Of Game Balls And School Loyalty
Bob Apisa loves to talk story. And the great thing about talking story with the 69-year-old former Farrington and Michigan State football legend is that his incredible stories are true.
“I just got back from Vegas, where we celebrated our 50th high school reunion from Farrington. We had a good consortium and we had a great time together,” he said from his home in Granada Hills, Calif.
Apisa was such a terrific athlete in the early ’60s in Honolulu that he was the ILH Back of the Year in football as a bruising fullback for the Governors, a starting forward in basketball, an all-star out-fielder on Farrington’s championship baseball team, and a record holder in track and field.
One seemingly can-it-really-be-true tale exemplifies his outstanding athletic talents.
“I had been a shot-putter in my early days (at Farrington), but gave it up to play baseball, which was my favorite sport,” he recalls. “One day, we had a doubleheader in Moiliili, and the track coach got in touch with our baseball coach and asked if I could drop by the Punahou Relays in between games, so our team could at least score a point in the shot put. Anyway, I went to the track, and took off my baseball jersey and borrowed a track tank top. Here I was, putting the shot in my baseball pants and leggings, and the other athletes are standing by and chuckling at the sight. I had to remember how
to do it, and I let out a big high-arching throw, and I heard a collective gasp from the crowd, ‘Wow!’ For some reason, it all came together, and I broke the state record with a throw of 56 feet, 3 and 3/4 inches.” Then it was back to the second baseball game of the day.
After high school, Apisa took his awesome athletic talents to powerful Michigan State.
“The Big Ten was the dominant conference then, like the SEC is now,” he says.
With Apisa at fullback and Islanders Charlie Wedemeyer and Dick
Kenney also starring on the team, Michigan State won the conference title and finished the regular season unbeaten in its national championship year of 1965.
In 1966, they were again unbeaten when they played the so-called “Game of the Century” against unbeaten Notre Dame — a contest that ended in a controversial 10-10 tie.
“That game made history because it was the first live telecast to the Islands (and worldwide),” he says. “Before that, all the TV shows were seen a week later in Hawaii, even the football
games. But they built a satellite (called Lani Bird) and it beamed the grainy signal worldwide. That broadcast truly brought Hawaii into the 20th century, TV-wise, and I’m proud that I was a part of it along with my island team-mates.”
The island boys made a huge impact at Michigan State. In one game, they scored all of the Spartans’ points in a three-point victory over powerful Ohio State. Apisa scored a touchdown, Kenney made a field goal, and Kenney and Wedemeyer combined on a two-point conversion. The headlines in
the local (Michigan) paper the next day read: “Hawaiians 11, Buckeyes 8.”
“Dick and Charlie and Bubba Smith, and so many other great players from that era, are no longer with us,” Apisa says, his voice beginning to choke up. “I think of them as my fallen comrades — they’ll be with me forever.”
Apisa’s love for his team-mates and his university came full circle earlier this year during the weekend of the annual Michigan-Michigan State game. To tell the story — first reported by Joe Rexrode in the Detroit Free Press — in the manner that it’s meant to be told, Apisa took me back to the Michigan-Michigan State game from October 1966.
“This is such a great rivalry game,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to have a big game against Michigan, rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown, and afterward we had our usual post-game celebration with the coaches in the locker room, and (head coach) Duffy (Daugherty) announced that I had earned the game ball, which is a big honor.
“As was my practice then, I took a long time to clean up and get out of the locker room — I was probably the last one out,” he recalls. “I remember walking out of the tunnel, a place where no spectators are allowed, and I could see our equipment manager was standing there with a father and his son, a young boy who must have been about 8-10 years old, and the boy was in a wheel-chair. ‘Mr. Apisa,’ the young
boy says to me as I walk by, ‘can I have your autograph?’ Well, I stopped and said I was glad to, but none of us had a piece of paper or a pen, so I told them to stay there and I would run back into the locker room.
“When I got inside, I remembered the game ball, and I tucked it under my arm, grabbed a pen and went back to the tunnel. When I got to the boy, I told him I was going to give it to him. ‘Are you sure?’ he says. I said, ‘I’ll have other chances,’ and so I signed it ‘Aloha, Bob Apisa’ and gave it to him. I remember he grabbed my arm and thanked me, and I could see he was starting to tear up. I shook hands with his father and went on my way.”
Fast-forward 25 years to the silver anniversary of the 1966 “Game of the Century,” and Apisa runs into his old equipment manager at the celebration event.
“His name was Ken Earley, and he was always looking out for me,” Apisa remembers. “I was from Hawaii, so I didn’t really have the right kind of clothes for the wintertime, and he would always be getting me an extra sweatshirt or jacket to keep me warm.
“Anyway, he says he has something for me and he’ll mail it to me. That was 1991, and a few weeks later I get a package in the mail and it’s the actual game ball from the 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame game. The old leather ball with lacings was deflated and still had mud stains on it, but written on it was ’10-10 tie Game of the Century.'”
There was also a note from Ken that says Duffy had given it to him afterward because no game ball was awarded that day. There was something else in that note that brought back a flood of memories to Apisa.
“He also said he had watched from afar on that day when I gave the game ball to the young boy in the tunnel, and he never forgot it.”
Now, this game ball, which had been entrusted to Earley, would replace the ball Apisa had given away.
“He had that ball for 25 years, and I held on to it for another 23 years,” Apisa says.
This October, when the former Farrington star returned to East Lansing for the 2014 Michigan-Michigan State game, he brought the ball with him.
“At the President’s luncheon, I told the story of the game balls, and I presented it to the university and current Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio. I was so choked up on that day because I could see there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, and because I could see the faces of my fallen team-mates,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “But I knew it was the right thing to do — Ken had been the caretaker of that historic ball for 25 years, and me for 23 more, and now it belonged not on eBay or with some collector, but on display at Michigan State.”
But the story wasn’t done. After MSU defeated its arch-rival Saturday, Apisa and wife Arlena were invited into the Spartans post-game locker room.
“They brought me down there, which was quite a surprise,” Apisa says. “I came in, and the players were waiting and Coach Dantonio began to speak.”
He told the story of the game balls and how Apisa had passed on the only game balls he ever had, one to the young boy in the wheelchair, and the other historical ball to the university.
“Coach Dantonio said it was time for the story to come full circle. In front of everyone, (all the coaches, the players, the athletic director and the husband of the university president), Coach Dantonio presented me with the game ball from that day’s game. I couldn’t believe it. I just lost it; I cried and cried,” he says.
“I thought about all the years, about a young boy who had so little growing up in Hawaii, about a kid from
Farrington who was blessed with an opportunity, and about my fallen teammates at Michigan State who had been with me all of those years ago. I am so proud of my team, my university and my home state.”
Big Bob Apisa, the bruising fullback who has gone on to a successful life in the film industry as an actor and stunt man, and who is currently working on a documentary about that famous Michigan State team, choked back tears as he told the story.
“I’ve heard from people all over the country, and I just came home to a new avalanche of letters. It’s so touching to hear from so many wonderful people and to know what all this means to people’s lives.”