By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
John Peaspanen was in the third grade when he discovered he was having trouble seeing after dark, running into objects that most people would have no trouble spotting.
By the time he reached Rowe High School, he was diagnosed with retinitus pigmentosa (RP).
“I had no side vision,” Peaspanen, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame on Dec. 3 at Mt. Carmel Center, said. “There’s no cure for it and they don’t know what causes it.
“It started with night blindness in high school. I was big enough and strong enough to toss people around. As a defensive tackle, I would be up against pulling guards. I just threw them around.”
Eventually, his eye problem would end his hopes for a college football career, hopes that had begun as early as his early teen years in Saybrook.
It was there that he had begun playing Little League baseball and basketball. Saybrook had no football team at the time.
When the Peaspanen family moved to Lake Road in Conneaut, he began playing football under Harold Ladner. Ironically, Ladner had played under John’s father, Elmer (who was inducted into the ACTC Hall of Fame last year), when he was in high school.
Because Elmer Peaspanen was head coach, John had been raised watching old 16-millimeter films of high school games.
“I was fortunate to have a Hall of Fame coach for a father and a Hall of Fame coach (Ladner) as my coach,” Peaspanen said. “My dad was a dedicated football coach. He was really innovative. Everyone was playing single wing in the early ’40s.They started the T-formation, but no one was doing it in Ashtabula County until (my dad) started it here. He was probably the first who ever did weightlifting here, too.”
Rowe went 7-3 when John Peaspanen was a sophomore, a bit worse than that in his junior season.
“In my senior year, we encountered a lot of injuries. We only had 19 players, with 12 freshmen. I never got off the field (playing offense, defense, kicking off and long snapping). One of our stars was John Rhoads, who’s in the Hall of Fame. He was a good halfback. But I really think injuries killed us offfensively.”
That 1963 football season was the last one for Rowe, which consolidated with Conneaut in 1964.
“My dad was still the football coach at Conneaut in my junior year,” Peaspanen said. “(Conneaut) made a dummy of me and burned it at a bonfire. It was usually the last game of the season. But it was fun playing against my dad.”
With his good strength, athletic ability and size, Peaspanen was recruited by Bowling Green.
“But I was barely 17 when I graduated. Dad wanted me to sit out a year, but then I did well in the shot put with a state-qualifying 52-10 1/2. They talked me into going to Mount Union.”
In addition to football and track, Peaspanen was an excellent wrestler, winning two letters and qualifying for districts.
Before his first game of football at Mount Union, Peaspanen’s eye problem was discovered. With no peripheral vision, he was a dead duck for side hits. It was considered too perilous for him to play.
“I still have my knees, at least,” he said. “I was interested in football, so they made me kind of like an assistant (coach).”
But he still had his track scholarship. He had to adjust to the larger college shot (16 pounds as opposed to the high school 12-pound shot), but did well, defeating the state high-school record-holder about half the time and throwing 54-10, ninth in the country.
“In the discus, I had a 157 (throw),” he said. “I should have made All-American. I had a throw that was about 170, except it curved (out of bounds). I would have placed fourth with that.”
Peaspanen graduated from Mount Union with a degree in business administration with a minor in health and physical education. Brookside (Ohio) High School had an opening for a business teacher-track coach.
Peaspanen signed a contract on his first visit and started coaching the following week as an offensive and defensive line coach. He spent four years there, going undefeated in track his first three seasons and going 36-4 overall.
During the summers, Peaspanen returned to Conneaut to run the summer playground. Tony Chiacchiero, the head football coach at Conneaut and yet another Hall of Famer, was one of Peaspanen’s assistants. Peaspanen became an assistant line coach under Chiacchiero for a year. He took over the head football job at Conneaut in 1973, lasting three years and going 11-18-1.
“That was a rough era,” Peaspanen said. “Tony won one game each year for two years. We didn’t have a lot of speed or size. Conneaut in those days had a tough schedule. We started with Kenston and played our independent games against Erie Prep and Erie McDowell.
“We had a really good defense, giving up an average of about six points a game, but only scoring seven or eight a game. But the last two years, we beat Erie McDowell.
“The first year, they were beating us 6-0 the whole game. We ran it all the way down to the 3-yard line and threw a little jump pass to score and won, 7-6.
“The next year, we had the same situation. We were down 6-0, then late in the game ran the ball with Mark Sanford and Andy Parma and got to the 2- or 3-yard line. We used the same pass to Mark Sanford and beat them, 7-6. Their coach got so angry when I went to shake his hand, he slapped my hand. Their principal got between us and he punched the principal. He was fired the next day.
“Andy Parma, Carl Hahn and Mark Sanford were really good players. Andy was also our best defensive player.”
Peaspanen, assisted by Gary Billman, ran a 4-4 stack defense and blitzed nearly every play.
“I was 26 years old when I became head coach,” Peaspanen said. “I learned a lot.”
One of Peaspanen’s favorite memories is having his dad, Elmer, as an assistant coach in his first year. It wasn’t long, though, until Elmer was diagnosed with the cancer that took his life a few years later.
After his three-year tenure as head coach, Peaspanen went on to serve as an assistant under Steve Nolan and Jeff Whittaker, including the 1985 team under Whittaker that went 10-0 and to the playoffs before being ousted by Cardinal Mooney.
“I coached a lot of good offensive lines, but I think that was the best,” Peaspanen said. “That consisted of Jerry Lowe at left tackle, Ken Kinnan at left guard, John Peaspanen (my son) at center (he was second-team All-Ohio), Ted Johnson at right guard, Greg Anderson at right tackle and Dave Gamble at tight end. Three consecutive years, our fullbacks had 1,200 yards, the first with Dave Murzynski and the last two with Bob Biggins.”
The following year, Peaspanen’s eyes got too bad and he had to give up football coaching.
He was also head track coach at Conneaut for 16 years, going 128-36 in dual meets. The Spartan 1992 team was fourth at the Division II state meet.
“I always had a lot of success in track,” Peaspanen said. “For years, we were the standard in the area in track. Rob Ellis was my assistant. I was still able to coach track with Rob’s help. But I missed football.”
Following his father Elmer into the Hall of Fame is a big honor, but John has his sights set on a longer dynasty.
“Both my sons could be,” he said. “John was a 6-5, 280-pound center who had a lot of scholarship offers before going to Akron. He was recruited by schools like Texas and Purdue. Marty is three years younger, an offensive tackle and middle guard who was 6-2 1/2, 260. He was also a very good heavyweight wrestler. Marty played offensive guard at The Citadel. People started recruiting him as a sophomore, including Ohio State.
“Marty played two years at The Citadel before he broke an ankle. He finished up at Kent State and is now a locomotive engineer for the Norfolk and Southern Railroad. He’s 40.
“John is 44, lives in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a news writer. He was editor at Sandusky at one time. He has a son, Evan, who just turned 6.”
John Sr. has been married to Judi for 46 years.
Peaspanen recalls the great players he played with — John Rhoads, Dave Beckwith, Chuck Hazeltine, Mick Janson and Alan Mackey — as well as many he coached — Joe Polchosky, Ed Taylor, John Mackey, Carl Hahn, Chad Roach, Andy Parma, Elmer Detrick, Mark Sanford and Rick Mayberry.
Life hasn’t been easy for Peaspanen in recent years. In addition to heart problems that have affected his stamina, he suffers from that old eye problem, now grown worse.
Legally blind, he can’t drive and can read only the largest print.
“I’m fortunate to have any vision at all,” he said. “I can see TV and stuff like that.”
Larick, a former Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.
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