Born: May 7, 1926
Died: May 2, 2012
John Rocco Panelli was born May 7, 1926. A superb all-around athlete, he was at his best on the gridiron. As a running back and linebacker at Morristown High School, John was widely regarded as the finest two-way player in the state during his senior season. He was fast and muscular and at 5’11 and around 200 pounds was no fun to take on as a ball carrier or blocker. Years later the Newark Star-Legend named the kid nicknamed “Bulldog” (and later “Pep”) to its all-century team. He was the first player from the school to earn All-State honors in football.
John was exactly the kind of player Notre Dame looked for in the 1940s. After a year at the Cheshire Academy prep school in Connecticut—where he was named the top student-athlete—he arrived in South Bend in 1945 and became a part of the undefeated varsity squads in 1946, ’47 and ’48. He was the starting fullback, in 1947 and 1948. John had the strength to crash through the line and then outrun tacklers when he got into the open field. The 1946 and 1947 teams were named national champions.
The 1948 edition of the Fighting Irish was ranked #2 after a season-ending tie with USC. That season, John averaged over 7 yards per carry and scored 8 touchdowns. He and halfback Emil Sitko were the best one-two running combo in the nation. In the New Year’s Day East-West Shrine Game in Chicago, John was named MVP in a muddy 14–12 victory. He also earned third-team All-American recognition after the season.
The Detroit Lions took John with the first pick in the second round of the 1949 NFL Draft. He played fullback and linebacker during two seasons in Detroit. In the waning days of training camp in 1951, the Lions and Chicago Cardinals swapped John for Pat Harder. John joined the Cardinals as a defensive captain for three years. In 1952, John picked off three passes for the Cards. After a disastrous one-win 1953 season, John went through another training camp with Chicago in 1954 but quit before the regular season began.
John worked construction in the off-season and, a few years after retiring from the NFL, opened Panelli Equipment, a construction supply dealership. John lived and worked in the Detroit area and won the Birmingham Country Club golf tournament 10 times. He was a co-founder of the NFL Alumni Association, serving as its second president. He passed away at the age of 85.