Michigan Wolverines

MGoBlog / flickr

This time last year, Brady Hoke was the darling of Michigan football fans. 

He’d charmed everybody at his first press conference, then led a team that had averaged just five wins a year to a 10-2 regular-season record, with thrilling wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska and arch-rival Ohio State.

Then he capped it all off with an overtime victory in the Sugar Bowl. 

The man could do no wrong.

When he referred to injuries as “boo-boos” and Ohio State as “Ohio,” fans did not conclude he was an ignoramus who knew nothing about the greatest rivalry in sports, but a motivational genius, who understood exactly what the duel was all about. 

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. 

Oleg Klementiev / Flickr

While I was writing “Three and Out,” the Michigan football players challenged me to join their workouts in the weight room.

I did – and soon discovered it was one of the dumbest decisions of my life – and one of the best career moves.

I’d heard so much about these modern gladiators and their weight room heroics that I wanted to find out for myself just how much harder it really is compared to what the average weekend warrior puts himself through just to avoid buying “relaxed fit” jeans.

The plan was simple: I would work out with these guys three times a week, for six weeks -- “if you last that long,” said Mike Barwis, Michigan’s former strength coach.  But there were four signs that I shouldn’t be doing this.

When I asked Barwis if I should prepare by lifting weights, he said, “No, it’s too late for that!”  Well, that’s one sign.

When Ann Arbor's own George Jewett, an African-American, made Michigan’s football team in 1890, he would not have predicted it would take more than four decades for another black player to follow him.

The biggest reason was Michigan’s head coach from 1901 to 1926, Fielding H. Yost, who had unequaled ambition and ego, and six national titles to back it all up.

But he also had a blind spot: he was a racist.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  His dad fought for the Confederates, after all.  But Yost was surprised decades later when his discriminatory decisions created a national controversy.

It started when he named Harry Kipke Michigan’s next head coach.

Above: Duke's Nolan Smith performs a crossover on Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr.