Ed O’Neil’s birthday is Sunday. On Saturday, he will celebrate with about 100,000 of his friends.
O’Neil was an All-American linebacker and team captain for Penn State’s 1973 team that went 12-0 and won the Orange Bowl.
The team will be honored Saturday at halftime of the Eastern Michigan game.
“To be a captain on that team was really special,” O’Neil said Thursday from western New York, where he coaches the junior varsity team at North Tonawanda High School.
He planned to drive to State College and take the field once again with his Nittany Lions teammates, including 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti.
“It’s hard to win a football game,” O’Neil said. “But to have a group of young men get together and do what you have to do to win every game is an amazing thing. It’s rare.”
That ’73 team wrapped up a perfect season with a 16-9 win over LSU in the Orange Bowl. More than 50 players are expected to take the field together at halftime, 40 years removed from that magical autumn.
“When we played, it was in front of 57,000 people,” said O’Neil, who was a first-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions. “Now, that has doubled. So it is very special.”
The ’73 Lions were the only 12-0 team in the land at the end of the season, yet finished fifth in the national polls. After the Orange Bowl victory, head coach Joe Paterno declared his team the national champion, even though that honor went to Notre Dame (11-0), which knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
“This was the best team I’ve ever coached,” Paterno declared. “We have as much right to claim the top place as anyone else. We’re undefeated ... I have my own poll, the Paterno poll, and the vote was unanimous: Penn State is No. 1.”
In addition to winning Penn State’s first — and still only — Heisman Trophy, Cappelletti also took home the Maxwell Award after rushing for 1,522 yards on 286 attempts. Cappelletti scored 17 rushing touchdowns.
“Cappy” was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Against Lou Holtz’s North Carolina State Wolfpack, Cappelletti had the second of three straight 200-yard games, gaining 220 yards on 41 carries with three TDs in a 35-29 Penn State win.
The running back’s moving Heisman acceptance speech was a tribute to his younger brother, Joseph, who had leukemia. His marvelous season and heart-warming speech were captured in the movie “Something for Joey.”
Cappelletti was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, joining O’Neil as first-round selections. Overall, 10 players were taken in the next year’s NFL draft from that team. Included were three second-rounders: linebacker Doug Allen (Buffalo), tackle Charlie Getty (Kansas City) and guard Mark Markovich (San Diego).
“We were not the greatest collection of athletes,” Markovich said while traveling to State College from his home in Illinois. “But we were a group of intelligent guys who decided to work together as a team and accomplished some extraordinary things. We had success in school and afterward.”
That team featured numerous standout underclassmen, including future NFL stars Mike Hartenstine (defensive end), Greg Buttle (linebacker), and Chris Bahr (kicker).
Quarterback Tom Shuman, completed 51.6 percent of his passes for 1,375 yards and 13 touchdowns. Shuman was MVP of the Orange Bowl.
After seven NFL seasons as a player, O’Neil turned to coaching. His first job was, ironically, on the staff at Eastern Michigan. He also coached at Rutgers, and had stints in the Canadian Football League and NFL Europe.
“During the 10 years I was at Rutgers, it wasn’t real fun going back to my alma mater,” he said.
Saturday will bring pure joy as he walks into Beaver Stadium, which O’Neil calls “a special place.” He turns 61 Sunday.
“To walk out onto that field, to see the sky and that valley that’s so beautiful,” O’Neil said, “it’s an honor to still be part of it.”
Markovich said he never experienced a loss at Beaver Stadium. He even proposed to his wife at the stadium the spring following that unbeaten campaign.
“It was a beautiful time to be part of the beginnings of some great things at Penn State,” Markovich said.
Follow Chip Minemyer on Twitter @MinemyerChip.