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Mighty Mouse leads the way
Gary Ronberg
February 20, 1967
Little Mike Caruso (above) was born to wrestle and Pappajohn was born to root. The two are having themselves a big year at Lehigh
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February 20, 1967

Mighty Mouse Leads The Way

Little Mike Caruso (above) was born to wrestle and Pappajohn was born to root. The two are having themselves a big year at Lehigh

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Every day at 4 p.m. sharp, old John Pappajohn, the shoemaker who helps run the shop down on Fourth Street near South New in Bethlehem, Pa., shuts off his burnishing machine and wipes the tiny flecks of rubber from his white hair and spectacles. Then, shrugging into an old green-and-black-checked parka, he crams his pockets full of York's Mint Patties, Hershey bars and Life Savers, and hoofs it up the hill to feed the wrestlers at Lehigh University. At practice Pappajohn invariably finds a few of the boys in the steam room, sweating off a pound or two he helped them put on. But nobody is worried. After about 30 years of pampering some of the best wrestlers in the country old Pappajohn and his bulging pockets have become fixtures at Lehigh.

This year Pappajohn is more than ordinarily proud. His team is one of the best ever at Bethlehem. Lehigh has stretched its unbeaten streak in dual meets to 12 and, had Michigan State not defeated Oklahoma and tied Oklahoma State, the Engineers would be alone at the top. "It's just too bad," says Pappajohn and a host of Lehigh followers, "that we don't meet Michigan State this year."

The Engineers firmly established themselves as the best in the East two weeks ago by beating a good Navy team that had won 15 in a row. Last week Lehigh took Army 25-8 at West Point and, except for the traditional finale with Penn State, should cruise with ease into the national competition this March.

The big man in Lehigh's success for the last three years has been little Mike Caruso, twice national champion in the 123-pound division and now unbeaten in 38 consecutive bouts. In the victory over Navy—Lehigh's biggest since the Engineers upset endlessly top-ranked Iowa State on Jan. 13—it was Caruso, a step up in the 130-pound division, who set the tone for the evening.

With the teams deadlocked 2-2, Caruso scored a spectacular 22-4 decision over Steve Comiskey, dominating his man even more than the score indicates. Accomplished in full view of the rest of Lehigh's powerful lightweights, Caruso's momentum spilled over into the next three matches, which Lehigh won in succession. With the score 14-2 after the first five bouts, the outcome of the meet was never in doubt.

"He got us going," said Lehigh Coach Gerry Leeman afterward, "just like he always does."

Leeman, a stocky, crew-cut man of 44, who exudes a vague aura of winter-green—it comes from the Skoal snuff he likes to curl under his lip—knows good wrestling. As a 128-pounder at State College of Iowa he never lost a match under college rules and went on to win a silver medal in the 1948 Olympics. The second wrestling coach to be hired at Lehigh since 1911—the late Billy Sheridan brought him in as an assistant in 1950—Leeman has lost only 25 of 165 meets in his 15 years as head coach, with six of his wrestlers capturing eight NCAA titles. For all of this, he cannot stop talking about Caruso.

"I've always felt that everybody is born to do something," says Leeman, "but too often a lot of us never really find out what that something is. In Mike's case it's simple. He was born to wrestle."

Mike Caruso's teammates liken him to Superman, and when he struts around the periphery of the mat, filling his lungs with huge breaths of air and flexing his muscles, the comparison does seem apt. His brown-and-white leggings, however, tend to give him a Mighty Mouse air. A 20-year-old who fought his way out of the Clifton Avenue section of Newark's rough North Side, Caruso bursts with so much confidence that many of his opponents are intimidated before they ever get to the mat with him. Last December, when Lehigh traveled to Syracuse, Mike happened to be in the steam room shortly before the weigh-in. A Syracuse wrestler was there, too.

"Where are you wrestling today?" he asked Mike. "123?"

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John Pappajohn 1 0 0
Mike Caruso 9 0 0
Gerry Leeman 1 0 0
Syracuse 612 0 4
Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) 25 0 0