Former Lions player John Panelli dead at 85.

Allen Park, Mich. — One of the last two-way players in the NFL, John Panelli, died Friday, March 2 of a sudden illness in Royal Oak, Mich. He was 85.

Panelli was the 12th overall pick in the 1949 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions after leading Notre Dame to three-straight undefeated seasons (1946-1948). During his senior season, the 5-11, 190-pound back averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns, and he was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1949 East-West Shrine Game.

Lions Head Coach Bo McMillin was very familiar with Parnell's talent. He had the challenge of trying to stop Panelli on the collegiate gridiron as head coach for Indiana University in 1947. Panelli had a great game with numerous long runs and McMillin took notice. As the Lions' head coach in 1949, Panelli was his first draft pick, and Panelli received a record setting signing bonus and contract at the time.

Panelli played linebacker and running back for five NFL seasons (1949-53). During his first two years, Panelli registered 42 carries for 119 yards and 3 receptions for 22 yards on offense and 1 interception on defense for the Lions. He then went on to play for the Chicago Cardinals from 1951-53. Overall, he played 51 career games, recorded 55 carried for 157 yards, 4 receptions for 27 and 5 interceptions for 29 yards.

After his NFL career, Panelli started J.R. Panelli Equipment Company, a construction equipment dealership in Southfield, Mich.

Panelli stayed active in football as president of the Detroit Lions Alumni Association, and he was a founding member and president of the National Football League Alumni Association. The NFL Alumni Association worked with NFL franchise owners to create a fund for pre-1960s players who were not pensioned, many of whom were in financial difficulty.

Golf was a major passion for Panelli. He was past-president of the Birmingham Country Club, and with his partner Bud Stevens Panelli won the BCC invitational golf tournament an unprecedented 10 times. He was also active in celebrity Golf Tournament fundraisers including the NFL Alumni's "Super Bowl of Golf" and was active with the Saint Lewis Center - a charity for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities.

Panelli is survived by his loving wife of 62 years, Margaret; his sons, John, Andrew (Patricia) and Peter; daughter, Velma Krupnik (Steve); and his sisters, Angelina Lombardo and Anna Brockman; and grandchildren, Amanda Maurizi, and Juliana, John and Angelina Panelli.

Visitation will take place at A.J. Desmond & Sons (Vasu, Rodgers & Connell Chapel), 32515 Woodward (between 13-14 Mile), Friday, March 9 from 2-8 p.m. Scripture service is at 7:30 p.m.

Funeral Mass will be held at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, 32340 Pierce, Beverly Hills Saturday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Visitation at church begins at 10:30 a.m. View obituary and share memories at

Those wishing to make a commemorative donation may do so at or mail to The Saint Louis Center, 16195 Old U.S. 12, Chelsea, MI 48118.

Print this article Back to Top