A mad magician

Fighting to the finish

Before becoming an All-America halfback at U-M Bob Chappuis, ’48, had already been tagged a war hero.

After playing his first season at U-M in 1942, the Toledo-born Chappuis (pronounced CHAPP-ee-us) joined the service to fight in World War II. In 1944, as a gunner on a U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bomber, his crew was credited with sinking a cruiser in an Italian harbor. A year later, during Chappuis’ 21st mission, the two-engine plane carrying his crew was shot down over German-occupied Northern Italy. Local partisans hid him and two fellow crewmen for three months — most of the time, in a home that was a few doors down from a German-Fascist headquarters.

“I woke up one morning and the Germans were screaming and carrying on out on that drill field and I said, My gosh, they’ve found us,” Chappuis recalled decades later.

But they hadn’t, and Chappuis was eventually rescued.

“Everybody says we’re heroes,” he once said. “But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”

Chappuis and others of his generation expressed the same humility in From Playing Field to Battlefield. He was one of 50 athletes, along with Tom Landry and Ted Williams, featured in the 2006 book.

“It’s a sense of responsibility and service that they all felt, that they had a responsibility to serve, that everybody else that they knew was doing it — and so why should they be any different,” said the author, Rob Newell. “That’s what is so strikingly different about today, where less than 1 percent of the country are serving in uniform. Back then, everybody did.”

A different kind of induction

Chappuis throws

(Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Chappuis’ 1988 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

In 1947, Chappuis became a consensus All-America. He was a star along with backfield teammate “Bump” Elliott, who also returned from military service to become an All-America halfback the same year. (Elliott became a Rose Bowl-winning head coach at Michigan). They were part of an offense known as the “Mad Magicians” for their deceptive moves that sometimes resembled a basketball team. One reporter described it this way: “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.”

From there, the fairy tale continues.

In late 1947, Chappuis appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and he and his then-fiancee, Ann Gestie, appeared on the cover of LOOK magazine. Chappuis helped lead the Wolverines to a 10-0 record, including a 49-0 win over USC in the Rose Bowl, where he was named the most valuable player. Michigan finished No. 1 in the national Associated Press Poll for the 1947 season and Chappuis was runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting (behind Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack).

Getting on with it

Veterans like Chappuis and Elliott continued to readjust to civilian life — and college ball.

“I think they felt lucky and just happy to be back,” said Newell. “They would come home — and Chappuis is a great example — and they just got on with it. It’s incredible, but it’s because everybody was doing that. They immediately were thankful and appreciative and they were like, ‘OK, there’s a reason that I survived and I need to get on with it and make something of myself.’”

After graduating from U-M, Chappuis was a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns of the old All-America Football Conference, a brief rival to the NFL. He played pro football for two seasons, with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Hornets, before settling in Fort Wayne, Ind., and becoming a corporate labor relations director.

(In 1966, Chappuis’ nephew, Rick Volk, became an All-America defensive back at U-M.)

Chappuis died at 89, in 2012, in Ann Arbor. He had Parkinson’s disease and died of complications from a fall.

His life, particularly during wartime and his years at Michigan, were exceptional enough that The New York Times memorialized him in an obituary.

(Top image: Bob Chappuis, ’48, with then-fiancee, Ann Gestie, on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1947. Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)


  1. Philip Brunskill - 1955

    I graduated from same high school as Bob Chappuis ( Toledo – DeVilbiss ) in 1948. In the summer of 1947 he would practice passing and punting on the high school practice field, and I shagged the ball for him, and caught practice passes, although some were thrown so hard they almost knocked me down. Those were the days before team summer training camps. Bob was my real life hero. He was a very nice person; friendly and very modest. What a wonderful memory you have stirred up for me ~~ now an 88-year-old geezer


    • Dave Moorhead - 1984

      This is the best part about these articles. No matter how historical or obscure, you can often count on somebody to comment on them who didn’t just read about it, or hear about it, but WHO WAS THERE!

      Thanks for posting!


      • holdship

        I agree. That’s my favorite part about MT comments! There’s always more to the story…


  2. Larry Bullen - AB 51 JD 54

    I joined Ann Geste Chapuis at the Halloween party at Glacier Hills Senior Living Community in Ann Arbor and enjoyed a pleasant chat and glass of wine with her and alerted her to this article. I will deliver a copy to her. My costume consisted of an M shirt, kakis, headphones and a name tag saying “Jim Harbaugh” and I entered the room with You Tube playing The Victors. Ann and Bob had been at GH for some time before Bob’s death, living in a semi-detached villa. Ann is now in the Manor building and is of course very well liked by all.


  3. Ford Fegert - 1980

    I was blessed with getting to know the great Bob Chappuis over the years. I first “knew” him by reputation, he was my Dad’s all time favorite Wolverine and his contemporary. Later, I was in his daughter, Betsy’s, wedding to one of my dearest friends, Rob Wilson. My relationship with Bob grew over the years, and was especially enhanced when he and his beautiful wife, Ann, moved to Vero Beach where my family and I reside. Bob was a fabulous story teller, and he had many to tell. He was a devoted husband and family man, and he was at the center of every gathering that he attended. But he didn’t project himself in that position, it would just evolve during the course of an event. Inevitably, someone would ask him a question about almost anything, and Bob would have some captivating story. This could involve something as mundane as one of his first, out of football jobs: selling washing machines. Next thing that you knew, the entire assemblage was listening with rapt attention. Eventually, Ann would say “Oh Bob, nobody wants to hear that story again.” But she was wrong. Not only were the first time listeners spell bound, we “repeat offenders” could never hear them enough. Plus, there were always new stories or new twist. Once, he sang a song from a play he had been in during his second grade of grammar school. That was a new one, even for Ann! I am absolutely certain that I speak for all when wishing that we could hear him telling his stories just one more time.
    Another “measure of the man” was when the College Football Hall of Fame, decided to do a feature exhibition on the Michigan versus Ohio State rivalry. The Hall asked Bob and other luminaries to contribute their thoughts and experiences as participants. Bob asked me to help him compose his thoughts. As an aside, this was a little like Shakespeare asking Alfred E. Newman to help him write a play. But, his sons were far away, and he just wanted a little sharing. Significantly, his overarching concern, objective and directive was that the account focus on his respect for the rivalry and his respect of his opponent. It wasn’t to in any way be about him or any supposed resentment or “oneupsmanship” others on the outside might try to graft onto the rivalry. Bob was way too big a Michigan Man for that, and it wasn’t the sort of story that he would have ever told.


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