From his lineman’s body to his infectious laugh to his giving heart, nothing about John Apple was small.
Wherever he went, the former Piqua football player and assistant coach was the center of attention — not necessarily because he wanted to be, but because everything about him demanded that he be. John Apple could not — and would not — be ignored.
He was, for all intents and purposes, the closest thing the city of Piqua had to a force of nature. Tales of his exploits both on and off the football field reached almost mythological proportions. He was Piqua’s Paul Bunyan.
“He truly was a larger than life character in every sense,” said Piqua High School football coach Bill Nees, who coached Apple in high school and later hired him as an assistant coach for the Indians. “People just naturally gravitated to him. People couldn’t help but love the guy. That’s just the kind of person he was.”
Unfortunately for those who knew him, John Apple has lit up his last room with his gravelly voice and electric smile. Late last week, Apple — at just 46 years old — passed away unexpectedly in his home.
“It’s a sad day for the Indian Nation,” Nees said.
Apple first made a name for himself in Miami County as an outstanding lineman on some pretty average Piqua football teams. So good was Apple that he earned the ultimate measure of respect for a football player — he impressed the opposing coach at a rival school.
In 1985, Piqua played Troy in the 100th meeting between the two schools. Troy came into the game undefeated and stacked with future Division I college football players. The Trojans would finish that season undefeated and advance to the Division I state semifinals, where they would lose to Cincinnati Moeller, which at the time was a national powerhouse.
Piqua, meanwhile, would win just two games that entire season. When the Indians and Trojan played, however, Piqua nearly pulled off the ultimate upset — only a fourth-quarter comeback would keep Troy’s perfect season alive.
Fifteen years later, as he sat in his office at Troy High School, former Troy coach Steve Nolan recalled one of the biggest differences in that game.
“It’s amazing how much emotion can play a part in this rivalry,” Nolan said in the fall of 2000. “I remember when we played Piqua in 1985, we were supposed to win pretty easily. But I’ll forget they had this kid named John Apple who just kept crushing us every single play. Literally, there was nothing we could do to stop the guy.
“It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. It was one guy taking over the entire game. And he almost won the game for them, too. We had to convert a fourth down late in the game and then (Mike) Delwiche broke off a long run to ice things — but up until the final gun, we never felt comfortable that night.”
Although a standout high school player, Apple was too short to ever play at the college level. Not that it seemed to matter in terms of his legacy, however. He would go on to Sinclair Community College and Wright State University, where he graduated with honors before he returned to Piqua and joined Nees’ staff.
In his post-playing days, Apple’s legend may have grown even larger than his high school legacy. His players loved him. He created an entirely new fanbase when he began moonlighting in local professional wrestling matches under his ring name, “Johnny Bomb.” He was the ultimate social butterfly around Piqua — an interesting animal analogy, considering Apple’s ample frame.
“John Apple is the most famous football player from Piqua to never play in college,” Nees said. “Sure, people all remember Quinn (Pitcock) and (Matt) Finkes and Brandon (Saine) and all the other guys who went on to play college football, but they also throw John Apple in with those guys. Everybody knew John Apple. Everybody loved John Apple.”
Indeed … to know him was to love him.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong