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Ten years later, Coach Lapper's anniversary

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I first met Mike Lapprich when I was an assistant hockey coach at Ann Arbor Huron High School, and he was just a ninth grader.  He was a big kid with a baby face, a shy guy with an easy smile – an oversized puppy. 

I came back five years later as the head coach, when Lapper, as we all called him, had just finished his first year as an assistant coach, at age 18.

When I met the returning captain that summer, he brought a list of talking points.  The first: “You have no idea what you’re getting into.”  The second: “Lapper’s our man.  He’s the guy we trust.  Keep him, and treat him right.” 

It was not a suggestion. 

The team we inherited had not won a game in over a year.  We had a lot of work to do.  So, we went to work.  I was the drill sergeant, but Lapper was their big brother. When they felt like quitting, he kept them going.

Day by day, little by little, we learned how to stretch like a team, we learned how to practice like a team, we learned how to how to dress like a team – green shirts and gold ties – and we learned how to play the game, as a team.  By our third season, we had become a top-ten team.    

Lapper worked with the defensemen, who cut our goals-against in half, and he made the locker room look like the Red Wings’.  When the players arrived, they saw their jerseys hanging up in their stalls.  He loved the players, and they loved him.  The best part is, both sides knew it. 

The picture of Lapper with the trophy in his hands, too choked up to speak, tells you just about all you need to know.

The players proved it after our second season, when they voted unanimously for Lapper to receive the Unsung Hero award.  I’d never seen a coach win a player’s award before.  The picture of Lapper with the trophy in his hands, too choked up to speak, tells you just about all you need to know. 

After our third season, Lapper’s world opened up.  He moved into his own place, he enrolled in nursing school, and he even appeared in the pages of Car & Driver magazine, where he worked on the side.  But the highlight, for him, was seeing his little brother Kevin play on our spring team.  The first night they were on the same bench, Kevin notched two assists.

After the game, Lapper went back to his parents’ house for dinner, and gushed about Kevin’s play.  For Lapper, life didn’t get much better than that.

Early the next morning, June 25, 2003, I got a call from Lapper’s mom.  She told me Mike had been in a car accident the night before, and he had died. 

Of course, I was in disbelief -- and when I gathered the players later that day in our locker room, they were in disbelief, too. Lapper was their big brother – and for most of them, the first person they were close to who died.

So many people showed up for the funeral, dozens had to stand in the foyer.  We named the Unsung Hero award, our locker room and a scholarship in his honor. But ultimately, nothing we could do could lessen our loss. 

At his grave site, in the shadows of Huron High and the V.A. Hospital, where Lapper volunteered, the pastor said a few words.  When he finished, I escorted Lapper’s parents to their car, then walked back up the gentle slope, where I saw our players walking down, without their gold ties.  This was not how we do it, I thought, on this day of all days.  But I said nothing. 

He walked me back to the grave site, where I saw five-dozen gold ties draped over Lapper's casket.

One of our captains came up to me, red-eyed, put his arm around me and pinched the knot of my tie, and said, “Coach, we have a place for these.”  He walked me back to the grave site, where I saw five-dozen gold ties draped over Lapper’s casket. 

And that’s when I knew: Lapper’s legacy was not having his name on a locker room door or a trophy or a scholarship. 

It was helping dozens of boys become men -- something they carry with them to this day.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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