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Former firefighter with record opens community center for teens in Land O'Lakes

Eric Rapp, 33, is opening the Program, a nonprofit community center at Impact Sports Academy in Land O’Lakes.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Eric Rapp, 33, is opening the Program, a nonprofit community center at Impact Sports Academy in Land O’Lakes.

LAND O'LAKES — On paper, Eric Rapp has the right resume for starting an after-school program for teens: Local graduate and former star of the Land O'Lakes High wrestling team with multiple state titles under his belt. Former member of the elite Army Rangers. A licensed paramedic and former Hillsborough County firefighter. A guy with a clean haircut, pressed pants and a bright smile.

"I want to give kids a safe place to go after school, where they can do their homework and work out," said Rapp, who is opening the Program at Land O'Lakes, a nonprofit community center at 21434 Carson Drive behind Village Lakes shopping center. His business is sharing the 20,000-square-foot building with Impact Sports Academy, a separate, for-profit business that helps teens hone their athletic skills with batting cages, weights and personal training in a variety of sports.

Though separately owned, parents must pay one monthly fee that must include both the after-school care and access to the sports programs. Extra services, such as professional tutoring and training, also are available for additional fees.

Rapp, 33, said he was inspired to open his center after rescuing teens as a firefighter. "I've seen them with pills coming out of their mouths," he said. "I'm glad I had people in my life who kept me on the straight and narrow."

In addition to that resume, however, Rapp also has a record — one that prevents him from working with children at Pasco schools.

"He applied numerous times, but he is not allowed to volunteer because of the incident with the police," school district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said. "His name is on a list that says 'Do not use.' "

That incident happened in 2003, when Rapp faced criminal charges after a bar fight and confrontation with Hillsborough deputies. Records show he fled from police a different time two years later and was subdued with a Taser. And earlier this year a neighbor filed for a restraining order, alleging Rapp was watching his house and threatening to kill him.

Rapp admits that he used poor judgment at a few key points in his life. He says he paid the price with debilitating back pain from that 2003 incident that improved only recently after surgery. But he said the decisions that led to trouble were influenced by his own high moral standards and a refusal to accept anything less from others — beliefs for which he owes no one an apology.

"I've made plenty of mistakes in my life," he said, "but I wouldn't change anything."

• • •

Rapp was in a festive mood the night of Aug. 16, 2003, when he, his future wife and some paramedic friends went out to the Tampa Brickyard for some appetizers and drinks.

Life was good. Rapp, then 25, had been a firefighter for about 10 months. His supervisor had written a glowing review that praised his "enthusiastic attitude" and "great eagerness to learn."

"(Firefighter) Rapp is a hard worker who takes his job seriously reflecting a respectful and professional impression," Capt. B. Kostopoulos wrote. "My only regret is that I no longer work with (firefighter) Rapp due to a station transfer."

Rapp said he ordered a round of drinks for the seven people in his party. A woman had just sat down beside the group at the bar. The bartender returned with eight drinks.

"Being in a jovial mood, I paid for the drink," Rapp said. A minute later, Rapp recalled, a man approached him and angrily questioned why he bought a drink for his girlfriend.

"He was using foul language, and my wife was there," Rapp said. "So I reached back and popped him in the mouth," he said demonstrating a light swat.

A brawl broke out. Rapp said he went outside, only to be followed. He remembered someone cutting his face with a beer bottle.

"At that point the decision was run away or stay and fight," he said. "I admit my best decision-making skills were not on showcase that night."

The bar manager later told a deputy that Rapp had been asked to leave but kept coming back in and fighting. A sheriff's report said that Rapp had struck the bar manager in the face, "causing him to bleed."

By the time Hillsborough deputies arrived, the fight had broken up. Rapp sat in his truck, belted into the passenger's seat. A shirt covered his face.

Deputies at the scene described Rapp in court statements as "extremely intoxicated" and "very aggressive" toward deputies who were trying to inspect his injuries and sort out what happened with the crowd outside the bar.

"He was throwing punches," said Deputy Randolph Lewis, who took Rapp down in a bear hug. "He was completely out of control."

But Rapp said he wasn't trying to resist — he just couldn't see who was outside the truck because his face was covered to stop the bleeding. He said the deputies then interpreted that as aggression and got rough with him. He said one hit him in the back with a heavy flashlight, causing his back injury. However, he did not file any complaints about the deputies' behavior, and said his attorney told him no one would believe him since he faced three counts of battery on a law enforcement officer and one count of violently resisting arrest. He said the fact that prosecutors agreed to drop the charges if Rapp enrolled in a pre-trial diversion program showed their case was shaky.

"They said all this would go away if I just took four weeks of anger management and did some community service," he said.

So Rapp did, and the case was dismissed in 2005.

During his participation in the pre-trial program, however, Rapp had another run-in with officers on April 24, 2005. This time they subdued him with a Taser, according to a letter from Rapp's attorney.

Rapp said he was trying to break up a fight at a swimming pool when police showed up. Given his prior incident at the bar, Rapp said he decided to flee the scene. He was ticketed for disorderly conduct, but the charge was later dropped.

Rapp didn't have any more problems until this March, when neighbor Robert Reeher filed for a restraining order.

In the petition, Reeher said Rapp threatened to kill him on two occasions and put him in a choke hold after Reeher unsuccessfully tried to use pepper spray on him. He said Rapp was angry that his babysitter was at the neighbor's home.

"We are afraid to go outside," Reeher wrote in March.

Rapp called the allegations of violence "B.S." and said he was concerned that the 18-year-old babysitter, his wife's cousin, was at Reeher's house "in the middle of the night."

Records show Reeher dropped the request for the restraining order a month later. He would not comment for this story.

• • •

Rapp, who has invested at least $35,000 into opening the after-school center, said all his life experiences — being raised in a broken home by an alcoholic mother, being taken in by parents of friends who insisted he accompany them to church — will help him relate to hurting teens and put them on a straight path.

His center will fill a void in central Pasco, where day care centers cut off service after kids finish elementary school. The area also lacks a YMCA, which offers after-school programs for teens.

Rapp plans to rely mainly on church volunteers for staff and will bus students from area middle and high schools to his center, which will have computers and a lounge. He envisions his center as an overall community resource, perhaps even a headquarters for the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"It's a good fit with us," said Michael Snow, co-owner of Impact Sports Academy, the separately-owned business sharing space with Rapp. He said while Rapp's aim is to keep kids out of trouble, his goal is to get them off the couch.

Snow said he has no trouble working with Rapp.

"It was eight years ago," he said of the bar arrest.

Now almost a decade older and the father of two preschoolers, Rapp said he's no longer the same man who got into a bar brawl.

"There was a time when I thought I could go head to head with a locomotive and still have the upper hand," he said.

Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com.

Former firefighter with record opens community center for teens in Land O'Lakes 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 10:03pm]

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