Johnny Papesh can remember it as if it happened yesterday.
The Aurora football team had just put the finishing touches on its resounding victory over Mifflin in Columbus.
Papesh and his comrades gave each other plenty of high-fives and lots of hugs as they left the field smiling ear to ear.
The Greenmen had overcome a rough patch or two en route to ending their 2018 season on a high note.
Heck, this was only the beginning, right?
The players would soon find more reasons to celebrate during the bus ride home.
That’s because a certain three-word phrase may have been dancing in their heads as they made their way back to Portage County.
"Fourteen and counting."
"‘I’ll never forget that feeling," Papesh said.
That feeling stayed in his mind for what seemed like forever. Oddly enough, he hated every second of it.
As it turned out, the jubilant Aurora players, who had just ended their successful fall on a three-game winning streak, found themselves punked by the cruelest of all villains.
"We kept refreshing the playoff standings and we found out we were mathematically eliminated," Papesh said. "The seniors were bawling their eyes out. Even though we ended the season with a win, they found out their high school careers were over."
Papesh, a former wide receiver and free safety for the Greenmen, can still retrace his steps from that dreary fall evening. Aurora, which saw its run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances come to an abrupt halt, had a better win total than it did the previous season.
Such a fact did absolutely nothing for Papesh, though. In his mind, it was a massive failure.
"Since this community is so football, football, football, you felt like you let them down," Papesh said.
Papesh’s senior year turned out a little better. Much better, actually.
For Papesh and his teammates, 13th-century Persian poet Rumi may have summed up their off-season after their soul-crushing trip home from the state capital.
"These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them."
Papesh sure did. So did his classmates.
"We started lifting in December since we didn’t make the playoffs," Papesh said. "For the seniors, it was like, ‘Get to work or leave.’ We didn’t want anyone to hold us back. It was indescribable."
Did it work?
Well, unlike the previous season, Aurora wound up losing its last game. Of course, in this case, the Greenmen’s swan song took place after Thanksgiving rather than before Halloween.
Aurora nearly doubled its win total from the previous year and wound up reaching the Division III state semifinals.
The Greenmen finished 13-1 and had their first 10-0 regular season since 1998. Aurora also won the Suburban League American Conference title.
"I can’t give enough praise to my class," Papesh said. "The run we had was unforgettable."
It’s a safe bet the future won’t allow him to forget the past. That’s because he’s going to wear pads and a helmet for another program that knows quite a few things about success.
His new home is known primarily for its colors too.
Papesh will trade his "green" tambourine for some "purple rain." The 5-foot-9, 150-pound All-Ohioan has decided to continue his academic and football careers at the University of Mount Union in Alliance.
To call the Purple Raiders "princes" wouldn’t do them justice. These kings of the gridiron have a tendency to "go crazy" when the playoffs begin. And when it’s all said and done, this 174-year-old private university has a knack for creating a vast "ocean of violets in bloom."
Mount Union, which is led by head coach Geoff Dartt, has won 13 Division III national titles in its storied history. By the way, that total is a record for any football program in any division in a playoff format.
Papesh’s soon-to-be alma mater doesn’t have nearly as many gold stars on its curriculum vitae as his future team. For the diminutive Papesh, though, green could be considered the new purple.
Aurora won its lone state title in 2008 and has made four other appearances in the state semifinals.
"The culture is actually pretty similar to Aurora," Papesh said. "[Greenmen head] Coach [Bob] Mihalik always made it our goal to win a state championship. At Mount Union, it’s the same thing. If they don’t win a national championship, it’s a failure."
The football-crazy folks in Alliance may have declared last year a failure. That’s because the Purple Raiders finished 11-1 and lost to eventual national champion North Central (Illinois) in the second round of the postseason. Mount Union did win its 30th career Ohio Athletic Conference championship, but that was hardly a consolation prize on a campus known for its "purple reign."
That didn’t deter Papesh, though. For him, Alliance was the place he wanted to be.
He chose the 115-acre suburban campus over Valparaiso (Indiana) and the University of Toledo. Papesh plans to major in civil and environmental engineering.
"The overnight stay really did it for me," Papesh said. "I got to be around the players and I learned more about the culture. I talked to Coach Dartt. It was very personal."
So was his senior season at Veterans Stadium.
Papesh set single-season school records for receptions (52), receiving yards (1,008), touchdown receptions (13) and interceptions (eight).
Such numbers are quite spectacular in every way you look at it. As for Mihalik, they only tell about one or two chapters of his star pupil’s story.
"Johnny is everything you want in a football player," Mihalik said. "He’s a hard worker and a leader by example and vocally.
"He’s one of the most complete football players we’ve had, along with (Aurora graduates) Anthony Melchiori, Joe Cech, Dee Brizzolara and Gavin Blunt. They rarely left the field."
Mihalik got his first look at this future two-way dynamo when he was in middle school. Papesh’s performance on the gridiron certainly made Mihalik’s eyes light up. As for the close-ups, well, Papesh probably wasn’t confused with the towering Harold Carmicheal or the jacked Julio Jones.
"He was a super athlete, but he was so undersized and skinny," Mihalik said. "It was a matter of him growing into his body.
"He was still undersized at the high school level, but his toughness, work ethic and athletic ability allowed him to overcome his lack of size."
Papesh is certainly grateful that his high school coach did not judge his book for its lackluster cover. At the same time, he knew he needed to write something extremely compelling if he wanted to make Mihalik’s best-seller list.
"Coach Mihalik is a great guy," Papesh said. "I loved playing for him. He’s a legend at Aurora. When you play for him, you’re playing for something special."
Papesh didn’t stop being a "hitman" when the Friday Night Lights faded away. During the spring, he took pleasure smacking cowhide around with a certain aluminum stick.
Papesh also turned himself into a difference-maker for Aurora’s baseball team last spring. Playing all three outfield positions, Papesh batted .380 with 19 hits, 13 runs scored and 10 RBIs for the Greenmen, who finished 15-10 overall and reached Division II district play.
"Johnny had a really good junior season," Greenmen head baseball coach Michael Brancazio said. "He’s a typical multisport athlete with a lot of athletic ability that translated over to baseball.
"He has speed, competitiveness and a positive attitude. He let the game come to him and he has a plus arm. Johnny works hard at everything he does."
Papesh and classmate Will Carpenter would have been captains if not for a terrifying pandemic. Due to a deadly respiratory tract infection known as the coronavirus, the Ohio High School Athletic Association decided to cancel the entire spring season last month.
"It was tough, but for me personally, I felt terrible for my teammates," Papesh said. "Baseball is not my main sport. I wanted to be less selfish and think about my guys. It would be like me losing my football season.
"I loved playing for Coach Branca, though. He’s a great guy to be around. He has turned that program around so much. He creates not just great baseball players, but great young men as well."
Papesh and several of his classmates proved to be "great young men" on the football field too.
Of course, they didn’t feel too great about themselves when they were juniors.
Since they missed their chance to play under the lights in November, Papesh and Co. may have been motivated by a certain verse in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.
"Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy."
"(Quarterbacks) Coach (Brendan) Gallagher and I started doing morning film sessions with (quarterbacks) Alex Moore, Colin Skolaris and Ryan Weber," Papesh said. "I used to do it during my junior year of baseball. I picked Alex up because he couldn’t drive.
"We had a group chat the day after we missed the playoffs. Later on, there would be 10 to 20 guys who would go to the field on their own. It was a wake-up call."
Even though he will leave West Pioneer Trail for good, don’t expect Papesh to be napping on the job when he heads to Stark County.
Although his gridiron tale had a much happier ending than the penultimate chapter, Papesh will continue to have the same chip on his shoulder during that dreadful bus ride home from Columbus.
Fortunately, that awful news proved to be a valuable lesson that Papesh and his teammates mastered so beautifully.
Perhaps 19th-century English poet Anne Bronte had the best way of describing their improbable journey, which featured its fair share of blood, sweat and most of all, tears.
"But he that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose."
As for Papesh, he now fully understands that "the only road unto the realms of joy" requires taking "The Narrow Way."
"‘I’m super pumped up," Papesh said. "Honestly, I want to get to Mount, make new friends and get to work."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, email@example.com or @FrankAceto_Gannett.