Forty years after he last played in Happy Valley, John Cappelletti is still setting standards.
The 1973 Penn State team finished the season 12-0. Cappelletti capped that magical season by earning the Nittany Lions’ only Heisman Trophy.
At halftime of Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan at Beaver Stadium, Cappelletti earned another Penn State first. He is now officially the first Nittany Lion in any sport to have his or her number retired.
“It’s unbelievable. In all of the years that this school has been here and all the players that have gone through here, for me to be the one to get his jersey retired is unbelievable. It’s hard to comprehend right now,” Cappelletti said.
Athletic Director Dave Joyner said the university thought the timing was right.
“It seems the right time to do something, 40 years. It’s a major achievement in the history of college football and this great team at the same time mixed together with that,” Joyner said. “At the same time it was one of the greatest teams in history, along with the Heisman Trophy winner.”
Dozens of members of the 1973 team, the third of five undefeated teams under former coach Joe Paterno, were honored during a halftime ceremony. After the other members of the team present for the game were introduced, Cappelletti was saved for last. It was then that the university unveiled its plans to retire his No. 22 jersey.
The crowd, announced at 92,363, roared its approval.
Cappelletti said Joyner called him months ago and asked him to come back to campus for a celebration of the 1973 team. Then, a week ago, Joyner called Cappelletti again and said the celebration would feature a little something else.
“So, last week was probably one of the more miserable weeks of my life thinking about this the whole time. But now it’s great. It’s such a nice thing, and hopefully meaningful for the fans and the school and we have a number retired now,” Cappelletti said.
“I was just nervous, very nervous, about the whole thing. I didn’t mean that in a negative way. I was just thinking, ‘This is huge. This is the first one, possibly the only one for a while.’”
Compared to his famous, heart-wrenching Heisman speech, in which he talked about his younger brother, Joey, who suffered from Leukemia, he said this might have made him more nervous.
“The Heisman, I got a little chance to absorb that. Going up in front of thousands of people that night was not an easy thing to do, either,” he said.
“This was a good nervous. I could feel it. I wasn’t really showing it to anybody else.”
Cappelletti said almost his entire family was in Beaver Stadium for the announcement.
Redshirt freshman running back Akeel Lynch currently wears No. 22. Cappelletti said he gave Joyner his blessing to have Lynch finish his career with 22 on his back.
“I said, ‘Don’t tear that number off the kid. Let him have it. Let him be the last one to wear it. Maybe that will give him some incentive,” Cappelletti said. “I don’t want him to feel something from the past is just now overshadowing some things that he’s been doing. It’s the right thing to do.”
Lynch said he was honored just to meet Penn State’s only Heisman winner, which he did in the lockerroom after the game.
“It’s amazing. (He’s) Penn State’s only Heisman winner,” Lynch said. “To shake his hand and for him to say, ‘Good game’ to me and ‘We’re proud that you’re wearing the number’ was pretty cool.”
And, according to Cappelletti, this probably won’t be the only Penn State jersey number to be retired.
“I think they’re going to. I think if you talk to Dave, I think there is a school policy now,” he said. “They just didn’t want to make this a one-time thing. I think that Dave said they might even do it across all of the sports, not just football. That’s what I was told.”
A year ago, Penn State junior kicker Sam Ficken was struggling as much as any kicker could. He was trying to survive the ignominy of missing four field goals and an extra point in Penn State’s 17-16 Game 2 loss to Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
His struggles were well chronicled and fans let him know about it, especially on social media.
On Saturday, Ficken elevated himself to the top of the Penn State record books with his 14th consecutive made field goal.
“I actually did not know until running into halftime. One of the doctors said, ‘Hey, you know you just broke the consecutive field goal record?’ So that was a nice surprise,” Ficken recalled.
“It is really a great thing. There have been some great place kickers come through here. The Bahr brothers were both All-Americans, and to have a consecutive field goal record here; this is truly a special place, and to have your name in the record books is something.”
Ten of those 14 straight made kicks came at the end of the 2012 season when Ficken rebounded from his miserable start to finish the season 14-of-21.
Ficken added three more field goals in Penn State’s 23-17 win over Syracuse in the 2013 season opener at MetLife Stadium.
The previous record of 13 straight was set by Craig Fayak during the 1992 season.
Now, instead of getting ridiculed by anonymous fans, Ficken said he is getting kudos from those past Penn State greats.
“Matt Bahr definitely reached out, and Robbie Gould. Kevin Kelly did as well. So there have been numerous guys. I have received emails from a bunch of other players,” Ficken said.
Linebacker Brandon Bell and defensive end Garrett Sickles were the seventh and eighth true freshmen to play for Penn State this year. Linebacker Mike Hull, who hurt his right leg in the first half of the Nittany Lions season-opening win over Syracuse, didn’t dress on Saturday and neither did linebacker Ben Kline, who was also in street clothes. Ryan Keiser and Miles Dieffenbach also left the game with injuries. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is off to an auspicious start, as far as completion percentage. Through two games, the true freshman has completed 45 of 66 passes for a 70-percent completion percentage. Hackenberg also set a new standard for freshman passing yards with his 311 against the Eagles. The previous record was held by Zack Mills, who twice passed for 280 yards in 2001. In the 2012 season, Eastern Michigan averaged 3,923 fans at home. That’s only 88,440 fewer than the announced crowd of 92,363 at Beaver Stadium. In his first game carrying the ball from scrimmage, Lynch recorded the first 100-yard rushing game of his career with 108 yards on 13 carries.