Bob Norvell had coached youth football for years in the Bellingham area, so he knew Taylor Rapp was talented. But he also knew that freshmen don’t always last the season when they play varsity right away, especially when they play on both sides of the ball. And so the former Sehome High School coach placed Rapp with players his own age when he reported to his first team camp as a freshman.
Then he hit someone. Then he hit someone else.
“It didn’t take but a couple plays, and I was like ‘Oh my God, he’s going to hurt somebody out here,’ ” Norvell said. “He just goes 100 miles per hour. I’m going to have to put him on varsity.”
Uh-huh. Ask anyone who knows anything about the way Rapp approaches the game, and they will gladly regale with stories of his aggression, his instincts, his unwillingness to play with anything less than maximum, full-tilt effort, all the time.
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It’s how he played his way into a starting role as a freshman at Sehome, where he moved all around the defensive backfield, played running back, played receiver and even filled in at quarterback when that position was thinned by injuries.
It’s how he played his way into a starting role as a freshman for the Washington Huskies: moving all around the defensive backfield, leading the team with four interceptions, earning Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year honors on a team that won its league and earned a spot in Saturday’s national semifinal against No. 1 Alabama.
And it’s how he kept up with his older brother, Austin, and his friends when they were growing up in Bellingham. If the older boys wanted to try a particularly dangerous stunt — perhaps one involving a bike or a tree, as kids do — they followed a simple rule: make Taylor try it.
“If they were ever going to try something a little crazy,” Taylor’s father, Chris, said via telephone last week, “they’d get Taylor to do it first and see if he was still alive after.”
Indeed, Taylor confirmed: “They definitely would always try to get me to do crazy things, and I would always be up for it.”
Perhaps that attitude instilled the toughness necessary to play through injuries, a skill he refined in high school amid various bumps and bruises, then applied during the first week of spring practices after he enrolled early at UW.
Rapp graduated from Sehome early, taking community college classes as a senior so he could enroll at Washington in January. When the Huskies began practices in March, he broke his hand on the first day.
UW coach Chris Petersen figured he was done for the spring. Rapp figured he’d need to sit out, too, though he didn’t suspect he had broken a bone until he went to class and realized the pain prevented him from picking anything up.
He went to the trainer’s room. They told him his hand was indeed broken, but there was good news: If he could stand the pain, he could wrap the hand in a club and still participate in practice.
“It’s gonna hurt like crazy,” a trainer told him, “but if you can play through it, then you can play through it.”
He could play through it.
“It’s hard enough, you know, having everything healthy,” Petersen said. “He didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t make a big deal. He kept practicing. All those little things kind of add up to, ‘Wow, this guy’s pretty impressive.’ ”
Said Rapp’s father, Chris: “Unless he’s got a broken leg, he’s going to play.”
Most impressive, defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said, was Rapp’s ability to comprehend the Huskies’ schemes. Most freshmen don’t play. Freshmen who do play usually focus on learning one spot — All-American safety Budda Baker led UW in total snaps his freshman year, but even he said “they simplified it down, and it was hard for me” — but Lake tried Rapp at three different positions in spring alone.
“And I can rarely remember when he made a mistake,” Lake said. “Normally, a freshman, you would sit at one position and you’re going through spring, going through training camp, and you’re just hoping he picks that up. He’s definitely a quick study.”
Rapp figured he might see the field as a special-teams contributor, but he wound up in the starting lineup by the third game of the season. He ranks fifth on the team in tackles with 45, and has been described by coaches as perhaps the best tackler on the team.
He’s also a dynamo in the weight room, as junior receiver John Ross tells it.
“I wanted to see Taylor Rapp’s birth certificate when he first got in, because he’s bigger than what you expect,” Ross said. “He would come in and kill our workouts. A lot of people would be tired, and Taylor Rapp would be just, like, fine.
“You usually come in with no weight on your sheet and it’s hard to adjust, and Taylor Rapp was lifting with us like he’d been there for two or three years. It was weird. It was really weird.”
Baker was Rapp’s lifting partner, and the two quickly began waging friendly competitions.
“Lifts, cleans, hang cleans, hang pulls. Bench. We have a speed bench thing that you have to put on the weights and (see) whoever can do it the fastest,” Baker said, adding that he usually won. “But his legs are a little stronger. He was a little faster on the leg parts.”
None of this surprises Norvell, who said Rapp reached a point in high school where it was unnecessary for him to become any stronger. Sometimes, Norvell said, Rapp’s own teammates would come to the sideline after a tackle, grateful they had wrestled the ballcarrier to the ground before Rapp could sprint in and wreck everyone involved.
“You knew he was coming,” Norvell said. “He was going to hit him, or you, or whoever. It didn’t matter.”
Such physical play led opponents to complain that Rapp was taking cheap shots, Norvell said, “but he wasn’t. He’d just come up and hit real hard.”
Coaches and teammates rave about Rapp’s instincts. Junior defensive lineman Elijah Qualls says Rapp is “my favorite player,” marveling that “if he wasn’t intercepting the ball or getting a pass breakup, as soon as the receiver caught it, he was there at least within the next three steps. The kid knows the game.
“Off the field, he’s a kid. He is. He’s fun. He’s always smiling, laughing, joking. He’s cool. I like that kid a lot.”
Rapp said his college decision came down to UW, Oregon and Stanford, but playing close to home and in front of family and friends ultimately appealed to him the most.
Older brother Austin, himself a standout athlete in high school, is a senior at Washington State, where he walked on to the football team for a short time before dropping the sport to pursue a degree in engineering. Taylor says his brother is “a big Dawg fan,” and even wore purple in the middle of WSU’s student section at this year’s Apple Cup game in Pullman.
The family has been pleasantly surprised by the ascension of their youngest son, who was named MVP of the Pac-12 championship game after intercepting two passes and returning one for a touchdown.
“We hoped he’d play, but we didn’t expect he’d start this year, for sure,” Chris Rapp said. “I think we expected him to play next year more. The defense, and especially the secondary, is stacked. So for him to break through like that was a big surprise to everybody.”
“A year ago, I was at Sehome High School, just finishing up (my) senior season,” he said. “I just try to put it in perspective. I would have never thought I would be in this position right now.”