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The Lion's headcoach Bo McMillin was very familiar with Panelli's talent. He had the challenge of trying to stop Panelli on the collegiate gridiron as headcoach for Indiana University in 1947. Panelli had a great game there with numerous long runs and Bo took notice. As Lions' headcoach in 1949, Panelli was his first draft pick. Panelli received a record setting sign on bonus and contract ($15,000 plus car) and went to work as defensive captain and starting fullback.

Panelli, Don Doll and Barney Hafen were a month late starting practice with the Lions due to their participation in the East-West All Star Game. Because they were not familiar with the offensive play book, they were immediately placed on defense. With Doll at safety and Panelli at linebacker, they were opening eyes by making most of the tackles. They eventually moved back into offense as well.

Panelli re-injured his problematic left knee late in 1950 and as a result no longer had the offensive speed that he formerly had. Buddy Parker, the new head coach, traded Panelli for a multipurpose runner after Panelli's two year contract ended.