By Zack Peterson
While Eric Rapp laid in a pool of his own blood, he knew this was a sign from God that his life needed a change. A major one.
Eight years ago, Rapp was a firefighter/paramedic, fresh out of the Army Rangers and ready for whatever life could throw at him. Then one evening, while out with his wife and friends at a bar, he walked out to his car to put his phone away when Rapp said a gang of a dozen-plus men approached him, looking to take his money.
Rapp managed to successfully fend them off, in part, he said, due to his Army Ranger training. Out of fear, he quickly attempted to escape with his wife before anything else could happen.
However, the cops showed up, saw the knocked-out gang members and assumed the worst.
Rapp said they hauled him out of his car, and when they found him still standing, assumed he was a threat.
“I got thwacked right in the back with one of their flashlights and had three shattered vertebrae disks,” Rapp said. “When they (the police) cut me out of my car, I was out of it because I got hit in the head during the fight. I had no idea what was going on and assumed the fight was starting up again.”
He was charged with multiple felonies, including battery on law enforcement.
“That moment,” he said, “changed my life considerably.”
Ultimately, the battery charges were dropped. Court records show Rapp was sentenced to probation on lesser charges; Rapp said he completed an anger management class.
That moment made Rapp re-evaluate his life and everything he had come to know. Wanting to make a new beginning, Rapp opened The Program of Land O’ Lakes at the Impact Sports Academy with the goal of providing the community with a sports center and an after-school care environment. The Program provides 12-18 year olds with a safe environment after school that Rapp believes they can’t find elsewhere.
“It’s so dangerous out there these days,” Rapp said. “There’s kids getting tangled up in the wrong thing one time and it kills them.
“It leaves kids to fend for themselves after the bell rings at 2, and we want to be here for those kids who are too old for after-school programs.”
His idea came to life on July 16 with the grand opening of The Program.
But getting there was no small feat.
After the major conflict, what came next was the most challenging. Eight long years passed by, with Rapp struggling each day to overcome the damage done to his back.
But soon, he found it affected too much of his everyday life. He couldn’t pick up a stretcher. Couldn’t do his job. Couldn’t do anything. Rapp had to quit his job. Beyond that, his commitment floundered in other areas of his life too.
His involvement as the assistant wrestling coach at Pasco High also decreased as his injury worsened.
“As I grew worse and worse, I just couldn’t handle it,” Rapp said.
Forced to work odd construction jobs here and there, Rapp continued his struggle as he tried to provide for his family.
It wasn’t till May that Rapp finally had reconstructive surgery done.
After visiting surgeon Dr. Anthony Moreno, Rapp discovered that treatment was available and do-able. The surgery was performed in May, Rapp said, without any complications.
Recovery brought its own series of challenges.
Lying in bed late one night, Rapp woke up suddenly in pitch darkness to discover he was covered in blood. It coated the side of his body, and bubbled in one massive pool between his legs.
According to Rapp, his catheter came unattached and wasn’t fixed, causing blood to flow back out of his vein freely.
Rapp believes that had he not woken up so late at night, he wouldn’t have made it to where he is today.
“I can tell you what it’s like being in a room full of machine gun fire and know that you’re not supposed to have these memories and live. But I knew that this was the closest I was to ever truly dying,” Rapp said.
“It was a sign from God that I made it,” Rapp said. “It made me realize I need to be thinking, ‘I have one shot on this merry-go-round of life, how can I do something great for my community?’”
That’s when Rapp emerged, after eight years of strenuous turmoil, a new man and ready to make a change.
Luckily for Rapp, the change came to him.
“My neighbor came to my door one day while I was resting and asked if I was interested in working with wrestling again and kids.”
From there, The Program pieced itself together.
Rapp went and spoke to local churches asking for volunteers for his new project to help watch the kids and assist them with minor homework-related problems. He bought a bus. He went out spreading the word and hiring instructors for the various classes he hopes to have.
Officially, The Program is a non profit organization, and it offers indoor batting cages, softball, wrestling, martial arts, gymnastics, cheerleading and group fitness.
For the after-school care, Rapp also contracted Knowledge Points learning program for those children who need further assistance or tutoring.
“We made it,” Rapp said. “Our expectations for this are way up high and we’re not quite there yet, but we’ve had a great response and everyone’s ecstatic.
“We’re just going to keep getting better and provide for the community in every way possible.”
The Program can be reached at (813) 909-8815 and is located right off Land O’ Lakes Boulevard on Carson Drive.