Championing The Chappa

Like many events, the Chappa Invitational Golf Tournament is more than a name.

And this year — as Westport celebrates the 50th anniversary of the town’s purchase of Longshore — is a good time to look back on the name (and the man) behind one of the top high school golf events in the country.

Mike Chappa, in his Staples football uniform

When over 80 Connecticut schools tee off at Longshore on Thursday, May 27 they’ll play in memory of a true — and now forgotten — legend.  Here’s what they (and, these days, too many Westporters) don’t know about Mike Chappa.

A lifelong resident of town, Chappa graduated from Staples in 1927.  He captained the football and basketball teams, and played baseball — and is still regarded as one of the most all-around Wrecker athletes ever.

At Georgetown University he earned All-American football status for his aggressive 2-way play — as both an offensive and defensive end.

Returning to Staples after World War II as a social studies teacher, he coached football with Frank Dornfeld — another Georgetown All-American (tailback).

But Chappa’s great love was golf.  He coached Staples’ linksmen from 1955 through ’68.  His last year, the team was 15-0 and won the state championship.  He was named Coach of the Year.

The following spring, he dropped dead of a massive heart attack — on the 16th green at Longshore.

Since 1970, the Chappa Invitational has been sponsored by Staples, the Longshore Men’s  Golf Association and Westport Parks & Rec.  The 2-man better ball event allows small schools to compete equally with the big boys.

It’s also the only high school golf event spectators are allowed — in fact, encouraged — to attend.

Over the years, they’ve seen some memorable moments.  Once, an upstate team with a commanding lead left, to get home for an awards dinner.  Another team tied them for 1st.  Officials called the northerners, who turned around, drove back, jumped out of their car – and beat the other team in a 1-hole sudden death playoff.

Even more improbably, a few years ago Trinity Catholic had the lead, and left for their senior prom.  Another team drew even.  Staples coach Tom Owen called Trinity at the prom.  Golfers came back — with their dates in gowns.  Trinity lost on the 3rd hole of sudden death — perhaps they were distracted — but photos of the players and the dates on their course live on.

Fairfield’s J.J. Henry — now a PGA pro — was Connecticut’s top high school golfer in the early 1990s.  He played in the Chappa each year — but had never won.  In his senior year, he needed only a par at the 18th hole to take the title.  He didn’t do it.

Westporter Carl Swanson — a captain on the 1966 team — remembers Chappa well.  The coach didn’t say much — sometimes just pointing his arm to convey the message “keep it straight!” — though Chappa did once ask Swanson, when his concentration level lagged:  “Carl, is it golf or women?”

Chappa, Swanson says, gained respect through is “quiet, authoritative demeanor — never scolding, never yelling.  It was understood that you were to play well, and it was your responsibility to do so.  But you also knew that he had your back.”

He was much louder on the football sidelines — “very emotional and excitable,” recalls former Wrecker Tom Allen — but football is supposed to be that way.

Swanson hopes to volunteer at this year’s Chappa tournament.  He remembers the early years of Longshore as a public golf course, and to the man who put Staples golf on the high school map.

There is no more important “link” than that.

Dylan Murray and Andrew Gai led Staples to an undefeated record, and the state golf championship, last year.

8 responses to “Championing The Chappa

  1. Carl A. Swanson

    Thanks Wooger for the tribute to Coach Chappa. He was very much a gentleman on the course and off to me. Shot a 77 from the tips today at Longshore! “Coach” would have been proud. It is nice to see a tournament in his name.
    Go Wreckers!

  2. Jim Andrews

    For those who don’t know, Coach Chappa’s teams produced many fine golfers long before the days of the Tiger craze. When Longshore was purchased by the town in 1960, it laid the ground floor for many fine golfers through the following decades. Chappa’s teams produced likes of two Swansons, Carl and Bruce, who were dominate in high school and college. Carl went on to become a PGA teaching professional in Houston. Ricky Clay and Harry Morse of those teams also became top rated amateurs in Alabama and Texas, respectively. Later would come the Brian Claars and John Coopers of the 70’s and many more. Yet, Mike Chappa was a pioneer in the high quality of golf at Staples.

  3. I’m not a golfer so knew Coach Chappa only through my experience as a sophomore JV football player at Staples in 1963. He was one of the best coaches I ever had at any level in any sport from Little League through college. Calm on a golf course according to my pals and classmates Carl Swanson and Harry Morse, he was the opposite on the gridiron. Although never, ever abusive, intimidating or malicious he was certainly expressive and always encouraging. As a line coach he was a fanatic about fundamentals and discipline. He and head coach Frank Dornfeld — an All American single-wing tailback who played on Cotton and Orange Bowl teams at G’town in the 1940s — coached the Staples football varsity from around 1950 until 1962. After some very successful seasons in which the Nistico and Mitchell brothers were Wrecker stars, winning seasons dwindled. With a young, bright assistant named Paul Lane waiting in the wings, the Staples athletic director took a course that was both pedestrian and novel. He relieved coaches Dornfeld and Chappa of their duties and demoted them to the junior varsity where they would be responsible for grooming sophomores — no soph back then ever dressed for a varsity game unless he was a starter and there were only three during my years at SHS — for their future varsity roles. The AD who ordered that demotion: Frank Dornfeld. My singular memory of Mike Chappa is this…he created “Allen’s Defense” in ’63 for one purpose: to generate mayhem. Sometimes we blitzed 11 men; sometimes we had just two down linemen on the line of scrimmage. There was no tactical rhyme or reason for the plays that we called. Our opponent never knew what was coming. One day an 11-man blitz submerged the New Canaan QB, who was laughing as he struggled up from the pile. “You guys are bleeping crazy!” he yelled. I was still laughing when I reached the sideline. Coach Chappa firmly grabbed my elbow. “Allen,” he said, “football is not a game for laughing men.” Of course he was laughing too as he admonished me. He’s buried just a few yards from my parents at Assumption Cemetery. I visit him often.

  4. Great stuff TA

  5. Steve Haberstroh


    You forgot another epic moment involving the Chappa. A young fellow by the name of Steve Haberstroh missed a 4 foot birdie putt on the 1st Sudden Death Playoff hole in 1999 to win the tournament. He and his partner, Pat Flynn (who went on to play at Miami of Ohio), ultimately lost on the 2nd hole.
    From that moment on, EVERY SINGLE TIME that Steve has a four foot putt and is playing with his brother, Chuck, he is kindly reminded of that fateful day as Chuck whispers, “Chappa” just before his address.


    I’ll be down there today to face my demons…

  6. Innocent Bystander

    To steal a line from Brent Musburger:

  7. Carl A. Swanson

    On a small world tidbit, I played against JJ Henry’s father in high school and then taught his future mother-in-law golf in Houston. It seems JJ has found his game again after a brief hiatus. Maybe the best golfer to come out of this area in some time although Julius Boros was from Bridgeport and Westporter Brian Claar was rookie of the PGA tour in ’86 but flamed out and is tournament director for the Senior Tour now.
    I am sure there are plenty more and more to come.

  8. Coach Chappa was an outstanding man. Coach Chappa had been out of college 31 years by the time our paths crossed. He certainly took a chance on me as a sophomore. He put me in on 4th downs to deliver the ball to the punter. That became my job for the three years I spent at Staples 1958,1959 and 1960.
    I think I may have stood 6’2″ and weighted about 160 on a a good day. Because my dad was a great college center and had schooled me in the fundamentals of the position I could snap the ball with accuracy and speed. Coach discovered that I could really put a lot of speed and a great spiral on the football so he found a place for me. In the following three years that he used me we never had a fumble on 4th down. (We also had some great punters and ball handlers). He would drill us on fundamentals from three and four point stances to “shooting out of there” as he like to call blocking low and hard. I remember playing my Junior year with three borken ribs. Before every game Coach would tape ankles, wrists and my ribs. I also remember Frank Dornfield smoked Parliments at practice. If we lost it was not because we were not prepared. In a JV game at Stamford Catholic I got a broken nose (Those guys played dirty). I think I got a tad emotional and he and Wyatt Tubert told me to get back in there and deal out a little bad news upon the guy who gave me a crooked nose. I promptly stuffed my elbow though his face mask knocking him down. A 15 yard penalty ensued and neither Wyatt or Coach said a word. Justice was served.