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Remembering Bob Chappuis, WWII hero and 'Mad Magician'

The University of Michigan's Bob Chappuis hurdling a tackler.
Michiganensian (1947)
University of Michigan

One of Michigan Football's most famous players died earlier this month. Bob Chappuis played for the Wolverines in the '40s. He was a College Football Hall of Famer and a World War II hero. But that’s not how Chappuis described himself.

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 in 1947, 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 Michigan football team.  But I really got to know him when I coached his grandson Bobby’s high school hockey team.When Bobby went to Culver Academies for a post-grad year, I joined the family to see him graduate.

We all relaxed in a hotel suite, eating and drinking, while Chappuis’s teenage granddaughters goaded him to tell stories.  He could not refuse them, but he shared stories you couldn't find in 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 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 they hid in a ditch behind some bushes while Italian soldiers marched by. One of his crewmates grabbed a knife, and motioned to attack. Chappuis grabbed his shoulder, pushed him down and whispered, “They’ve got us outnumbered 30 to 3, and they’ve got guns.  I think you’ve seen too many Hollywood movies.  We are staying put.”

Smart move.  They were rescued by a family, 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 it.

Chappuis told the girls that three months later, he moved to Ann Arbor and met their grandmother. But he failed to mention how he led football coach Fritz Crisler’s amazing new offense, 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. 

He did not tell his granddaughters that, even as a tailback, he set Michigan passing records that stand to this day.  He did not tell them Michigan won the 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, and beat.  “And that,” Chappuis said, “was your grandfather’s last play on defense.”  

When he died at age 89, I helped the family write the obituary. They told his stories, repeated his one-liners, and laughed more than you’d expect.  They closed 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 have heard a lot 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.

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