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Papazian Gets Noticed at Fresno State--Despite the Shave

HOW THEY'RE DOING. One in a series

September 30, 1993|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Papazian's goatee is gone, a small sacrifice to keep up with razor-happy teammates.

No one made him do it. Fact was Fresno State football Coach Jim Sweeney liked Papazian's goatee. Sweeney called the junior linebacker the Armenian assassin because the facial hair made him look mean.

But when quarterback Trent Dilfer and others showed off their newly shaved heads before the Bulldogs' game against Oregon State Sept. 11, Papazian felt the least he could do was trim his goatee.

No way was he going bald.

Clean-shaven, the former Whittier Christian High standout went on to have the best game of his college career, recording 24 tackles in Fresno State's 48-30 victory.

Truth be told, Papazian has been a pretty good college linebacker, goatee or no goatee. Shaving it off was no stroke of genius. Certainly, he has made more profound decisions in his young life.

What set the Oregon State game apart was that he seemed to be everywhere, ruining one Oregon State play after another. When the cheering stopped, he had 16 solo tackles and assisted on eight others. Sweeney told reporters it was one of the best defensive performances he has seen in the 15 years he has coached at Fresno State.

"I was just doing my job, flying to the ball, trying to be in on every play," Papazian said. "It just happened . . . I made a lot of tackles that game."

Papazian had had outstanding games before, but the difference was no one seemed to notice. And that explains--partly, at least--why he transferred from Pacific after his sophomore season.

He had 21 tackles against Fresno State in a 1991 game, but nobody in Stockton gave it a second thought. Pulling up stakes at Pacific and relocating at Fresno was difficult, but it's the best move he has made since graduating from Whittier Christian in 1990.

"I wasn't happy at UOP," said Papazian, who still holds the Orange County career rushing touchdown record with 66. "I'm not knocking their program, but I had big expectations of what college football should be. At UOP, I wasn't meeting those expectations. It was time to move on, to find a new home."

Victories were difficult to come by. Fans stayed away in droves. Pacific football was far from the biggest news in town.

Papazian found what he was looking for by driving three hours south to Fresno.

In 1992, Fresno State made the jump from the anemic Big West, which it had dominated, to the Western Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs went 9-4, won a share of the WAC championship and stunned USC, 24-7, in the Freedom Bowl. The school had recently expanded Bulldog Stadium to seat more than 40,000 and it was often difficult to get tickets.

Fresno seemed like college football nirvana for Papazian.

Now, this was more like it.

During spring workouts, it became apparent the Bulldogs needed Papazian as much as he needed them. There was a vacancy at inside linebacker and Sweeney made it clear the job was his for the taking.

"They made me feel wanted," Papazian said.

But he didn't feel the full embrace of the community until he walked into Bulldog Stadium on Sept. 11 and heard the roar of the red-clad crowd of 40,048.

Duly inspired, Papazian seemed ready to show the fans the Bulldog defense, ranked 98th nationally last year, wasn't going to be pushed around this season.

Fresno State (3-1) has defeated New Mexico, 41-24, and Utah State, 30-14, since the Oregon State game, and Papazian has emerged as one of the team's top tacklers. He has 44 tackles, trailing only strong safety Omar Stoutmire, who has 45.

"Defense wins games," Papazian said. "In the past, we've let some big games slip away. We're spending more time going through plays. That has been a big emphasis this year. We don't want to be 98th in the nation.

"Hopefully, our defense has enough pride to play well enough to be compared to the offense. It's important to us to someday have that recognition."

Papazian knows all about recognition. Or lack thereof.

Despite the 66 rushing touchdowns at Whittier Christian, including 34 in his senior season, and making The Times' All-County team two years in a row, Papazian attracted little attention from college recruiters.

Pacific didn't seem to mind that he played at a small, private school with an enrollment of 650. But UCLA and USC passed, much to Papazian's chagrin.

The coaching staff at Pacific let Papazian pick between linebacker and fullback. He decided he'd rather hit than be hit, so he became a full-time linebacker.

He led the Tigers in tackling and earned All-Big West honors both seasons. But something was missing, something he wouldn't experience until he transferred to Fresno State.

"The players were not as close (at Pacific) as we are here at Fresno," Papazian said. "The UOP student body and the community were not involved with the football team.

"You look around and you see all the red shirts and the crazy fans doing the wave. It's a great feeling here. It's unexplainable."

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