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Home arrow News arrow Sports arrow Local Sports arrow Coach Peppe Larsson: A story of class and courage

Coach Peppe Larsson: A story of class and courage

Peppe Larsson and wife Tiffeni, then 38, and sons Korey (left, then age 14) and Trevor (then age 8) pose for a family portrait during Dec. 2003. COURTESY PHOTO
Peppe Larsson and Jamie Tune used to coach youth football and baseball together.

“One of the greatest memories that I’ll always treasure,” says Tune, 53, of Twain Harte, “is what would happen after these games. I’d see all these little kids jumping up and down and celebrating and just going crazy. And then smack dab in the middle of these celebrations would be Peppe — a 6-foot-tall, 240-pound man — jumping up and down, celebrating and going crazy along with the little kids. Those kids loved him.

“Winning and losing? That was a little piece of things. But, to Peppe, coaching youth sports was about having fun. Peppe just wanted to make sure those kids had a fun season so they’d want to come back and play in the next one.

“If a kid struck out or made an error, Peppe would make sure that kid felt OK. When leaving the park, Peppe would put his arm around that kid and say, ‘No problem, tomorrow is another day.’ And Peppe wouldn’t finish his pep talk until he saw that kid was smiling.”

Peppe Larsson was born July 25, 1965, in Sonora.

Tiffeni Nora was born on April 12, 1965, near San Diego. Her family moved to Twain Harte in 1975.

“I always thought Peppe was cute, nice and sweet,” says Tiffeni, now 47. “We were good friends at Twain Harte Elementary School.”

And they remained friends while both attended Summerville High. Tiffeni was 5-feet tall with gorgeous hazel-greenish eyes. Peppe was a jock. He was 5-9, 170 pounds and played defensive tackle, linebacker and running back for the Bears.

“Peppe was a hitter,” recalled close friend, teammate and classmate Don Perkins, 47, of Tuolumne. “He did not shy away from contact. He wasn’t one of those guys that’s always yapping at the mouth on the field. Instead, Peppe made statements with his hits.”

But Larsson’s biggest athletic statements were made on the diamond.

“Peppe liked football a lot,” says Perkins. “But his love, his passion, his favorite sport was baseball.”

In 1983, his senior season, Peppe Larsson batted in the No. 3 spot for Summerville, hit over .500, and was a human wall with a bazooka arm at third base.

“Peppe was barrel-chested, very strong,” says Perkins. “But at the same time, he was very nimble. In the field, Peppe would make these leaping dives on the third-base line, get up, then deliver a frozen rope over to first base and get that runner out by more than just a couple of steps.

“Competitive? Intense? Committed? You better believe it. Peppe Larsson would rather have spit out every tooth in his mouth before ever letting a ground ball go through him.”

On the social front, by his junior year, Peppe was showing more than just a casual interest in Tiffeni.

“He was kind of chasing me for a while, but I ignored it,” says Tiffeni with a laugh. “Then, before our senior year, I was showing interest and Peppe made me sweat it out for a bit. He was playing hard to get, going out with other girls. I said to him, ‘Hey, wait a minute, what about me?’ And then, without really saying anything else to each other, as our senior year started, we just became a couple. We’d always go to school dances together, we were always hanging out.”

“You could just see how much Tiffeni and Peppe were starting to care for each other,” said Perkins. “They had the same interests and values and they balanced each other out so well. Tiffeni was quiet, apprehensive. Peppe was not apprehensive. Peppe was — and I mean this in the best sense of the word — crazy. And Tiffeni was anything but crazy. Peppe was fearless.”

“Fearless? Absolutely,” said Tiffeni. “Peppe and I were on someone’s boat and there was a Jet Ski. Well, Peppe had never been on a Jet Ski. But he wanted to ride it. So, never mind asking anyone how the thing even works, he just plops in the water, hops on it and off he went — and he rode it like a pro the very first time.”     

On Aug. 31, 1985, Tiffeni and Peppe, both 20, became Mr. and Mrs. Larsson. They moved to the Bay Area and Peppe worked in construction and Tiffeni for a salon.

“We were both so young and we, basically, grew up together,” said Tiffeni. “But Peppe didn’t really like the city life, so we moved back after two years.”

Son Korey was born in Sonora in 1989. “I had a C-section and I was moving around the hospital very slowly,” recalled Tiffeni. “And, like every wife, you wonder: What type of father will your husband be? Well, Peppe, right from the start, was amazing. Peppe was the youngest child in his own family and he’d never been around babies before. So when he picked up Korey, I had said, ‘Hey! Don’t drop Korey!’ But Peppe was just a natural with him.

“And after Korey was born, that settled things forever for Peppe and me — we were home to stay. We wanted our children to have the same great memories that we had of our high school years. I guess you could say that it was all about the Black and Orange!”

“You talk about a true Summerville Bear and that’s Peppe Larsson,” said close family friend Doug Roberson, 52, of Sonora. “Peppe took a lot of pride in his alma mater. Without question, Peppe’s kids were gonna be Bears.”

Korey, class of 2007, was a 5-9, 180-pound two-year starter at strong safety and quarterback for Summerville’s football team. He was also a four-year varsity starter in baseball, earning Second-Team All-Mother Lode League honors his junior and senior seasons.

“As soon as I learned how to walk,” said Korey, “my father was teaching me baseball, football and basketball. I loved it all. And he was my coach in Pop Warner and Little League.”

Tiffeni and Peppe’s second son, Trevor, born in March 1995, is now a 6-foot, 205-pound senior at Summerville High. He lettered in baseball and was a 2011 First-Team All-MLL and All-Area middle linebacker on the gridiron.

 “Even though my dad didn’t regularly spend time weightlifting,” said Trevor, “he could still bench press twice as much as his friends — and that all came from my dad’s constant work with pounding hammers and working construction.”

By the time Peppe turned 25, he was a robust 6-foot-tall, 240-pounder.

In 1993, Peppe founded Larsson Construction and Electric. He’d worked for others for 10 years but decided it was time to be his own boss. Tiffeni kept the books.

“Peppe enjoyed the flexibility of owning his own business,” said Tiffeni. “To Peppe, the best thing about it all was that he could knock off at 3 p.m. and go coach the kids.”

“Every year, every sport, my father was coaching Korey and myself,” recalled Trevor. “He was so much fun to play for. He’d always have a trick play ready. He always wanted to go for it on fourth-down.

“He was tougher on me than the other kids and once in a while I’d get mad about that. But in the long run, it made me better. In one practice, I remember that I couldn’t make a tackle. So he made me do this drill 30 straight times until I did it right. Well, I sure didn’t miss many tackles after that.”

“Sometimes it was tough having your dad as your coach,” said Korey. “But, looking back, I would not have wanted it any other way. I respected him so much for how much time he was putting in. He expected more out of me than my teammates and so he was a little harder on me. But it made me a better athlete and a better person. Once in a while, we’d have a few differences of opinion. But it all made us closer.

“Now that I’m older (23), I look back and realize how lucky I was that he was always my coach. I knew, even back then, how much respect all of the other kids had for my dad. They loved him and enjoyed playing for him. He would never embarrass a player. And my mom? She could not have been any more supportive. She never missed a game — ever.”

“It can get a little tricky for a father to coach his sons,” said Tiffeni. “I remember once in a while I’d get mad at Peppe because I thought he was a little harder on Korey than the other kids and so I’d walk by him and give him this evil eye.

“But, overall, he was such a wonderful and awesome father to our boys. He had this beautiful bond with both of them and that extended far past sports. He wanted to expose his boys to everything so he’d take them camping, snowmobiling, dirt bike riding, fishing, skiing, motorcycle riding. He bought a boat and always took them boating.

“And, all the while, he was my best friend, too. He was wonderful, loving, respectful and sweet to me. He was a person who put family first. I’d say, ‘Peppe, you need to get that construction job done.’ He’d say, ‘Nope, we have a tournament this weekend.’ The boys’ activities came before anything else. I’d stress sometimes about business. But, honestly, I never saw Peppe worry or get flustered. As long as his boys and I were happy — which of course we were — then there wasn’t anything to stress about.

“He believed his life was the best it could be. To Peppe, things were perfect. He was living the life he wanted.”

                    *****


At age 40, Peppe Larsson had a wife he loved dearly, two boys he cherished, a successful business and was coaching youth sports. He loved his community and, in return, that community loved him back.

In December 2005, the Tune and Larsson families came back from a cruise in Mexico and, soon after, Peppe felt some stomach discomfort.

“As January went on, Peppe could hardly eat,” said Tiffeni. “After New Year’s Eve, he had said, ‘I don’t feel so well.’ But we had brushed that off to having maybe a few too many hors d’oeuvres. But eventually we went to a gastrointestinal doctor and they didn’t find anything.

“Then, on February 18, Peppe came home from work, was in extreme pain on the couch, and was throwing up. I said, ‘That’s it. We’re going to the emergency room right now.’ ”

Tests showed some enlarged organs and blockage in the small intestine. Surgery was required.   

“In January,” said Korey, “my dad had said, ‘I don’t feel so well.’ And that was the first time I’d heard him complain about anything — ever.”

Post-surgery, while Peppe was still sedated, the doctor at Sonora Regional Medical Center approached Tiffeni.

“The doctor says to me, ‘It’s cancer and it’s metastasized. I took out where the cancer in the small intestine was but the cancer spread to his mesentery artery and that area is inoperable.’ When he told me that I felt I was looking at someone else’s life. The next day, I had to tell Peppe and the next night I had to tell my kids.

“Then, a nurse told me, ‘You take him home, call hospice — because he can’t last very long.’ I said, ‘You don’t know him. He won’t roll over. He’ll be fighting this!’ ”

                    ****


Tiffeni was correct: Peppe Larsson put on the boxing gloves. And, immediately, before Round 1 even began, Peppe made an unshakable decision with regard to his bout with this disease: Cancer could not, would not, change his life.

The basic diagnosis was stomach cancer. More precisely: jejunal gastric cancer.

“I was only 11 and I didn’t exactly know what it all meant,” said Trevor. “But when my mom told me what my dad had, I just knew that it was bad.”

Korey was a junior in high school.

“I do remember,” said Korey, “that I had asked my father, ‘Why us?’ ”

Tiffeni had asked her husband the exact same question.

“Peppe,” she recalled, “had responded to us, ‘Why not us? Whom else would you want to go through something like this? We’ve had it perfect for so long and God is just giving us a little nudge here.’ That’s when I realized I needed to get on board with Peppe’s mentality. That we were in a fight and he was not going to let cancer change our lives.”

Peppe had been Summerville High’s assistant baseball coach. Cancer, Peppe decided, was not changing that.

“I remember saying to him,” said Tiffeni, “ ‘You know, you could take a year off of coaching baseball and rest up a bit.’ Nope. He was coaching, no matter what.”

“My father wanted to make sure that he continued to coach me,” said Korey. “But it was important to him that he continue to coach all the other kids on our team, too. Most of the kids on the team were kids he’d been coaching for years. Everybody knew his situation but he would not let it be an issue at all. He stayed so positive. He’d still give positive speeches. He had this saying that he’d repeat to us: ‘You play better when you’re having fun. There’s no reason to play if you’re not having fun. So have fun.’ ”

Peppe remained Summerville’s first base coach in 2006 and ‘07. It wasn’t hard to motivate the kids. What possible excuse could a kid have for not hustling? The first base coach was shouting encouragement during these contests while wearing a special attached pack that was blasting chemotherapy into his body.

“Yes,” said Tiffeni, “Peppe would actually be coaching the games while he was having chemotherapy. He refused to miss the games. He would not let cancer control him.”

“Peppe did things his own way,” said Susan Munsell, 51, of Tuolumne, a nurse for 21 years who currently works at SRMC. “He went through 10 cycles of chemotherapy in our infusion center. But sometimes he’d say, ‘I can’t come on Thursday because of football practice,’ or ‘Let’s switch this to a day where I won’t be feeling lousy on a day of a football game.’ Or he’d say, ‘That day is no good because my family has an activity planned.’ He would literally pick the days for his treatment that would least inconvenience his family.

“When anyone gets the diagnosis of cancer, it’s supposed to be a life-changing experience for everyone in the family. But Peppe did not let it change his life. He decided to put cancer a distant second and everything else came first: Family, football practices, family vacations, his kids’ activities.

“Quite frankly, he hated sitting in that chair in the infusion center. To Peppe, there were just too many other things he wanted to do. So we’d move his schedule around to accommodate all the various activities he had planned. I didn’t know Peppe all that well before he was diagnosed. But I really came to admire his strength and courage in fighting the cancer. He was amazingly upbeat and strong.”

                    ****


For over three years, Peppe had looked cancer in the eye and kicked it in its butt. Peppe had still retained his weight. Family vacations went on as planned. He continued to coach.

But, finally, by the spring of 2009, in his fourth year of battling cancer, Peppe was losing pounds.

“But Peppe did not lose his spirit,” said Munsell. “He still remained upbeat. He was very sick and the long-term prognosis was not what anyone at such a young age would want. But he continued to make his own choices on how best to move forward. He was still determined that whatever amount of life he had left, his wife and boys would come first — not cancer. Cancer, he decided, would never rule his life.”

In April, weighing only 130 pounds, Peppe went out on a houseboat with a bunch of his high school buddies.

“We’re out on this houseboat on Melones,” recalled Perkins. “Peppe was very sick and half his normal size. But he tells us all, ‘Let’s go cliff-jumping!’ So Peppe leads us up the rocks. We get up in the air, some 40 feet. That’s no small jump. But, as usual, Peppe was the first one to jump. That memory will stick with me for the rest of my life. As sick as he was, Peppe was still showing us how to have fun. Just by his actions, he was demanding that we have fun.”

In July 2009, Peppe wanted to do something he’d never done — climb Half Dome.

“Keep in mind,” said Tune, “that this is the most strenuous hike in Yosemite. It’s 17 miles total, 8 1/2 miles each way. It’s a brutal hike for anyone, let alone if you’re sick. And the night before, Peppe was sick all night. There were six of us going and we all said, ‘Peppe, let’s wait for a day when you’re feeling better.’ But once Peppe made up his mind to do something, forget it — he was gonna do it. So, that morning, he says to us, ‘We’re going!’ And, naturally, Peppe is a trooper. He gets to the top of it and he’s dancing like he’s on top of the world.”

                    ****


By September of 2009 ... he knew.

Hospice was called in October.

“The cancer Peppe had was so rare,” said Tiffeni. “I had sent his records all over the country to see if anyone had any more opinions or solutions that could help. But the response we kept getting was that whatever the doctors at Stanford and the University of San Francisco had been doing was the best that could be done.” 

Recalled Tune, “Stanford was planning on doing another surgery in August but they said things had spread to the point where the cancer was completely inoperable.”

The Tunes visited Peppe on Thanksgiving.

“That was the last night that Peppe and I were able to talk to each other where I felt he was able to understand me,” said Tune.

“My mother refused to leave the house,” said Korey. “She was at my dad’s side every single day. She wanted to make him as comfortable as possible.”

“A week before Christmas,” said Tiffeni, “the hospice nurse told me, ‘It’s getting close.’ During the autumn, Peppe had told me, ‘I’m not scared.’ But he was very sad when he told me, ‘I’ll be missing everything of the boys.’ I said, ‘Peppe, you’ll be there.’ ”

Peppe Larsson died at his Twain Harte home on Christmas morning at the age of 44 with Tiffeni at his side. Korey was then 20 and Trevor 14.

“It’s difficult for me to remember the funeral, because I was crying through most of it,” said Trevor.

To memorialize Peppe Larsson — loving husband, father, friend and coach — Sierra Bible Church, in sports parlance, was standing-room-only.

In the spring of 2010, Summerville High permanently added a “PL” patch to its baseball uniforms. In the fall of 2010, the Tuolumne County Youth Cowboy football teams decreed that, forever, each player’s helmet would have a “PL” sticker attached.

These days, Tiffeni, Korey, Trevor and many friends continue to talk about Peppe Larsson. Of course, sometimes, there are tears. 

But they don’t dwell too much on Peppe’s death.

“Instead, we spend most of our time talking about how my dad lived,” says Korey. “We talk about how he lived. How he lived.” 


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