Bob Apisa, Hollywood Actor, Stuntman and Spartan ICON
After establishing himself as a Spartan great on the gridiron and a noteworthy stuntman, actor, and stuntman in Hollywood, Bob Apisa has seen and done more than most.
A member of Michigan State's 1965 and 1966 National Championship teams, Apisa now finds himself house hunting in Northern California, but took the time to speak with Spartan Nation about his time with the Spartans, his time in Hollywood and the documentary he directed, 'Men of Sparta.'
Coming out of Farrington high school in Hawaii, where he lived after moving with his family from American Samoa at the age of 7, Apisa was considering three colleges, Penn State, USC, and Michigan State. With the help of his high school coach who played at Purdue, Apisa ultimately chose the Spartans because of the allure of playing in the Big Ten Conference and having the opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl.
When he arrived on campus at Michigan State in 1964, a long way from home in Hawaii and American Samoa, Apisa had never seen snow. He was admittedly ill-prepared for the weather had packed just a few pairs of blue jeans and t-shirts along with his high school varsity jacket. But Apisa remembers the campus and the culture in East Lansing are what helped make Michigan State such an essential place for him.
When looking back at his time at Michigan State and playing for those national championship teams, Apisa, who played fullback, said that he's first reminded of the fact that the era he once played in is significantly different than the current era of college football.
"When I look back at my time at Michigan State, I reflect on that time as opposed to today's generation of ballplayers," he said. "It's a different era, number one, back in those games, we had ten games, and they now have 12. Back in those days, it was bread and butter, rock 'em and sock 'em type of football, and today, there's a lot more finesse, and the offensive patterns and systems are wide open and are different than when we played. But it still comes down to tackling and hitting."
During his time at Michigan State, Apisa made a significant impact on a Spartan program that went onto win National Championships in 1965 and 1966. It was two of the most critical teams in college football history because of the role the program played in desegregating college football.
Apisa said that knowing those teams were able to reach the mountaintop of college football twice is something that he takes great pride in. He also added that he looks forward to seeing the new direction of the Spartan football program under Mel Tucker moving forward.
"It's a different era, we know we reached the pinnacle at one time, the two numbers up in the rafters that's '65 and '66, that's the last time in 55 years that we've ascended to the pinnacle and there's rarified air up there," he said. "We're happy that we brought whatever acclaim to Michigan State, and we're looking towards bigger and better things this year and in the future."
During his sophomore season in 1965, Apisa rushed for 715 yards and ten touchdowns, helping lead the Spartans to the first of two National Championships and became the first Samoan to be named an All-American. Apisa left Michigan State as a two-time national champion and had the most rushing yards by a fullback in Michigan State history with 1,343 yards.
Apisa went on to be inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017 and was inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
After his college career ended, Apisa was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 9th round of the 1968 draft. Because of injuries, he was released shortly after, kicking off a 34-year career as an actor, stuntman, and director.
"The decision came down to when Vince Lombardi drafted me with Green Bay, I signed a two-year contract with them, and they had just come out of their second World Championship, and I was honored," he said. "But the fact of the matter - when he released me because of my injuries, we didn't have collective bargaining back in those days, I don't think we even had injured reserve, you're either on the 'taxi squad' (practice squad), or you're released outright. So they paid off my contract, and I was filled with enthusiasm for being an athlete and being young. I got my graduate degree from Western Michigan, went back home to Hawaii, worked with the governor's office, and after a couple of months, I got started as a stunt man with the original Hawaii-50. Since then, I knew this was a great place to release the energy that you have as a young man, as a former athlete and I wanted to, with my dexterity, with my abilities to do this and do that fit right into it. Then I got into directing as a stunt coordinator, so that's how that took off, and I was in it for about 34 years."
In his on-screen career, Apisa appeared in iconic television shows like 'Hawaii Five-O' and 'Magnum P.I.' and between 40 and 50 movies, including 'The Last Boy Scout,' alongside stars like Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, 'Hard Target' with Jean-Claude Van Damm, 'Under Siege 2: Dark Territory' with Steven Segal and many more.
More recently, Apisa directed a documentary called 'Men of Sparta' that features Michigan State's 1965 and 1966 teams and the impact those teams had on the college football landscape that we know today. His wife, Arlena Hollarman-Apisa was the co-executive producer on the documentary, and Jared Milburn was a producer on the documentary.
Having the chance to highlight and feature a team that had such great importance to the college football world that he was a part of was an experience that was very meaningful to Apisa.
"It was the greatest experience of my life," he said. "I talked about how we reached that pinnacle; I talked about how we became Big Ten champions and how we went to the Rose Bowl and became National Champions, Co-National Champions with Notre Dame. The fact is that we had great, iconic ballplayers back then, the George Webster's, the Bubba Smith's, the Gene Washington's, the Clint Jones, and so forth. We came from different parts of the country, gentlemen like Jimmy Raye. He was the first African American quarterback from the south - Duffy Daugherty had to go beyond the Mason-Dixon line and recruit him from Fayetteville, North Carolina, during the Jim Crow era. He had to go south of the Mason-Dixon line to go to Beaumont, Texas, to get Bubba Smith; he had to go south of the Mason-Dixon line to get George Webster from Anderson, South Carolina. Now you mesh that in with people like myself, Dick Kenney, Charlie Wedemeyer, that went up from Hawaii to Michigan State - it was the first time in my life that played with as teammates or against African Americans because we had a mixture of ethnics in Hawaii growing up, but it was my first time. We meshed as a family. When you call us as a family, you get this feeling of friendship, and you have each other's back, and that's how we played in the games, and that's how we ascended to the pinnacle and the title."
On a personal level, Apisa's grandson, Jacob Isaia, is currently an offensive lineman at Michigan State, apart of the Spartans' 2018 recruiting class after playing his high school football at Bishop Gorman in Nevada.
Apisa said that while he didn't push his grandson to commit to Michigan State, he instead allowed him to decide for himself, he is understandably happy and proud to see him play for the same program he once played for school his mother, Amy, attended.
"I didn't recruit him to Michigan State, he could have gone to Virginia, he could have gone to Oregon, could have gone to Stanford or Mississippi, but he chose Michigan State, and that was his choice," he said. "I told Jacob when he made that choice, I told him, 'I want you to play hard, nothing's given. You're not granted any freedom just because Grandpa went to school here, you make your reputation, play hard, and people will take notice.' But it makes me proud that he's playing for my alma mater, which will be his - his mother, my daughter is also a graduate of Michigan State."
Apisa said that he has not yet spoken with new Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker, but he knows assistant coaches, Harlon Barnett, Courtney Hawkins, Ron Burton, and Mike Tressel. He is looking forward to good things this fall and beyond from the football program. He also said that he's had the chance to meet with Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley, and noted that he's 'Expecting great things' from him and the university under his leadership.