June 25, 2012
University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page, mgoblue.com/brandon, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.
The Heisman Trophy winners in Michigan history are football players that will go down as legends of the game. Tom Harmon, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson are players the sport will never forget. Their accomplishments are legendary.
If any of those three hadn't won the Heisman, it wouldn't mean they were not great players, they just wouldn't have received that recognition. In sports, there is a thin line between being No. 1 and the runner-up.
While most everyone remembers the Heisman Trophy winners, few remember the runners-up. One of those runners-up was Michigan's Bob Chappuis. He placed second in the Heisman voting in 1947, losing out to Notre Dame's Johnny Lujack.
Bob recently passed away at the age of 89. He was known as a wonderful husband, father and friend, and one tremendous athlete.
Chappuis was a consensus All-America football player, holding numerous conference and U-M records. He was on the front cover of Time and Look magazines during the 1947 season while leading the "Mad Magicians" to an undefeated season and a national title. He was named the MVP of the Rose Bowl in '48 when U-M trounced Southern Cal, 49-0. The total offense records he held lasted for years, and some are yet to be broken. He was a passing specialist at a time when the forward pass was still not in vogue. He was also elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Honor in 1984.
Even though he didn't win the Heisman, Chappuis was still a celebrity and he always considered himself a fortunate man who had the opportunity to play both football and baseball at Michigan and make so many friends.
The sports stories of this athletic great are indeed amazing, but the story of his survival in World War II is nothing short of astonishing.
Based in Corsica, Chappuis, a lieutenant, was a radio operator and aerial gunner who flew 21 missions in the B-25 bombers. The 21st mission, on Feb. 13, 1945, was his last. The German guns hit his bomber over northern Italy. Chappuis and two other members of the six-man crew parachuted to safety. There they were rescued by an Italian partisan, the 21-year-old Aldo Comucci.
Comucci and the partisans sheltered the Americans from the Nazis for almost three months. After moving from city to city and house to house, Chappuis later said he had to trust these Italian partisans more than anyone else he had ever known.
Finally, the three Americans were taken to a second-floor room in a house in the city of Asola owned by the Ugoli family. This safe house must not have felt very safe for the Americans. Chappuis said the home was only two houses away from the German headquarters. With a Nazi drill field outside their window, the three men could only speak in whispers and never walk in front of a window.
One afternoon, the fiancé of the family's daughter, Gina, walked upstairs. The door to the room with Chappuis and his two crewmembers was slightly ajar. The young man looked into the room and looked directly at the Americans. He didn't say a word.
The boyfriend, who was a Fascist, went downstairs asked Gina about the men. Gina said they were harboring Americans. The young man responded he would turn them in to the Germans. She reminded him if that happened, her family would certainly be killed. Fortunately, he did not turn in the family or the Americans.
Hearing stories like these makes one realize football is just a game.
In college football, Bob Chappuis was very close to being named the best player in the nation. In real life, he was very close to losing everything.
Today, we mourn his passing. Looking back at his life, his statistics and records let us understand why he was considered a Hall of Famer. The story of his experiences in World War II lets us understand why he cherished his life, family and friends.
The Michigan Athletic Department extends our condolences to the Chappuis family and especially his wife, Ann. Bob Chappuis was truly a gentleman and a great Michigan Man.