- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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HENDERSON, Nevada -- Merrill Gardens, a senior living center just outside Las Vegas, doesn't exactly have the same vibe as an Arizona State football game. But for a couple of hours last week, the center's dining room was draped in ASU paraphernalia and Louis "Greg" Rappaport was once again ushered in by cheers -- just the way he was almost 80 years ago.
Believed to be the oldest living football alumnus from ASU, Rappaport celebrated his 100th birthday on May 18. Serenaded by "Happy Birthday" from the 75-plus in attendance and surrounded by his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Rappaport even received a special gift from Arizona State. Along with a personalized card from coach Todd Graham, Rappaport was given an ASU jersey with the No. 100 and his name across the back.
The night before, at his son's house, Rappaport sat with a reporter for more than two and a half hours and recalled some of the highlights of his life in sterling detail, including his time with the Arizona State Teachers College Bulldogs (as they were known back then), his service in World War II and the chance meeting of his wife, Ann, of 64 years. She died four years ago at age 90.
"But she still looked 65," Rappaport said.
He even recalled specifics about games -- such as the first time the Bulldogs were scored on in the 1939 season.
"Back then, you only passed like three or four times per game," he said. "We had a great team. We were unscored upon until the sixth game of the season. Against Texas Western (El Paso) they threw a long pass and I remember Hascall Henshaw was supposed to get that man, and he caught it and ran for a touchdown. He was almost ready to cry. We still beat them 27-7."
For the record, last season's ASU team gave up its first touchdown in the third quarter of its season opener.
"It's a different game now," Rappaport said. "They pass so much. We had about the same number of running plays. But now they pass like 70 percent of the time. We only passed a couple of times a game."
Somewhere Mike Leach is cringing.
Rappaport played his high school ball in Toledo under Jim Aiken. Oregon fans might know the name because Aiken went on to coach the Ducks from 1947-1950.
"Block and tackle, block and tackle, block and tackle. That's all he taught us," Rappaport recalled. "He didn't care if you could run the ball. Just block and tackle. And I got pretty good at it."
Of course in those days, playing on both sides of the ball was standard. On offense, Rappaport was a halfback, fullback and guard. On defense, he "backed up the line." There wasn't a name for it back then. These days, we whippersnappers call it "linebacker."
That 1939 team, after its 6-0 start, ended up going 8-2-1 under coach Dixie Howell. The lone tie came on New Year's Day, 1940, when the Bulldogs became the first ASU team to qualify for a bowl game and tied Catholic University 0-0 in the Sun Bowl at El Paso.
"We had to travel there by train, and there were two guys to a berth," Rappaport said. "It wasn't very comfortable."
Rappaport played freshman ball in 1936 at Ohio State, where he'd work out on the track with a young sprinter named Jesse Owens. The Buckeye Bullet paid him a compliment he still remembers 80 years later.
"He'd still beat me by five or six yards," Rappaport said. "But he did say I was 'pretty damn fast.' "
He spent his sophomore year at the University of Toledo before moving west. Transfer rules were a lot less strict back then -- there weren't any. He and a buddy hopped in a Ford Model-A and thought they'd try out for UCLA. They got as far as Bakersfield before turning back to Arizona. At the time, the University of Arizona had offered him a scholarship. While he was deciding, he worked out with ASU, and they made him an offer on the spot.
"You'll get room, board, books, tuition and a job," he recalled. "Even Ohio State couldn't offer that. In those days, getting paid was a good deal because that was the depression right before the war. When they offered that, I couldn't say no."
After playing at ASU, Rappaport went into the Army and played with several All-Americans on a team in Camp Lee, Virginia. The team's games included contests with the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants.
As an officer, he was in combat in Africa and Italy during World War II and left the war with four bronze stars for, as he put it, "doing something stupid you'd never do now." He recalls advancing further into Italy, where he fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino, and told of being shelled at night by the Germans because the glow from Mount Vesuvius gave away their position.
"There was nowhere to really go because the glow from Mount Vesuvius lit everything up for miles," Rappaport said.
His son Barry, 63, his daughter-in-law and two grandsons hung on every word; they continue to appreciate how detailed his memories are.
"I just hope when I'm his age, I have the mind that he does," Barry said.
Even at 100, Rappaport is still sharp -- and very much keen on staying in shape. He's had three hip surgeries (40 years ago!) and has an artificial knee, but he still uses foot pedals every morning. On more than one occasion, the fitness director at the home where he has been for the last two years, missed a class. So the then 99-year-old Rappaport stepped in and ran it.
"He's so independent. He generally does everything on his own," said Anthony Rudalf, the activity director at Merrill Gardens. "He's such an inspiration, not just to live to 100, but to be in the condition he's in mentally and physically and see him walking down the hall, he's always got something nice to say or a cheerful attitude."
Occasionally he'll watch ASU football on TV. He went back in 1990 for the 50th anniversary of that Sun Bowl team. He doesn't mind the mascot, which changed from the Bulldogs to the Sun Devils in 1946, though he does find all of the different uniforms a bit ostentatious.
"We were good, but I don't think we could keep up with them today," he said. "I was 5-10, 185, which was a good size for those days. And I had speed. But I'd play guard. The linemen today are just so big. And all the passing. We couldn't pass."
He still has the marks from his football days: a broken nose, eight broken fingers. They didn't have facemasks back then. And the equipment was pretty much just hardened leather.
"If I knew I was going to make it to 100, I would have taken better care of myself," he said. "I'll try to do better for the next 100."
At 100 years old, Arizona State's oldest living alumnus shares some stories from a very different era in Sun Devils football.