How Washington's Taylor Rapp overcame his hometown's apathetic football culture, constant losing and racial prejudice to become the most-feared free safety in college football
By Andy Fenelon | Published Aug. 29, 2018
Taylor Rapp is back at his old high school for the first time in more than two years. Several two-story buildings are under construction on the sprawling 40-acre campus carved out in a forest of pines, and Rapp is in awe of the project the Bellingham School District has dubbed "Rebuild Sehome."
Clad in a purple University of Washington polo and dark jeans on this warm, late-summer day, he's looking around and wondering exactly where the new football practice field will sit this time next year when the project is complete. He's not curious enough to jump a 10-foot chain-link fence and explore. Instead, he continues through the old dilapidated campus.
He finds "Class of 2016" painted on the side of one of Sehome High's old ranch-style buildings, along with the hand prints of his former classmates in the school's colors of yellow and green. He points to one of them. "That's mine," he says as he places his hand on the brick wall.
He walks further through the grounds and suddenly stops. Memories are beginning to flood back, some painful. "You know how at most schools the football team makes fun of the cross-country team?" he asks randomly. "Here it was the opposite. Here we were made fun of by them."
It takes little time to figure out he's not playing for laughs. Sehome's current string of six straight Washington State boys cross-country titles matches the number of victories the school's football team has accumulated over the past three years. Rapp himself endured a 2-8 final season at Sehome in 2015 and won only five games in his final two years there. In fact, it's been 15 years since Sehome has fielded a winning football team, and only recently did it produce its first noteworthy football player in more than 30 years.
Which makes Rapp's rapid rise to one of the country's fiercest, hardest-hitting defensive backs -- following in the backpedals of former Washington greats Marcus Peters, Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King -- even more remarkable. He's beaten long odds, undeterred by a city that failed to support prep football, a high school community that openly mocked him, coaches who were unprepared to develop his talents, college recruiters who blatantly overlooked him and kids who racially taunted him for his Chinese ethnicity.
Driven by the fear of being left behind and never fulfilling the sixth-grade promise to his brother of playing major college football, Rapp not only persevered but pushed his way to the front until he could no longer be ignored. This self-made football player finally has people's full attention, from Pac-12 offenses that game-planned for him the last three years to NFL scouts eager to watch the Huskies' latest great DB compete at the NFL scouting combine in a few weeks.
"I had to separate myself from everyone around me and really stand out," Rapp says before exiting the Sehome campus and getting back on the road. "I knew that if I really wanted to go to the next level, I couldn't be ordinary."
Picturesque state Route 11, or Chuckanut Drive, as the locals call it, is the preferred, scenic route of travel from Burlington to Bellingham. The meandering -- and sometimes harrowing -- corridor along the northern Washington coast unveils spectacular cliffside views of the Samish and Bellingham bays, an occasional waterfall along the rugged, pine-lined hillsides, the far-off snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains and dozens of islands dotting the northern Puget Sound.
The terminus of Chuckanut Drive -- not far from where travelers get spilled back onto Interstate 5 -- is Fairhaven, the southernmost neighborhood of Bellingham, known for its historic district. And in many ways, walking past the locally-owned shops and restaurants, it feels as if you've been transported back in time.
Dale Archer has traveled state Route 11 hundreds of times over the past decade. A high school football coach lifer, Archer understands better than most that the 21 miles separating Burlington from Bellingham might as well be 2,100 miles.
"Different culture here," the goateed coach says with his arms crossed, leaning forward for emphasis. "Literally, it's like walking into a different world."
Although Bellingham is home to the nation's longest-running Peace Vigil, Archer isn't talking about the liberal politics of the Pacific Northwest. He's discussing a different type of culture -- the culture of football. He coached in Burlington for a dozen years before seeking a new challenge and taking the offensive line assistant job at Sehome in 2009 -- three years before Rapp entered high school. He's seen firsthand how low of a priority the sport has become in the community.
"I came from a football culture where the whole town showed up on Friday nights," says Archer, who left Sehome after Taylor's senior season -- and one year before the school's football team went winless -- in order to spend more time cultivating his landscaping business. "All the games were sold out, even the away games where the entire town traveled. The whole system was in place from youth ball to high school."
"Not here," interjects Austin Rapp, Taylor's older brother by three years and a former Sehome quarterback. "The athletes are here, but not the football culture. And it's getting worse. In fact, the (Bellingham) Boys and Girls Club just stopped its youth football. Football has never been supported here; it's kind of the joke of the school."
It's not that the school is underfunded; the new Sehome project is coming at a cost of $73 million. It's just that football isn't seen as a priority in Bellingham like it is in so many other communities around the country, some just down the road from this town. As one school administrator said, "We're talking about different demographics. Some communities, the parents say, 'Son, you're playing football, and that's the way it's going to be.' But in Bellingham, it's just not that way."
To that point, a school like Lynden High, just 17 miles to the north, typically has around 100 players on its football team. At Sehome, where the football team competes for athletes with the sailing and bowling teams -- as well as two other high schools in town -- and where the cross-country team has nearly 150 members, the football coaches might be lucky to suit up 35 on game day, with most players forced to play on both sides of the ball. It is nearly impossible to compete as a team and develop as a player, and for the Rapp brothers, it was excruciatingly frustrating.
According to Archer, when he first got to Sehome, the football team was using gear that had been thrown out three years prior by youth leagues. Shoulder pads were held together by duct tape. The uniforms were more than a dozen years old. And the only practice field available was in such disrepair, the coach says he feared he'd roll an ankle just by walking on it.
"We used to put on the jerseys -- they had these Peyton Manning-type, old-school sleeves," Austin says. "And we'd roll them up and put tape over the bicep and fold (the sleeve) back over the tape."
But a lack of quality uniforms and fields were just symptoms of diverse community interests and altered school boundary lines that led to football being de-emphasized in the late 1990s in Bellingham, a town that shows up on lists of both best and worst cities to reside in the United States.
About 90 miles from Seattle and 21 miles from the Canadian border, its idyllic setting makes it desirable for year-round outdoor enthusiasts. It's home to Western Washington University (a stone's throw from Sehome), good public schools and an active microbrewery scene. On the other hand, the city with a population of around 90,000 has a high cost of housing, a disproportionate number of jobs in government and, of course, lots and lots of rain.
"I love this place, but there's a very complacent mentality here," Austin says. "And in (Sehome), it was weird to have this kid (Taylor) who in sixth grade had this dream and vision, and never one day did he veer from it, which is remarkable, considering here isn't like L.A., where in youth leagues they're telling you that you can be like Kobe Bryant. Here, you're told to not pursue college playing sports.
"People say football is dying here. I say football has been dead here for a long time."
Google "Bellingham" and "notable football players" and you'll find only two prominent names emerging from this area in the last 40 years: Doug Pederson and Jake Locker, both products of Ferndale High, 13 miles from Taylor's high school up I-5 and, as Archer might say, a whole different world from Sehome.
Sehome has produced a few notable film actors (Hilary Swank, Billy Burke), a national political talk-show host (Glenn Beck) and, of course, a slew of top cross-country athletes. But football players? Since Sehome's powerhouse heyday in the mid-to-late '90s, the list starts and ends with one name: Taylor Rapp.
On this clear day, if you look hard enough past the cherry tree in the Rapp family backyard, you can see Vancouver and half of Taylor's heritage.
His father, Chris Rapp, grew up in Canada; Chiyan, his mother, is from China. In the early '90s, Chris' work took him to Shanghai, where he met Chiyan, who at the time was a student translator. The two got married, moved to Toronto and then Atlanta, where Taylor was born. When Taylor was 3 years old, the family moved to Bellingham, where they have lived since in an upper middle-class neighborhood on the city's east side.
Taylor grew close to Chiyan's parents, who moved with the Rapp family to Atlanta, then Bellingham. They helped raise Taylor and Austin while Chris and Chiyan worked. Taylor picked up enough Mandarin that he could hold conversations in it, although complete fluency was challenged by his grandparents' wish to learn English. In both languages, they told Taylor and Austin the stories of their experience during the Cultural Revolution in China and the Communist takeover of the '60s and '70s. "Times were so hard for them," Taylor said.
It was a blossoming relationship between grandparents and grandchildren that was built on cultural pride, an eagerness by the brothers to embrace their Chinese lineage with full immersion. But it wasn't always that way for Taylor.
According to census data, Bellingham has an Asian population of 5.9 percent, but Taylor insists it must be smaller. Around town, he rarely sees people who look like him. In fact, he doesn't ever recall seeing another Asian person in his high school other than Austin. "I was different," he says, "I looked different."
For young Taylor, it oftentimes brought a sense of embarrassment and humiliation, especially after he graduated from his Chinese-immersion elementary school and started to become more aware of his surroundings. He hid these feelings from his mom and grandparents because he didn't want them to think he was ashamed of them. Quite the contrary; he was just dealing with the pain of sticking out and being teased for it.
"Growing up in Bellingham, because we were different -- especially on the football field, where there's not a lot of Chinese players -- you get taunted," he says. "They make fun of how you look -- your eyes, the widened, slanted eyes. There were a few instances where I was called the Ch-word. It was offensive to me. It made me embarrassed of who I was. That's why I never embraced it growing up. I was different than everyone else, and I didn't want to be."
Slowly and with maturity -- and especially after he arrived on the diversely populated UW campus located in a city, Seattle, that has an Asian population of more than 14 percent -- Taylor's attitude changed to the point where he says he took every opportunity to show off his Chinese heritage. He pulls up his shirt to drive the point home. Over his right oblique is a tattoo he got at the end of his junior year at Sehome of Chinese letters representing Confucius' five virtues: kindness, justice, morality, wisdom and loyalty.
He then pulls up the sleeve on his purple Huskies polo to reveal another tattoo on his upper left arm. It's of an ox, the zodiac sign for his birth year (1997), with more Chinese letters that Taylor says "in short means, 'Change the world and make a difference.' "
Rapp is careful not to label what he received growing up from outsiders as racist, but no matter what label you want to use, it was present and hurtful.
Ed Wang, the offensive tackle who became the first Chinese-American drafted when the Buffalo Bills selected him in the fifth round in 2010, can relate. He says he endured racial remarks growing up in Fairfax, Va., in Blacksburg while at Virginia Tech and even when he got to the NFL.
"I had one teammate in the NFL pull me aside right when I got there and said, 'We never played with an Asian football player before and probably never will again, so we have to get all of our jokes in while we can,' " Wang said by phone from Beijing, where he's the president of the China Arena Football League. "A lot of these guys didn't grow up around different cultures and probably don't know any better, but they knew the stereotypes. Growing up, I faced that all my life."
He also faced a sporting world that lacked cultural role models for him. The son of stars on the Chinese national track and field team who competed in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Wang was destined to play sports. But when he chose football, a sport most befitting his large size, he was an instant pioneer.
"Even in college football, there was nobody," Wang said. "But it wasn't just football. Any team sport I played in all my years growing up, I never saw another Chinese kid on another team or my team. I don't think I even saw another Asian kid. Not even in college."
About the only Chinese role model Rapp had in sports while growing up was Jeremy Lin. Like most American sports fans at the time, Rapp got caught up in "Linsanity" when Lin finally got his chance with the New York Knicks in late 2011. He feels a kinship with the basketball icon even though the two play different sports.
Like Rapp, Lin was constantly overlooked. Despite being named the Northern California Division II Player of the Year at Palo Alto High in 2006 and being the best player on that year's state championship team, Lin didn't get a single scholarship offer from a Division I or II school, and only a few sniffs from D-III teams. He ended up paying his own way to Harvard, which under Ivy League rules is prohibited from offering athletic scholarships.
"If you don't look the part, it's just going to be harder and you have to prove yourself a little more," Lin said in a phone interview from Shanghai, where he spent part of his offseason after being traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Atlanta Hawks. "I remember whenever I'd have a good game against a player that had a lot of hype, the first thing that everyone would always say was, 'Oh, the opposing point guard must have had an off night,' versus giving me the credit and maybe I'm just better than him."
Rapp and others close to him wonder if race might have played a part in his slow recruitment in high school. His father relayed a story of how Taylor went ignored by coaches and recruiting-site analysts at the Nike Sparq Combine in Los Angeles in the spring of his sophomore season, even though he walked away with a score of 108.3, the second-highest of all the high school participants there.
"They wouldn't even spec an eye on me," Taylor said. "They would walk right past me to these African-American and white kids who in their mind looked like football players. I didn't fit the stereotype."
The track at Civic Stadium, where Western Washington hosts its meets and where the Sehome Mariners play their football games, is getting a fresh makeover. It's around noon when Rapp strolls into the stadium and asks a member of the two-man construction crew if the gates can be left open while the workers go to lunch. It's clear Rapp isn't recognized, even though you'd think the greatest football player to come out of this area in more than a decade and a star on the state's top-10 nationally ranked college team should be. The men allow for five minutes before they need to secure the stadium entrance.
Rapp walks halfway up the stands on the north end of the stadium and takes a seat at the 50-yard line. He points downfield toward the 30 and says, "Right there. That's where it happened."
He immediately pulls out his iPhone and calls up his favorite high school video highlight, only to realize he had misremembered it slightly. It's a goal-line situation, and he's playing deep safety, with the opposing quarterback standing in the shotgun in his own end zone. Rapp sees the screen developing before the ball's even snapped, sprints up 10 yards and delivers a vicious hit at the 7, dislodging the ball from the running back's hands.
The very next play in the highlight reel is eerily similar, only this time it's around midfield and instead of the ball coming loose, a helmet goes flying through the air. "That was mine," Taylor says proudly.
The stadium is empty on this summer Sunday afternoon, save for the two visitors recalling highlights from the stands. It might as well have been a Friday night in the fall. In most small towns around the country, even ones like Burlington just 30 minutes to the south, Friday nights are reserved for high school football, with packed stadiums and communities rallying around their local football team.
But not in Bellingham, and certainly not at Sehome.
The memories start flooding back again for Rapp, who's recalling stories from the stadium that produced so many highlights -- and lowlights. He recalls coming out of games early because his coaches saw how teams targeted him and didn't want their best athlete -- who sometimes had to play up to seven different positions -- get hurt late with their team down by 30. And he heard the criticisms that followed from those who questioned his dedication and toughness.
The football videos live forever online, but the other memories -- the mocking "U-Dub" chants from opposing fans after he received a scholarship from UW; the lack of support for the team from the school and community at large; the constant losing -- stay just as fresh for him. This was not because he wasn't able to block out the noise, but because he used it -- and continues to use it -- to fuel his aggression on the field and keep himself focused on higher goals.
"On Friday nights, I had to flip that switch and bring the physical aggression to every game, have that mentality that no one's taking this away from me," he says. "I had to have a work ethic, coming from where I came from, unlike anyone else. I needed to separate myself from everyone."
The Civic Stadium gates are now locked as the visit runs a little longer than anticipated; the workers' stomachs have won out over their patience. "We'll have to hop the fence," Taylor says.
Kitty corner from Civic is Joe Martin Stadium, a ballpark that the Class-A Bellingham Mariners minor-league baseball team called home from 1977 to 1994. Ken Griffey Jr. started his professional career here as a 17-year-old in the Seattle Mariners' system. Now the ballpark is occupied by the Bellingham Bells, one of 11 teams in the West Coast League, a 30-game summer league designed to develop top college talent.
The Bells have a home game on this day with the Bend (Ore.) Elks. Taylor walks in on a pregame batting practice at the Inside Pitch cages on Moore Street. These were the same cages where he had batted thousands of balls growing up as a shortstop in youth leagues and in high school.
Players working out greet him by name. It's one of the few places, oddly enough, where he's recognized around Bellingham.
There are many who believe that, had Rapp continued in baseball, he'd be a rising star in some team's minor-league system right now rather than embarking on an NFL career. Taylor -- whose favorite Major League player growing up was Mets shortstop Jose Reyes (he wore No. 7 at Sehome and changed jersey numbers last season at UW from 21 to 7 in honor of Reyes) -- still thinks his greatest potential was in baseball, which is remarkable, considering how bright his NFL future appears.
"That's probably true," Taylor's father, Chris Rapp, says. "He was an amazing hitter and shortstop. But he got bored with it."
So bored, he gave up baseball altogether and dedicated himself to the sport he truly loved, even if he wasn't getting the coaching he needed at Sehome. He was going to find a way, and -- little did he know at the time -- it was going to come from a source that was right under his nose.
Austin knew his little brother's frustration firsthand, having played four years at Sehome. Washington State coach Mike Leach gave the former quarterback a walk-on opportunity as a linebacker despite his raw skills at the position. But a shoulder injury that required surgery during his freshman year forced him to quit the team and turn his full attention to his engineering studies.
In the short time he was with the football team, however, Austin absorbed everything he could. He wanted to be a long-distance mentor for Taylor to fill what the brothers perceived as considerable coaching gaps at Sehome. Even Archer admits that Taylor wasn't getting the coaching he starved for.
"My brother needed me," Austin said. "That was our dream and our goal to play college football. Mine was quickly disappearing."
In the summer prior to Taylor's sophomore season at Sehome, Austin returned home to download as much as he could. The brothers worked on everything Austin had learned at WSU, especially fundamentals. "He taught me, for the first time, how to tackle," said Taylor, who lapped up the coaching. The two eagerly agreed to continue when Austin went back to Pullman in the fall. At around 11 p.m. every Friday, after Chris had uploaded Taylor's game video from earlier that night to Hudl.com (a recruiting website for college coaches), Taylor would interrupt his brother's studies for film review over FaceTime.
"We'd watch Play 1 through Play 140, every play I was in," recalled Taylor. "We would go until 1 in the morning. And he'd criticize me from how I carried myself on the sideline to effort running to the ball. Everything that college coaches wanted to see on film. Effort. Technique. Form. Everything. And I'll tell you what, he was not coaching me soft; he coached me hard. He'd tell me straight up if I was too soft on a play.
"If I didn't have him as a resource my sophomore and junior years, I don't think I'd be where I'm at today."
When Austin was told of Taylor's appreciation, he bit his lower lip and tried hard not to let his emotions get the best of him. Tears forming, he took his time. "I was tough on him," he said, "because I wanted perfection from him."
Jimmy Lake's been on recruiting trails ever since he took his first college coaching job at his alma mater, Eastern Washington, in 1999. He's been all over the country attempting to reel in high school talent, from big cities to small towns that can challenge even the most precise GPS devices.
Getting to Bellingham isn't difficult. Getting recruiters to visit there is.
"No," Lake said, laughing. "I don't get up there much."
Lake, who was elevated from defensive backs assistant to co-defensive coordinator at Washington in 2018, understands it's been more than a decade since his school plucked a recruit from the Bellingham area that required a visit. And Rapp's recruitment took a bit of luck and good fortune to even happen.
Despite dominating at the state's 2A level, Rapp drew very little interest from even the smallest D-I schools. Frustrated, the family tried every avenue to get him exposed. Then fate intervened. Austin knew a kid he grew up with who was working in UW's football office cutting up recruiting tape for coaches.
"He was kind of feeding into the coaches, saying, 'Hey, there's this kid in Bellingham you have to see,' " Austin said. Taylor's athleticism, despite the lesser level of competition, jumped off the film, leading to a last-second invite to UW's high school camp just a few months before he was to start his junior season at Sehome.
Shortly after attending camps at USC and UCLA, Rapp blew the doors off the UW camp, so much so the three-star recruit had an offer in hand from the Huskies by October. Soon after, other programs -- Stanford, Oregon and Notre Dame, among others -- jumped into the fray, wanting to sign Rapp, sight unseen, based solely on UW's scholarship extension. But they had no chance against the school Taylor had dreamed of playing for since he was a kid.
"The first time I saw him (play football) in person was down here," Lake said, referring to Sehome's 2012 season opener, which was played in Husky Stadium. "He played quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive end, linebacker and safety. I think he even punted the ball." Lake then added something with unintended irony: "That (Sehome) coach was smart. Why wouldn't you put your best player all over the field?"
With all its apparent flaws, Sehome football, perhaps unknowingly, had put the best player the school had ever had in its 50 years of existence into a position to get seen by college coaches from all around the country, even if folks back in Bellingham hardly noticed.
Running back Myles Gaskin makes a habit of looking at Hudl video of incoming Husky recruits. When he heard a safety from Sehome High would be joining his team for the 2016 season, he grabbed his iPhone and called up his future teammate's highlights.
"I'm thinking, this is just some big kid dominating these little 2A players," said Gaskin, who grew up in Lynnwood, just north of Seattle, and joined Rapp last week on the preseason All-America first team. "I'm thinking, this dude can't play."
The sentiment was shared by many of Gaskin's teammates. It was an opinion even further ingrained after Rapp graduated from high school early by taking extra classes at the local community college, allowing him to enter UW in time to participate in spring camp.
Even Austin had his doubts. He quietly believed, based on his own experience at Wazzu, that the moment might be too big for his little brother. How would all the losing Taylor experienced at Sehome affect him, especially surrounded by players who predominantly came from winning programs steeped in football tradition? Would he have the confidence to compete?
"I was worried," Austin says, "how growing up here, what it did to him mentally."
But like he had done so many times before, the soft-spoken safety woke people up without saying a word.
"I remember him coming in, this little white-Asian kid," said cornerback Jordan Miller, a year older than Rapp. "I didn't know how good he was. I had never heard of him before. But he came in and balled."
"We thought he was a heck of a prospect, but you never know," added Huskies head coach Chris Petersen. "I didn't know until we got him early and he came into spring ball. And after spring ball, we absolutely knew."
Two things happened, Petersen said, that convinced him. The first was how Rapp responded after suffering a hairline fracture in his left hand on the first day of spring camp. Without saying a word to anyone, and with Petersen and the rest of the coaching staff believing Rapp's spring ball was finished, he walked out to practice the next day in a cast and not only didn't miss a single rep, he didn't miss a beat. "I remember (in practice) the ball gets batted in the air, and I'm about to get a pick, and here comes Taylor over my head with his club and picks it off," Miller said. "It was unbelievable."
The second thing: Under the "mental errors" category tracked by the coaching staff, Rapp had zero for the entire camp. "How many players can you say that about, much less a freshman?" Petersen said.
By the time spring camp was over, the head coach had seen enough. Rapp's performance carried over into the fall, and on the eve of his first college season -- on the eve of him fulfilling the promise he made to himself and his brother in sixth grade -- Petersen pulled Rapp aside, put his arm around him and whispered something the safety will not soon forget.
"You're going to be the next great DB here," said Petersen, who had already sent one defensive back to the NFL since arriving at Washington in 2014 (first-rounder Marcus Peters in 2015) and was about to produce three more pro DBs (2017 second-rounders Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King).
That statement came in great contrast to much of what Rapp had heard back in Bellingham -- the negativity, the mocking and taunts, authority figures at Sehome telling him to set realistic goals. The kid from the school that seemingly didn't care, from a community that had given up on football a long time ago, and from an ethnic culture that had produced just a single NFL draft pick, was on his way to the big time.
"I speak to our players honestly. I wouldn't say anything I don't believe," Petersen said, recalling the personal moment he had with his freshman safety. "When I saw him in spring ball and how he carried himself, I said, 'This guy's got it.' Sometimes they don't know what they have, so you have to put your arm around them and make them realize what they've got."