Bob Chappuis left the University of Michigan after his sophomore football season to enter the Army Air Forces during World War II. In February 1945, his bomber was shot down over German-occupied Italy, and he spent three months hidden from the Nazis by the Italian resistance.Enlarge This Image Associated Press
Bob Chappuis in the 1948 Rose Bowl, a 49-0 Michigan victory over U.S.C. Chappuis passed for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns.
When Chappuis returned to Michigan in 1946, he was none too eager to play football again.
“I didn’t think I wanted to get myself all excited and lose sleep the night before a game,” he told Rob Newell in the 2006 book “From Playing Field to Battlefield.”
But he went on to become an all-American halfback, leading the Wolverines to an undefeated 1947 season, a Rose Bowl championship and a No. 1 final ranking. A brilliant passer and an outstanding runner, he finished second, behind Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack, in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy.
Chappuis (pronounced CHAPP-ee-us) was elected to theCollege Football Hall of Fame in 1988, and when he died on Thursday at 89 in Ann Arbor, Mich., he was among the Wolverines’ most celebrated football figures.
Chappuis appeared on the cover of Time magazine in November 1947, when Michigan was moving toward a 9-0 regular-season record and a 49-0 trouncing of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. He passed for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns and ran for 91 yards in that victory.
That team, which also featured Chappuis’s backfield teammate Bump Elliott, a future Michigan head coach, was known as the Mad Magicians for the deceptive offensive maneuvers run out of Coach Fritz Crisler’s single wing.
“For a single-wing offense, we threw the ball an awful lot,” Elliott said in an interview Sunday. “It was more passing and deception rather than power. The key was Bob’s ability to pass so well.”
Robert Richard Chappuis was born on Feb. 24, 1923, in Toledo, Ohio, the son of a businessman. After his debut for Michigan in 1942, he became an aerial gunner and radio operator.
When Chappuis’s bomber was shot down over northern Italy, he parachuted into an olive orchard. Anti-Nazi partisans picked him up, along with two fellow crewmen, and took them to a family named Ugolini in Asola, a town in Lombardy.
The Ugolinis lived only a few doors from the German military’s local headquarters, but they hid the airmen in a 10-by-10-foot upstairs room.
In a 2008 interview for the Legacies Project, which makes online videos, Chappuis told how the boyfriend of Gina Ugolini, one of the family’s two daughters, discovered the airmen one day and threatened to turn them over to the Nazis.
“Gina said, ‘You know what will happen? They will be taken prisoner, and my family will be shot,’ ” Chappuis recalled. The boyfriend stayed silent.
One evening, Mama Ugolini took the airmen for an evening stroll through the town market to relieve their monotony, dressing them in peasants’ garb (except for their Army boots) so they could blend in. She casually spoke to Chappuis in Italian, calling him “Roberto,” to keep up the ruse, although he had no idea what she was saying.
Chappuis returned to America at the war’s end, but he did not forget the Ugolinis. In 1974, he and his wife, Ann, visited them in Asola and received a warm welcome from the townspeople.
After graduating from Michigan, Chappuis played for two seasons in the All-America Football Conference, with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Hornets. He then settled in Fort Wayne, Ind., and became a corporate labor relations director.
Chappuis had Parkinson’s disease and died of complications from a fall, his wife said. He is also survived by his sons, Rob and Mark; his daughters, Mary McCord and Betsy Wilson; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Chappuis and his wife moved to Ann Arbor in 2003, and while Chappuis closely followed Michigan football, his thoughts were sometimes far afield from his collegiate exploits. He wondered how he would have reacted if he had been in the place of the Ugolini family.
“I would hope that given the same circumstances, I would do what they did for me,” Chappuis said in the 2006 interview. “But to be honest, I’m not sure I’d be that brave.”