When Staff Writer John Papanek was growing up in Patchogue, N.Y., his exposure to football was confined to playing for his high school team—the Red Raiders—and to following the New York Giants. As a rather myopic 5'11", 175-pound linebacker for the Red Raiders, Papanek spearheaded the kickoff coverage with icy aplomb, reckless abandon and acute astigmatism. "The only reason I was any good," says Papanek, "was that I didn't wear my glasses when I played, so I didn't know there was any danger. I was great on the suicide squad." Although Papanek didn't receive a single college football scholarship offer, he did elect to attend the University of Michigan.
College football fever had never penetrated Papanek's suburban Long Island enclave, so his first autumn Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor was a revelation. "I knew that Michigan was a big football school and that they had a big stadium," he says, "but I had no idea what it was going to feel like. It was amazing."
In 1969, John's freshman year, the Wolverines beat one of the greatest Ohio State teams of all time, 24-12, in Michigan Stadium for the right to go to the Rose Bowl. Papanek, who was one of the 100,000-plus delirious fans on hand that day, remembers the experience as "one of the greatest thrills of my life." Of course, it is worthwhile to remember that until then, running awkwardly into goalposts and trying to see past his face mask were Papanek's greatest football thrills.
It was during that same season John discovered that the excitement of the college game isn't confined to the field. At that time it was customary to locate a suitable female student spectator (then known as a "coed") and pass her bodily from the bottom of the stands to the top. Papanek had eagerly awaited the day when he would get to participate in this activity, and finally his chance arrived. He had just lighted a cigarette when he noticed a body hurtling toward him, and the sight so flustered him that Papanek dropped the girl on himself. "I had a full beard at that time," he says. "The cigarette went into that. By the time I got her off me, I had set my face on fire."
August 30, 1981
The fire on his face was finally put out, but the flame for college football lingered. Over the years, Papanek covered Wolverine football for The Michigan Daily, which led to a warm and convivial relationship with Coach Bo Schembechler. When John showed up for his first Michigan practice, Schembechler told him to get a haircut. For the next two years, every time Papanek asked him a question, Schembechler pretended not to recognize him.
In 1973 Papanek joined SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and a year later was assigned to the pro basketball beat, where he remained until last May. With this issue, however, John takes over as one of our college football writers, and it is only fitting that his return to the game should be marked by the Wolverines' ascendance to No. 1. (It should also be pointed out that the two events are completely coincidental.) "I'm looking forward to covering an outdoor sport," Papanek says. "Breathing the air in NBA arenas for nine months a year can be hazardous to your health."