where I get up and I'm sore. I don't feel young anymore, but for 58 I don't feel too bad.”

MTN SPORTS: Did American Gladiators open a lot of doors for you?

STARR: “That’s a great question. I guess I never looked at life like that. That was just a period of my life. And I still do get kind of shy when people recognize me, but it’s kind of nice. I feel proud about the show, but it was just a period of my life and I was fortunate enough to be on the show. It was a job, no different than anybody else's, I just happened to be on TV. I've had a lot of autograph signings, but it never really opened up any doors, even though it put a lot of smiles on people’s faces and a lot of people do remember the TV show.”

MTN SPORTS: What did life after Gladiators look like for you?

STARR: “I worked a lot in the corporate world. Right after the Gladiators ended in 1997 I was a personal trainer and opened up a training studio in my home and was doing quite well. But I was getting bored with it, and I wanted something else. And so my background was in nutrition and one thing led to another and I was hired as a product manager for Apex fitness, and then Apex became the private label brand for 24 Hour Fitness. And I worked my way up the company ladder and became the VP of product development for 24 Hour Fitness for 11 years. And then I went to a couple other nutrition companies: I was with Lifetime Fitness, and most recently was on the manufacturing side for nutritional products as a sales person and a product service specialist. And so I've been in that industry for the last 22 years. And then most recently my wife and I started this company, 365 Achieve It, which is really cool.”

MTN SPORTS: Can you tell us about 365 Achieve It?

STARR: 365 Achieve It is an idea that my wife and myself have had for the last 15 years, and we just never knew how to launch it until last year. We were inspired by a young entrepreneur in Bend, Ore., selling her own brand of granola while working at a coffee shop in her early 20s. So 365 Achieve It is a cross between American Idol and Shark Tank. It’s like American Idol in that they’re competing, and then it’s like Shark Tank in that that we’re helping fund entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. And so, what we're doing is, we’re asking challengers to submit a two-minute video of what their entrepreneurial businesses is or plan for a business -- you give us the video and if you're the selected challenge winner based on that video we will fund your business for $50,000, with a monthly check for $4,200 with a small entry fee.

“It's a fabulous concept giving back to young business owners and funding their business. Everybody's strapped to the daily grind, right? They got monthly bills, they got rent, they got mortgage, they got utility bills, and they just can't go after their dreams because there's a ceiling and you can't do the things that you want to do. So we're going to give you $50k to go after that dream. And we, as that community, will help you make it work. That's where the Shark Tank part comes in. We know enough people in the business to help build a business plan. If you need to, we'll help get funding and help you crossover into other areas of business development.”

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Jim and his wife Tonya have created 365 Achieve It (Courtesy: Jim Kalafat)

MTN SPORTS: How much do you enjoy this portion of your life, where you’re able to give back a little bit, get to travel the country, and follow your dreams?

STARR: “It’s always been very difficult for me to be gracious and grateful for what I've accomplished, and so, my wife has helped me with that. I'm still working on that today. It’s just appreciating what we have and trying to give back to others that need some help. And it feels good, it really does.”

MTN SPORTS: Back to football for a second, I know your brother Joe was a stud at Montana. Were you disappointed when your brother went to the Griz?

STARR: “(LAUGHS) You know, you've hit a little nerve there. My brother was a stud, man. He and I are so close, but he was the most valuable defensive player in Class AA. And his senior year, he played inside linebacker. He was only 5-foot-9, but he was just a solid player, tough as can be. And, unfortunately, he didn't have the grades to go on to college to get a full-ride scholarship. Montana State never even looked at him, never even looked at him. So the University of Montana said, ‘Listen, we'll allow you to come try out. We can't give you a scholarship because of NCAA rules. But you walk on, you prove yourself, you get good enough grades in college and we'll take a look at you. And if you're good enough, we'll give you a scholarship.’ And by gosh he just kicked butt, and by his sophomore year they offered him a full-ride scholarship. He became an all-American nose guard. And you know, there was a little hard feelings there that Montana State never looked at him, just because of his grades, but it worked out for the best. So our family roots for both sides.”

MTN SPORTS: From growing up a young kid in Great Falls to where you are now, how has your life experience shaped you as a person?

STARR: “You mature as you get older, but I still feel like a kid at times, when you get around a bunch of our buddies. Like Kirk Timmer last night, we had a great time and we're going up to Holter Lake this weekend. All I can say is, I'm more humble today than I've ever been. I'm humbled to be from Montana. I'm humbled to still have great friends for 50-some years. I don't think I would change anything in my life that I've done.”

MTN SPORTS: Jim, I read an interview you once did where you opened up about your relationship with your dad (Ron Kalafat). I know it wasn’t always great growing up, but it came full circle before he passed on a few years back?

STARR: “It did. We never had a close relationship. Back in the day, fathers didn't really hug their children and say that they loved them. My dad never told me he loved me, never put his arm around me. And as a young child, a young man, I always tried to get his attention. And I think it actually helped me excel at sports because I wanted so badly for him to put his arm around me and say, ‘I'm proud of you son. Wow, what a great game’. But he never did. And so, I kept excelling. I would clean his trucks and I would work my butt off at his construction company just so he recognized me. And so, there was a lot of hard feelings and hurt feelings.

“And as I got older and I was in my mid 40s, I went to this men's weekend retreat. It wasn't a church type thing, it was just men being men up in Big Bear, Calif. It was just about discovering who you were and why you're hurt as a man. And we found out that we're hurt because our fathers didn't give us the attention that we needed. And the lesson for that weekend was, if you still had a father alive, to make amends with your dad and to somehow get together with your dad and just let him know that you were very proud of the way he raised you and your siblings.

“So my dad came out to California and I had it all planned. And I was scared of my dad. I was scared even at age 40, it was scary to have a conversation with him. My dad was a trainer for race horses and so we went to the Santa Anita park. I flew him out to California and I had it all planned. Afterwards I convinced him to go to dinner. So we get to dinner and we're sitting at the bar area, and I took everything I had and put my arm around him, because I never touched my dad, so I put my arm around him, I said, ‘Hey dad, I just want you to know that I'm so proud of you for being my dad, and so proud of the way you raised me and my siblings,' without a moment's hesitation.

“He looked at me and said, 'Jim, I always knew that you were trying to get my attention and I'm sorry. I never gave it to you. And I love you, son.’ Ooh, man. I got to tell you, the feelings that I had, the years and years of pain and being pissed off and angry came off and it felt like a ton came off my shoulders. And from that moment on, we had the best relationship, and my dad actually came out of his shell and started writing us letters to his grandchildren.

“And I credit most of this to my wife today, Tanya, because she's the one that kept inspiring me to have a great relationship with him. He passed in 2009 and I had no regrets. We had just a terrific relationship. It's a special time in my life that I'll always remember.”

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Jim and his grandson Landon (Courtesy: Jim Kalafat)

MTN SPORTS: Last question. I know you just recently became a grandparent. Are you enjoying being grandpa Laser?

STARR: “Promoted to grandpa! So yeah, my grandson lives in California, he just turned 1. His name's Landon and he's a chunk boy, he's got big old hands and he’s just always on the go. He's walking now and it's pretty special. So yeah, it's pretty neat that your kids get older and now they're having children, you become a grandparent and it's really cool. So my wife and are excited to get back and see him.”