By LUKE JOHNSON
Tiger Rag Editor
The 1986 College World Series ring on Michael Papajohn’s finger holds a sort of talismanic power.
It’s one of a number of objects that have a special meaning to Papajohn. He plays with his ring, rubbing it between his fingers as he engages in a long, winding conversation about how Michael Papajohn the actor is really no different than Michael Papajohn the LSU center fielder. They’re intertwined.
"Sentimental things mean a lot to me,” Papajohn said. "As an artist, I use that a lot in my work.”
He thinks about his ring before he steps in front of the camera and transforms into someone else entirely. He thinks about the feeling he had when getting ready to roam center field at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. He channels that restless energy from nearly 30 years ago into his performances.
"It feels like the College World Series for me,” Papajohn said. "I remember being 21 years old, first time on ESPN, representing LSU on national television and the feeling of wanting to win for LSU and your teammates.
"That feeling of waiting in a locker room getting ready to go out there, the feelings of nervous excitement, that’s the same feeling I get in a trailer to this day. It feels like Omaha.”
He sits behind a desk in his office at Celtic Media Centre in Baton Rouge and explains that he wouldn’t be where he is now if it weren’t for Skip Bertman, baseball mentor and the only Hollywood agent he’s ever had that worked for free.
"I made a joke with Coach Bertman the other day,” said the excitable Papajohn. "‘Hey coach, you’ve gotten me more movies than any agent or manager in Los Angeles.’”
Believe it or not, it was Bertman and his "bat phone” who got Papajohn his big break.
Bertman made the call to recommend Papajohn to Texas coach Augie Garrido, who was helping Kevin Costner with the technical aspects of the movie "For Love of the Game.” Papajohn landed the job to play Costner’s nemesis, New York Yankees slugger Sam Tuttle.
It wasn’t a starring role, but it opened the world up to Papajohn — particularly as the bad guy.
"I didn’t know it at the time, but Sam Raimi was the director, and working with him got me the ‘Spider-Man’ role of killing Uncle Ben,” Papajohn said. "That was the biggest break I’ve gotten, because it opened me up to the bad guy roles. It changed my career.
"That was because of Coach Bertman — and I didn’t even have to pay him a commission.”
Since then, Papajohn has drawn numerous gigs as the sort of nefarious character audiences love to hate. It’s hard to tell when sitting in a room with him, watching him laugh and joke as he bounces from one story to the next, but he’s capable of a sneering visage that screams Hollywood bad guy, and he’s embraced those roles.
"I’ve killed a lot of people and I’ve been killed a lot,” Papajohn joked. "I’ve got to be in the top-five in the business of dying and killing people.”
Papajohn’s silver screen career began when he was at LSU. Shortly after he graduated, he was heading into the weight room on campus when he saw teammates Greg Fontenot, Rob Leary and Randy LaRose heading off in a hurry. Curious, he asked them where they were going.
They were off to audition for spots in "Everybody’s All-American,” which was being shot on campus. Filmmakers were looking for LSU athletes who had exhausted their eligibility to serve as some of the background players. Papajohn fit that bill.
Soon, he showed off another talent on set: the man could take a lick and live to act another day.
"They said, ‘Hey, if you want to take hits or deliver hits, we’ll pay you more money,’” Papajohn said. "I had, like, $11 in my bank account, and I’m like, ‘Hey! I’m back here!’”
That toughness landed him the job as body double for the film’s star, Dennis Quaid. He was approached after the movie wrapped about a potential career as a Hollywood stunt man. After getting Bertman’s blessing — ‘If you go to Hollywood and become a Hollywood stunt man, you can go to Disneyland and nobody will bother you,’ Papajohn recalled Bertman saying — he was off to learn his trade.
Papajohn spent years perfecting his craft as a Hollywood stunt man. He became quite good at it, too. But it was one of his finest performances that essentially halted his stunt work.
He was serving as Adam Sandler’s body double in "The Waterboy.” All those bone-crunching hits you saw in the movie? That was Papajohn. But one hit in particular, one that he wasn’t expecting, effectively ended Papajohn’s stunt career when he was 34 years old.
"A lineman hit me right under the ribs and drove my shoulder into the ground,” Papajohn said. "It was that kind of moment where I said, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’
"Every time I watch a bowl game on that field in Orlando, I remember spitting out my mouthpiece, barely able to breathe and saying, ‘He wasn’t supposed to hit me. I’m going to act.’”
These days, Papajohn is thoroughly enjoying his time back in Baton Rouge. While working on the sets of "Jurassic World” and "American Ultra,” Papajohn recently closed on a house in the area, and he relishes the fact that he can take his young son to a baseball game at the new Alex Box Stadium.
He can point out to center field with his ring gleaming in the sun. He can tell his kid that’s where he used to play, and to a lesser degree still does.