Big Ten Icons: John Cappelletti
Penn State being Penn State, it was inevitable that some of the records John Cappelletti set in his two remarkably productive seasons as the Nittany Lions’ starting tailback would fall as the assembly line kept churning out newer models. But the proud Italian kid from suburban Philadelphia remains the only Heisman Trophy winner in Penn State history.
And the speech he gave when he accepted the award on Dec. 13, 1973 remains the most memorable in the Heisman’s 75-year history.
Cappelletti dedicated the award to his younger brother Joey, then 11, whose entire life had been a struggle with the ravages of leukemia. Chemotherapy and its debilitating side effects were a constant in Joey’s life, and the weekly autumn trips to Happy Valley for his older brother’s Penn State games sometimes seemed like his only respite.
“Going up there was like we were going to heaven,” John Cappelletti Sr., the boys’ father, recalled Joey telling him.
Joey’s ordeal was on John Jr.’s mind as he was summoned to the podium at the Downtown Athletic Club. After the requisite thank-yous, he delivered an emotional tribute to his special little brother.
“I want Joey to have this,” Cappelletti said, cradling the trophy. “It’s more his than mine because he has been such an inspiration to me. They say I’ve shown courage on the football field, but for me it’s only on the field and only in the fall. Joey lives with pain all the time. His courage is ‘round the clock.
“If I could dedicate this trophy to him tonight and give him a couple of days of happiness, that is worth everything.”
Cappelletti fought back tears as he spoke, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he finished. Teammate Ed O’Neil, a linebacker, was seated at the Cappellettis’ table. “I couldn’t find the strength in my legs to get up,” O’Neil said. “And I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy.”
The Heisman ceremony was a fairly primitive Thursday night affair in 1973, far removed from the nationally televised, thoroughly hyped Saturday spectacle it has become. But word of Cappelletti’s gesture spread quickly. On Friday, the late John Chancellor closed the NBC Nightly News with a story on the speech and the reaction to it, assuring viewers it was a special moment they’d want to see. Over time the relationship between John and Joey became a book and a TV movie, both titled “Something for Joey.” Thirty-seven years later it remains an emotional touchstone.
It is not, however, John Cappelletti’s only claim to fame.
He was an indefatigable workhorse for the Nittany Lions as their senior tailback, carrying 286 times for 1,522 yards, the fourth highest single-season total in school history. He scored 17 touchdowns and had three straight 200-yard games as Penn State was completing an 11-0 regular season, including a career-high 220 yards on 41 carries against North Carolina State. The Heisman talk heated up after he ran for 202 yards against Maryland, and he scored four touchdowns against West Virginia as a birthday gift to Joey. A 16-9 victory over LSU in the Orange Bowl capped a 12-0 perfect season.
Cappelletti played defense and returned kicks as a Penn State sophomore, unable to crack a backfield that featured All-Americans Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell. But he won the tailback job as a junior and had five 100-yard games on his way to 1,117 yards for the 10-2 Lions. He finished his college career with 519 carries for 2,629 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown. He had 13 games with 100 or more yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry, an impressive figure for a between-the-tackles banger who absorbed hits on every carry.
“Cappy is the best player I have ever been around,” coach Joe Paterno said. “You know he is going to come through for you when you need him.”
A first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams in 1974, Cappelletti played six seasons for the Rams and four with the San Diego Chargers. He carried 824 times for 2,757 yards and 24 touchdowns as a pro and caught 135 passes for 1,233 yards and 12 scores.
His Heisman Trophy might be the only once to grace Happy Valley, but it’s not the only one in the Cappelletti family. Catherine Ameche, daughter of 1954 winner Alan Ameche of the University of Wisconsin, is Cappelletti’s sister-in-law, married to his brother Michael.
Joey Cappelletti lost his battle with leukemia and died in April 1976. He was 13. The memory of that night when he so graciously affirmed their bond and brotherly love helped John Cappelletti deal with his grief.
“People still come up to me today or write me letters telling me how they never appreciated their family until they saw the movie,” he said. “Having some small contribution to someone’s life is a lot more meaningful than scoring touchdowns.”