(Dr. John Najarian died on Monday at 92. This is a piece I wrote on him before the Gophers played the Cal Bears in Berkeley in September 2006. Cal 42, Gophers 17. The Doc loved both and didn't know whether to be happy or sad.--REUSSE.)
Dr. John Najarian reached across the desk of his office in the Phillips-Wagensteen Medical Building on the University of Minnesota campus. His right hand swallowed the chubby little mitt that was extended in his direction.
The doctor will turn 79 in December, and yet the firmness of this grip indicated that if you have a need to replace a vital organ, he still would be the man to see.
"I'm in the office full time, and I usually operate one day a week," he said. "People say they retire so they can do what they love. I don't have to retire. This is what I love."
Saving lives and training transplant surgeons have some competition as the passions of Najarian's life. There is the big, robust family - wife Mignette, sons Jon, David, Paul and Pete, their wives and a current total of 11 grandchildren.
And there is another Najarian passion that shouldn't be understated: football.
"His teams are the Cal Bears, the Gophers and the Vikings," son Pete said. "Basically, he's a very good-natured guy, but when his football teams get beat, he gets angry. He was beside himself after watching Cal get whipped by Tennessee on Saturday night. He was embarrassed."
The Bears will attempt to reverse that embarrassment in Saturday's home opener in Berkeley, but the twist here is the opponent will be the other college team that Dr. John fully supports: Minnesota.
Najarian's career as a Cal tackle was from 1945-1948. He was a 6-4, 255-pound lineman.
"I was the second biggest player in the conference," he said. "Southern Cal had a 300-pounder. We couldn't believe that – a 300-pound football player."
The Najarian sons are two years apart. All played college football as linebackers: Jon and David at Gustavus, Paul as a four-year letter winner at Cal and Pete as a four-year letter winner for the Gophers.
"I can't ever actually remember making a decision to play football," Pete said. "It was just something you knew you would do. If not, The Sheik would've been the only one with football stories."
The Sheik is Dr. John's nickname with his sons. They put that label on him one night at the pro wrestling matches in the St. Paul Civic Center.
"The five of us went to the matches all the time," Pete said. "Dad was late one night. The Sheik was walking toward the ring and the crowd was chanting `Sheik, Sheik' at the same time he showed up.
"The Sheik. It fit."
The Najarian family traces its roots to the Caucasus Mountains. The Armenians from that area have been famous for living long.
"The story within the family is that my grandfather's grandfather died at 136," Dr. John said. "I have no reason to doubt that, since the people passing down this information all lived into their 100s."
John was the middle of three brothers. His younger brother, George, was John's teammate at Cal. The brothers were raised in Oakland.
"When I was 12, I had a burst appendix," John said. "The doctors and the nurses were so determined to heal me. That's when I decided I was going to be a doctor."
John enrolled at Cal-Berkeley at the same time World War II was ending. America's finest generation was coming home - many of whom also wanted to save lives.
"I got into pre-med, and it was tough to keep up with the competition and to play football," Najarian said. "I had a season left of football in 1948 when I was starting medical school. I told Pappy, `I can't play. There's not enough time.'-"
Pappy was Cal's legendary coach, Lynn (Pappy) Waldorf. "In 1946, Cal hired Frank Wickhorst," Najarian said. "He was an all-time bad coach, and we went 2-7. Waldorf came in in 1947 and with exactly the same team went 9-1."
The Bears had big hopes for 1948, and Waldorf didn't want to lose his biggest tackle. "We reached a compromise: I would play only defense, so I could spend half as much time at practice," Najarian said. "But even that was too much. I had to quit. Then, one of our tackles was hurt in midseason. Pappy said, `We need you,' and that was that."
Cal went 10-0 in the regular season and went to the Rose Bowl. On Jan. 1, 1949, before a crowd of 92,000 in Pasadena, Calif. Northwestern pulled a 20-14 upset when Art Murakowski was awarded the touchdown on a 1-yard plunge that put Northwestern ahead 13-7.
"I stripped Murakowski of the ball at the line of scrimmage, and Will Lotter recovered for us," Najarian said. "The refs gave them a touchdown. The next day, there was a photo in the Los Angeles Times showing the ball was loose a yard before Murakowski reached the goal line."
The touchdown signal came from field judge Jay Berwanger, famous as the first Heisman Trophy winner in 1935.
"I didn't know Berwanger made that call," Najarian said. "I just knew it was a fumble, not a touchdown."
Waldorf's Bears went to three consecutive Rose Bowls from 1949-51, losing all in narrow fashion to Big Ten teams. The members of those teams came to be called "Pappy's Boys."
They have been holding reunions for a couple of decades in conjunction with Cal's home opener. Dr. John will be there again this weekend, and his son Pete, the Gopher, is going along as a guest.
"We march in before the game, they introduce us as Pappy's Boys, and everyone cheers, even if they've never heard of us," Najarian said.
The Najarians can't get enough football conversation. And here's proof, straight from The Sheik:
"We were having dinner at the old Anchor Inn in Bayport a number of years ago - Mignette and her five guys. She didn't get in a word for two hours. We talked about the Vikings, the Gophers, Cal ... nothing but football.
"The check was paid and a couple of the guys went to the restroom, and we got in two cars and headed home. We were in the living room, still talking football, when the phone started ringing. I finally said, `Why isn't your mother answering that?'
"One of the boys answered, and Mignette said, `Did your party forget something at the restaurant? Maybe your MOTHER!'"