How L.A. Valley College Hall of Famer Tim Knappen continues to inspire the campus’ athletes — even those who can’t keep up with him — as he battles Parkinson’s

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David Crane/Staff Photographer
Tim Knappen sits down for an interview at the L.A. Valley College athletic department offices on Wednesday.

Tim Knappen probably shouldn’t be attempting this.

But then, who’s ever been able to stop him from doing anything a bit absurd?

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Lying flat on his back on the soft-cushioned couch in the waiting room at the L.A. Valley College athletic offices, it hardly matters that the 63-year-old is dressed in a button-up shirt and blue jeans.

He takes a few exaggerated exhales, tightens his core muscles, squints his eyes and proceeds to rip off about 20 crunches, alternating his right elbow to his left knee, and vice versa, in less than half a minute, in rapid fire moments.

It should be pointed out that Knappen is about nine years into trying to crunch away Parkinson’s disease. It’s something that forces him to take three types of medications, three times daily. His stomach is often upset. He coughs. His left arm tremors during times when he’s trying to sit still.

He’ll tend to stop in mid-sentence to search his memory for the right words.

Yet, this is the point where you’re watching, and before you realize it, you’re at your own loss for words.


That’s a feat that by itself should get the guy nicknamed “Snake” inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame – something that will in fact happen Saturday night at Monarch Hall as the sixth annual class is inducted.

But the reason Knappen might be most proud about having the ability to bring his 95-year-old mother from the home they share at nearby Woodman and Victory to the ceremony is that, all these years later, his lifetime spent at the school really means something to so many other people who continue to look to him for instantaneous instruction and inspiration.

“This is fantastic – the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Knappen says about the honor, and then quickly adds jokingly, “I’m just glad I got in before I died. I can breathe now.”

On the L.A. Valley College website, Knappen is listed as the equipment manager for the men’s and women’s basketball team. He’s been a full-time employee at the school for the last 12 years – a stadium manager, chief uniform washer, PE attendant. Before that, he spent eight years in the track coaching staff.

That part of his resume defines him almost as much as the Parkinson’s diagnosis.

The March 5, 1967 cover of the Valley News and Green Sheet has a lead story about Grant High’s track team winning its season opener against Hamilton, with “the 5-foot-8 versatile Knappen” winning the pole vault in 12 feet and the high jump in 6-feet-2.

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Tim Knappen, right, with former L.A. Valley College track coach Nick Giovinazzo.

In 1968, Knappen almost literally vaulted across the street from Grant to join the Monarchs’ track team, and then started a two-year assault on the school’s record books — more than 40 years later, he still owns the best school mark in the decathlon with 6,854 points (see this link). Add to that a state title in the pole vault, constant victories in the high-jump, 120-high hurdles and on the mile relay, and a standout career in cross-country.

In 1970, he was undefeated in every dual-meet, breaking the school’s pole-vaulting record 12 times and the decathlon record three times. This, a year after his season was hampered by a bout with pneumonia bronchitis.

There’s the Feb. 15, 1970 issue of the Van Nuys Valley News that reports about how a very short-handed Valley College opened the season with a 70 – to 66 victory at East L.A. College. The Monarchs succeeded thanks to “a stunning double victory by high jumper-pole vaulter Tim Knappen … (he) leaped 6 feet, 2 inches early in the afternoon, then battled teammate Stuart Wright to the heights in the vault. Both cleared 14 feet but Knappen was awarded the win on the basis of fewer misses at the winning height and clearing it on his first try.”

Two months later, the Valley News wrote about Knappen’s school record 15-4 vault in a Metro Conference meet against Santa Monica College – where he also won the high jump in 6-4.

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In May, Knappen’s name was in the banner headline announcing his state title with a 15-6 vault in Modesto.

It gained him a track scholarship to Arizona State. But after a career cut short by an Achilles injury, Knappen returned to his roots, coaching track and field at Grant, Chaminade and Alemany high schools and working in the L.A. Parks and Rec department. He never strayed far away from Valley College, no matter what he did running a newspaper stand or managing the Balboa Lake house to stay employed.

“I call this my home – I love it here,” Knappen says in a low voice. “I know it sounds crazy, but whenever we have a game, I’m over the edge for us.”

It’s a reason why he’s still affectionately referred to around this place as “Crazy Tim,” as much a fitness freak today as he continues to channel the energy of the late exercise guru Jack LaLanne and the daredevil spirit of Evel Knievel, two legends from his era growing up.

No matter what Knappen achieved on the track, there are those who can’t tell his story without starting with a time they saw him in a scale the light tower above the L. A. Valley football field press box – it’s gotta be about eight stories tall — give out a Tarzan yell, and hold a handstand. There’s video proof in the L.A. Valley College computers.

Knappen admits to having done the stunt about a dozen times. Once, in 1974, in full loin cloth, he disrupted the graduation ceremony at Grant High with his antics, then scrambled back down the tower and escaped in his friend’s car before the police could track him down.

“I’ve apologized for that,” Knappen says, trying look serious about it. “There are still repercussions for that to this day.”

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That same year, he competed in something called the “Oddball Olympics” at the Century City shopping mall. He set two Guinness Book of World Records – balancing a 17-foot pole vault pole on his nose for 90 seconds, and 50 handstand pushups in a row. That last feat broke his own record of 45 set the night before. Which, broke the record of 42 he set the previous night.

The Associated Press story about the event called him “the only certifiable wild man in the competition.” Why?

“Maybe it’s because just before the introductions, I was screaming and yelling to Zeus to give me the power to beat these guys,” Knappen says. “It worked. Everyone else was psyched out. I kicked butt.”

He had all the makings of a Hollywood stunt man in the early ’70s, but decided against it when he continued reading about the rising fatalities in the business.

Dale Beck, the L.A. Valley sports information director and Knappen’s close friend for decades – it was Beck’s Grant High graduation interrupted by Knappen – recalls not all that long ago when he was the public address announcer at the Monarchs’ basketball games. Beck would challenge anyone in the crowd to come down and compete against Knappen in holding a handstand.

“Nobody could outlast him,” said Beck. “Even people who’d have friends stand there holding their legs in place.”

The other problem, Beck added: Knappen was supposed to be watching the main entry door so that no food or drink was brought into the gym that could spoil the new court.

“The longer the handstand on the court, the more fans that snuck onto the bleachers,” said Beck. “The athletic director was not pleased.”

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There came a time about 10 years ago when Knappen wasn’t feeling right. His muscles ached differently. Several doctors refused to believe he had Parkinson’s. His athletic abilities may have masked it.

“Even Michael J. Fox says he just got too tired of trying to fool people,” Knappen said of the actor who has become one of the best known for battling the degenerative brain disorder that leads to body shakes and coordination difficulties.
“I remember sitting one weekend when I first got this — I’m thinking, ‘Can’t I just bleed this out, like they’d do in the old days?’ Nope,” said Knappen.

“This is just the cards I’ve been dealt … I’ve had a good life. I’ve done about all I’ve wanted to do. I have a good life that way.”

Likewise, he tells others who have may have similar setbacks: “For God’s sake, don’t dwell on it. That doesn’t help anything.”

Knappen once met another famous Parkinson’s victim, Muhammad Ali, before one of the last of the 18 L.A. Marathons that Knappen was able to run. He still cherishes the autograph: “To Tim, Train Hard, Muhammad Ali.”

Knappen, who has a personal best of three hours and 19 minutes among the 20 marathons he’s run, the last at age 55, trains as hard as he can to this day.

He’ll get his 10,000 steps in a day, avoiding the motorized cart to drive himself around campus, running stairs as much as possible, challenging himself by the stopwatch on his wrist.

He’s got every reason to still consider himself an athlete, working out seven days a week to some degree, watching his diet, riding his bike to work. Dave Mallas, the Valley baseball coach, had him out in right field shagging fly balls during batting practice the other day. Knappen smiles as he recalls a running catch he made.

“I’m getting better with my judgment running down the foul line,” he says. “All that workout gives me energy. It’s my medicine.”

There are YouTube videos that show him at the Pasadena Senior Games a year ago, doing 11 pull-ups, then climbing a 20-foot rope in 19.55 seconds. Knappen keeps a look of readiness in his eyes, a focus and passion that isn’t going to be defeated. It affects all who come in contact with him.

“He may be fatigued a lot, but he’s here every day, some days working from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, never complaining,” said Dee Stark, about to retire after 40 years at Valley College, the last three as the athletic director. “We love him like family here. This is where his heart is.”

Jim Fenwick, the longtime Valley football coach who will succeed Stark as the AD, admires how Knappen is able to “be calming, slowing the pace down, getting the kids to talk to him, getting them interested, telling them stories. This is a great fit for him.

“You need people like Tim to support the department in so many different ways. He just puts a smile on everyone’s faces. We’re proud to have him in our Hall of Fame.”

Knappen is the one who feels most fortunate about it. He’s still glowing about how just last month, he helped train Grant High pole vaulter Martin Lopez to the L.A. City title with a jump of 14 feet.

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“I’ll be here a long time,” Knappen insists. “Someone once told me, ‘You’re lucky, you get to see your work when it gets done (as a coach).’ It’s all good for the mind and the body.”

He admits he has one more thing left to do on his bucket list if anyone’s willing to join him: Running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

“That would be fantastic,” he says, his voice trailing off as he lets the thought linger in his mind.

Who’s going to tell him not to do it?

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  • Kate Wolman

    Tim Knappen is an exceptional person. I’m the wife of a Valley College coach – Tim is always polite and respectful to me (two characteristics that are frequently lacking in today’s society). He also plays the harmonica. God Bless Tim Knappen – real good. As he has blessed many lives.

  • Bruce Rothschild

    I am one of the lucky ones who met Tim was I was at North Hollywood High School form 72-74, Tim has always been such an amazing person…at 5’8″ his personality overshadowed his physical stature, I know Tim will battle Parkinson’s, as he battled everything else in his life…With a huge smile..a HUGE scream and a bigger zest for life than twenty people!! I still tell Tim Knappen stories to kids that I help Coach here in Melbourne Florida. I hope Tim realizes what a “Big” man that he has been to a lot of us who…even thought I haven’t seen in 30 years, I have always considered Tim a Friend & always will!!! Kick butt Tim!

    Bruce Rothschild

  • Patti Ryan

    Starting with St. Jane Frances Elementary, Tim and my big brother, Mike were buddies all through school. During their time at Grant I can remember my sisters and I peering through our back window while Mike & Tim would stage their own decathlons. Tim was amazing to watch; he made it all look so effortless. Then there was the time he sang “A Boy Named Sue” on a lifeguard tower, after hours, at the beach…. but I’ll leave that to Tim to tell. We’re all so happy that Tim has been inducted into “Valley’s” Athletic Hall of Fame; how well deserved! And we’re very proud that he uses that remarkable God given gift of his to help young athletes reach their potential. Whatta guy. Keep fightin’ that Parkinson’s, Tim, if anyone can beat it it’s you!

  • Frank Bray

    Tim Knappen is an incredible individual. He coached me to win the 1987 Los Angeles City pole vaulting title. He not only invested his time training me he gave me expensive pole vaulting equipment that I couldnt afford as a kid. Tim taught me how to set a goal, design a plan and execute that plan to be a winner.
    The most amazing thing about him doing all this is that he wasnt even my coach! He did this in his spare time. He didnt get paid a dime for coaching me. He didnt even receive the accolades and credit for coaching me. He was just a guy who was passionate about helping people. Thanks Tim youre awesome!
    Frank Bray