Not long after he was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Paul Najarian lost his ability to speak. But that didn’t stop him from communicating his concern for his friends and family.
“Of all the things ALS does … losing his speech was really tough,” Peter Najarian said of his older brother. “He majored in dramatic arts at the University of California. He pursued acting in California after college and after he moved back to Minnesota. When friends would get together, we’d sit at a table and he was the ringleader. He’d sit in the middle and direct the conversation. As the ALS progressed, it got tougher.”
Paul Najarian, of Mendota Heights, died June 23. Najarian, who owned the Popeye’s Chicken franchise on Lake Street in south Minneapolis for more than 20 years, was 52.
“Paul was literally an owner/operator,” said Peter Najarian, an investment analyst for CNBC. “He was there and would run a cash register. But his health issues made it tough, and just recently he had sold the business.”
Despite the illness, Paul Najarian continued to stay connected with friends.
In December 2012, he visited his former college football teammate and roommate, who was going through some professional challenges.
“He always had something encouraging to say to me my first two seasons as a head coach,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wrote in an e-mail. “He implored upon me to stick to my beliefs and never waver. I found strength in his words. But, when he told me he had ALS, I found even more strength. Here was my friend who was battling ALS, and he was imploring upon me to stay strong. That meant a lot.
“Upon seeing him for the first time with ALS I was stunned, I was even more taken by the fact that he had lost his voice. Paul had this big gregarious voice and laugh. It was gone, but not his spirit. He could only communicate by writing or trying to make hand gestures. I understood him for the most part and the one thing that stood out to me about him was he was worried about me. “
Rivera, who played in the NFL for nine seasons and is beginning his fourth season as Panthers head coach, added, “Paul and I were more than teammates. He and I were roommates our senior year. Over the years we stayed in touch throughout my playing and coaching careers. Paul was more than a teammate, roommate and friend, he was a Golden Bear. He was our brother. He is loved and missed.”
At California, Najarian, who attended Minneapolis Central High School, followed in the footsteps of his father, University of Minnesota transplant surgeon Dr. John Najarian, who played football for the Golden Bears in the late 1940s.
Paul Najarian and Rivera were teammates for four seasons. In their final two seasons (1982 and 1983), the Golden Bears were coached by former Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.
In 1982, the Golden Bears defeated rival Stanford 25-20 in one of the most discussed college football games in history. The Golden Bears won on the final play of the game with a kickoff return that featured five laterals.
Peter Najarian said despite the illness, his brother also kept his sense of humor.
“We texted daily,” Peter Najarian said. “And, despite all the struggles, Paul still had an incredible sense of humor. I would tell my wife, ‘Paul just said the funniest thing ever.’ In the past few days I’ve gotten 500 calls, e-mails and letters. And they all say the same thing, ‘Paul always included everybody.’ That’s a great testament to him. He was one of the good guys.”
In addition to his brother Peter and father, Paul Najarian is survived by his wife, Julie, and children Sophia, Jackson and Isabella; mother, Mignette, and brothers Jon and David. Services have been held.