Column: Remembering Bob Chappuis

Michigan football great's humility, wit & warmth are lasting legacy
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

You can read about Bob Chappuis’s heroics as a World War II tailgunner, or as a Michigan Wolverines tailback, just about anywhere – from his Time magazine cover story back in 1947, right up to his obituary in the New York Times last week. But my favorite stories are the ones he told his granddaughters.

I met Chappuis in 2000, while writing a story about his famous 1947 Michigan football team. But I really got to know him when I coached his grandson Bobby’s high school hockey team a couple months later. When Bobby went to Culver Academies for a post-grad year, I joined the family to see him graduate in 2004.

We were all relaxing in a hotel suite, eating and drinking, when Chappuis’s teenage granddaughters, Amy and Jenny, goaded him to tell some of his stories. He could not refuse them, but he shared the stories you couldn’t find in the magazines, like when his father told him he could go to any school he wanted – except Ohio State.

Chappuis skipped the part about leaving college to volunteer for the Army, where he served as an aerial gunner on a B-25. But his son Rob interjected to explain how their granddad’s plane was shot down over northern Italy, forcing the crew to parachute behind enemy lines.

Chappuis waved it off. “Everybody says we’re heroes. But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”

He told his granddaughters how he and two crewmates hid in a ditch behind some bushes while Italian soldiers marched by. One of his crewmates pulled out his knife, and motioned for them to attack. Chappuis grabbed his shoulder, pushed him down and whispered, “They’ve got us outnumbered ten-to-one, and they’ve got guns. I think you’ve seen too many Hollywood movies. We are staying put.”

Smart move. They were rescued by members of the Italian undergound, who hid them in their attic. They buried the Americans’ identifying clothing – but Chappuis drew the line at his Michigan ring. “This stays with me,” he said.

“If it does,” the Italians said, “you might be going with it.”

Chappuis relented, but it says something that he actually debated the decision.

After a few weeks, one of the young Italian soldiers – who was dating the homeowners’ daughter – told her he knew they were hiding Americans in the attic. “Yes,” she said, “we are. And if you report us, you’ll have a dead girlfriend.”

“In all my life,” Chappuis told his granddaughters, “I have never wanted a relationship to work out so badly.”

Three months later, the little town of Asola, Italy, was liberated. Chappuis and his crewmates joined the celebration in the town square – where many locals learned for the first time about the hidden soldiers. The Chappuis family remains close to their brave protectors to this day.

Chappuis told the girls that when he moved back to Ann Arbor, he met a young co-ed named Ann Gestie – their grandmother.

He also returned to the football team. As soon as the soliders came back, Michigan’s famed coach, Fritz Crisler, changed the game forever by separating his team into offensive and defensive specialists, when everyone else was still using their players on both sides of the ball the entire game.

Chappuis was too slow to start on defense. But under Crisler’s new platoon system, that didn’t matter, and he quickly became the starting tailback. “If [Crisler] hadn’t come up with that, I’d never have seen the field,” he said.

Crisler was smart enough to know he was not likely to intimidate a bunch of 25-year-olds who had already seen the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. When they came to Crisler with some wild ideas to run their new offense, he gave them free reign – and the results were amazing, prompting the press to dub them the “Mad Magicians.” On one play, seven different players could touch the ball, with so many laterals and passes and fakes they looked more like the Harlem Globetrotters than a football team – and often fooled the cameraman into following the wrong player.

Chappuis did not tell his granddaughters that, even as a tailback, he threw the ball well enough, often enough, to set Michigan passing records that stand to this day. Nor did he tell them how Michigan won the 1947 national title, or that he finished a close second for the Heisman Trophy.

But he did tell his granddaughters about the first time Crisler put him in on defense, to follow Army star Doc Blanchard. Chappuis got fooled, he got beat – and he got beckoned back to the bench by his stern coach.

“And that,” Chappuis said, “was your grandfather’s first and last play on defense.”

When he died, at age 89, I went to his son’s home to help the family write the obituary. His son and daughter and in-laws and granddaughters sat around the back deck telling his stories, repeating his one-liners, and laughing more than you’d expect.

They decided to close his obituary with this: “More than his many accomplishments, his family remembers him the way he wanted to be remembered: for his humility, his wit, warmth, generosity, and unfailing kindness.”

We’ve heard a lot in the past few years about the Greatest Generation, and the Michigan Man. Sometimes, I think the more we talk about them, the less real they seem.

But this, I know: I just saw one go by.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!