A Detroit, Michigan native, Vitale was a star football player at De La Salle Collegiate High School. Vitale, who wore #67 for the Michigan Wolverines as a redshirt freshman in 1984 and as a varsity letterman in the subsequent four seasons, was a four-year starter for the Wolverines. He played guard as a freshman and switched to center in 1986. He was Michigan's starting center for three years from 1986-1988. He was a two-time All Big Ten pick and a consensus first team All-American and team co-captain in 1988.
Vitale was also known as a team leader who once showed up with a U-M winged football helmet design shaved into the side of his head. Vitale had a close relationship with his head coach, Bo Schembechler. Sportswriter Mitch Albom wrote about the following exchange between Vitale and Bo Schembechler.
"You gonna work us today, Chief?" Vitale would ask. 'I'm gonna kick your butt," Schembechler would say. "Good," Vitale would answer.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Vitale played for the San Antonio Riders in World Football League. He also briefly played for the Detroit Drive. After his playing career ended, Vitale worked for Wolverine Human Services as the Director of their East side Community Center, later renamed after him, The Wolverine Human Services John S. Vitale Community Center. The John S. Vitale Community Center (JVCC), located in Detroit, Michigan, is a part of Wolverine Human Services and offers a wide variety of youth programming.
Vitale was diagnosed with ependymoma, cancer of the spinal cord, in 1994 at age 29. He married Lynn Abdelnour in 1998. In 1999, he found the cancer had returned and he started aggressive chemotherapy treatments. When his father told him that the cancer had spread to his brain, Vitale said, "Well, this sucks." According to sports columnist Mitch Albom, "those were the only negative words anyone heard him say." He died at age 34 in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
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- "Bentley Historical Library -- -- U of M Football Rosters: Vitale". The Regents of the University of Michigan. 2003-08-25. Retrieved 2007-11-28.
- "University of Michigan Football All-American, 1988, Team Co-Captain, 1988: John Vitale". The Regents of the University of Michigan. 2007-02-10. Retrieved 2007-11-28.
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- Albom, Mitch (2000-07-24). "Remembering One Mountain of a Man - football player John Vitale - Brief Article". Los Angeles Business Journal (FindArticles). Retrieved 2007-11-28.[dead link]