I was walking down the Penn High School bleachers while John Roggeman was coming up, decked out in his I.U. red.
I liked his outfit; he didn’t like mine. “Take that shirt off,” he said.
I think he was kidding but I got his point. I was wearing my Penn T-shirt that my granddaughters, Penn students, had given me for Christmas.
Who would have guessed that a Kingsmen shirt would ever be part of my attire? Penn was the enemy when my kids were in school. And, of course, they were bitter rivals to John, a Northern Indiana Conference MVP for Mishawaka High School. His 97-yard touchdown run put the Cavemen ahead of Penn late in the fourth quarter only for them to lose in overtime, 21-20
Penn head coach Chris Geesman found a tearful John down on his knees on the field after the game and gave him a hug. John appreciated that. But Penn was always Penn to him.
John was one of the most exciting — and toughest — high school players I ever covered as a Tribune sports writer. He says he still has an article in his scrapbook in which I called him “a speedy sophomore.”
“That was when you were at Mishawaka, not at I.U., right?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t have called me speedy in college,” he said with a smile.
But he was a solid performer with the Hoosiers and a fan favorite because of his inspired play. After suffering a serious knee injury in the Purdue game during his junior year, he returned to the sidelines on crutches and cheered his teammates on to victory. ESPN named him the game’s MVP because of his team spirit.
Despite his Mishawaka roots, John actually grew up rooting for South Bend Washington where his uncle, Tom Roggeman, was the head coach. He and his four brothers always wanted to run across School Field’s gridiron after the games but their father, Bill Roggeman, wouldn’t let them.
“Dad always told us that we needed to earn the right to step onto that field,” John recalled.
So when he became that “speedy sophomore” and took a short pass 65 yards for a touchdown against Adams on that very field, he was ecstatic. “It was like heaven for me,” John admitted.
OK, enough reminiscing, but there are always great stories when a Roggeman is involved.
John is now 61 and the city attorney of Mishawaka. He just retired as a Big Ten football official after 20 years. Like a lot of young athletes, he dreamed of being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He made it … on the very corner of the cover .… not as a player but while officiating a college game.
Hey, it still counts.
He had to miss one game five seasons ago. He had a stroke. Yeah, you read that right. John Roggeman had a stroke. Even the toughest of us sometimes can’t fend off every health issue.
It was in July of 2017 after he had been diagnosed with atrial fribillation — an irregular heartbeat — the previous week. After a jog on a hot day, he collapsed at home and ended up being air-lifted to Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. He eventually had two operations — one of them a ground-breaking procedure.
He wasn’t down for long.
His stroke was on a Wednesday. On that following Sunday, he was at St. Bavo’s Church. “Somebody said it was like the return of Lazarus,” John laughed.
He also was back officiating that fall and only had to miss the season opener because his doctors had yet to clear him. But what would you expect from a Roggeman?
Earlier this spring, John worked a scrimmage at I.U., and Hoosier head coach Tom Allen had him talk to the team. Then Allen surprised John by presenting him with his I.U. jersey and his zebra officiating shirt in a frame in front of some of his old teammates.
I asked him if he cried. “I actually didn’t, even though I do cry pretty easily,” he said.
So what will he do with the gift? “My wife Bev lets me have a John Room in our house,” he said. “Maybe there, but I’ll wait and see what my new office is like when we (Mishawaka’s city officials) move into our new place (the former and newly-renovated Liberty Mutual Building).”
Even though John has retired from the Big Ten, he will continue to officiate high school games and cheer on his son Chad’s teams at John Young Middle School and other Mishawaka schools.
He will even root for Penn when they aren’t playing his Cavemen. He says beating your rival is even better when they are beating others.
I also root for my grandkids’ Penn and John’s Mishawaka. And as I said before, I have a Penn T-shirt. I don’t have one with Mishawaka across its front, though.
But I do happen to know a famous Caveman of the past. Maybe he might want to get me one.