In 42 years of sportswriting, faces often become a blur. But not Ray Papach, not the big banger from Hammond Clark whom I once wrote played with a large red "S" on his chest.
It took a lasso to pull Ray out of the pivot, where he pushed defenders around like pawns on a chess board. As bruising as he was on the court, Ray was just as humble and friendly off it.
"If you knew him, you immediately liked him," said former Clark coach Ron Sieman. "You always knew what you were going to get from Ray, and that was 100 percent."
Ray Papach died July 5 after suffering a heart attack weeks earlier. He was 56 and leaves behind his wife of 29 years, Sue, and five children.
You never get used to writing these stories, particularly when the individual is good people and dies at a young age. You ask yourself "Why?" and there aren't any answers. Life doesn't owe us any explanations, I guess.
As a young writer learning the ropes, it was fun covering the 1972-73 Pioneers with Papach, Rich Bobby, Del Radloff, Jim Matej, Joe Hovanec, Ed Marcisz and Larry Cuculic as their core group.
They were ranked as high as No. 4 in the state poll, but couldn't get past Hammond High in the sectionals, losing twice to the Rich Valavicius-led Wildcats.
Radloff, Matej and Marcisz are no longer with us. And now, Ray Papach.
"He was just an outstanding young man, an outstanding father," Sieman said. "It's just devastating (news)."
Papach had suffered a heart attack last month, spending his final days on a ventilator as friends back in the region prayed for a full recovery.
"Ray, Richie Bobby and I were like the Three Amigos throughout most of our adult lives," said Mark Markovich, a Chesterton contractor and '74 Clark grad. "Ray always had a smile. He was quiet, like his dad, a man of few words who kept his friends very close to him.
"When they moved to Wilmington, N.C., Richie and I got down there about once a year. We'd play golf and throw back a few cocktails. We'd reminisce and tell the same stories over and over, embellishing them a little bit, like we older people do now."
Markovich said Ray Papach also lost his father, Joe, to a heart attack while the pair were attending a Notre Dame football game years ago.
"Basically, dying in (Ray's) arms," Markovich said. "It was very, very hard on him, losing his dad. To pass away the same way ... makes it very tough also."
Ray Papach played at Hillsdale College in Michigan from 1975 to 78 and is the school's No. 3 all-time rebounder with more than 1,000 boards. He also scored more than 1,000 points. In 2003, he was named to the Hammond Sports Hall of Fame. Son Matt also starred at Hillsdale before graduating in 2011.
"If you and Ray were friends, nobody could say anything bad about you," Rich Bobby said. "He was your friend and he'd go to battle for you."
A memorial mass will be celebrated 11 a.m. Friday at St. Maria Goretti Church in Dyer.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org