Background of John Panelli
It was 1945 and seasoned war veterans were returning from WWII to go to college on the GI bill…and to play a little football. Some were returning All-Americans who took leave to fight the war. They would be competing with current All-Americans, as well as natural freshman “wanna-be’s” like John Panelli and Leon Hart. The competition was 10 deep per position competing for a spot on the 35 man traveling team. Every college team was thick with talent. It was in this golden era of college football that Notre Dame won 3 national championships in 4 years and never lost a game. John Panelli was a starting fullback on three of those teams.
John “Pep” Panelli distinguished himself on the 1945-1948 Notre Dame football teams, earning 4 letters and scoring 18 touchdowns. He was the lead fullback on the ’47 and 48’ teams. The Boston Hearld called the 1947 Notre Dame team “the greatest football team of all time”. Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated argued the best college football team in history was a toss up between the 1946 and 1947 Notre Dame teams. John was a Monogram player on both teams. He averaged a remarkable 7.5 yards per carry his senior year in 1948, leading the team in yards gained per carry, and posting a close second in total rushing yards behind Emil Sitko. The backfield team of Sitko and Panelli ranked in Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Top 10 Notre Dame running duo’s of all time. John’s significant efforts contributed to 2 national championships and 3 undefeated seasons. In 1949 he was nominated the Most Valuable Player in the East-West All-Star Game, was a first round draft choice for the NFL, and was the Detroit Lions #1 draft choice. He played with the Lions in ’49 & ’50, transferring to the Chicago Cardinals in the ’51 – ’53 seasons, before a bad knee ended his career.
John Panelli was born in Morristown, New Jersey on May 7, 1926. He was the third child of working class Italian immigrants Michelina and Giovanni (John Sr.) Panelli. “Pep” had many jobs as a boy. At age 8 he was delivering milk bottles out of the back of a milk truck. He and his brother Ben also set up bowling pins at the Knights of Columbus for 4 cents a game. You could get six games in a good night and with tips come home with 45 cents. The kids worked until midnight or later, even on school nights. As was standard in the depression years, everyone pooled their money to support the family. Young John started caddying in the 7th and 8th grade at Springbrook Country Club. There he developed a love and skill for the game that would last a lifetime. Later in his early teens, he cleaned oriental rugs and moved furniture. Pep believed that working so young helped build character because “you would get exposed to so many people.”
He attended Morristown High School, where he played and excelled at football. Because of his parents concern of injury and possible medical expenses, he told them he was a trainer on the team. He achieved All-State as a fullback (Morristown High School’s first to do so) and eventually was nominated to the Newark Star-Ledger’s New Jersey High School All-Century team. At age 17 after his brother enlisted and turned up missing in action WW II, John tried to enlist in the service. A recent broken nose operation and bad left knee made him ineligible. (Fellow Morristown HS teammate Pat Marion who went with him to enlist was admitted into the service but later killed in the war.) John took a job in high school as an assistant grocery manager. The manager took a liking to him and gave him cuts of meat and fresh fruit to take home to the family.
At a young age, Pep’s mentor was a close family friend—Rocco Vigilanti. He was a good Christian - humble, generous, open and caring. John would have the heart to heart talks with Rocco that he couldn’t have with his own father. John would see him at least once a week. In high school, when asked what his middle name was (he had no middle name), he answered “Rocco.” Knowing that his parents would not be able to afford to send him to college, John graduated from Morristown High school in the commercial program intending to get a bookkeeping job quickly out of high school. After demonstrating his ability as an All-State back on the football team, 23 college scholarship offers appeared from many of the Ivy leagues, Penn State, Boston College and Holy Cross. He would need to take more courses to complete college entrance requirements.
Bill Coffee, a friend of the family, had a relative who was football coach at the Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. One year tuition at Cheshire was an astonishing $2395 in 1943. A scholarship offer was extended. John worked his way through Cheshire by bussing and waiting tables in the cafeteria, tutoring, proctoring while lettering in football, basketball and baseball. His study often did not begin until after 10 p.m. when the work and sports were finished. He successfully completed his college entrance course requirements there and was nominated “Mr. Cheshire” upon graduation. The rigors of Cheshire and the study habits he acquired, helped prepare John for college.
A former employer who became state senator had helped arrange, unbeknownst to John, a scholarship to West Point Academy. But as an invitee (by a Mr. Hayes – whom he caddied for) to the Heisman Trophy awards ceremony in 1943, Pep had met that year’s Heisman winner, Angelo Bertelli from Notre Dame, and was impressed by both the man and the school. Morristown’s Mayor Gervassio knew Notre Dame’s interim head coach Hughie DeVore. A visit was arranged with Panelli’s parents. As young John returned from a forth of July outing, he was greeted by the contingent as they were leaving the house. The decision had been made. Michelina had been impressed that Notre Dame was a Catholic institution and that freshmen had to be in bed with lights out by 8:30pm. That was all she needed to hear. He was on a train to South Bend the next day.
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