In the most inspiring acceptance speech delivered at any of the annual Heisman Memorial Trophy dinners, John Cappelletti touched the cold hearts of many Wall Street merchants and had cynical journalists and professional athletes wiping their misty eyes when he dedicated his 1973 Heisman Trophy to his 11-year-old brother, Joey, who was suffering from leukemia.
Speaking to a gathering that included Vice President Gerald R. Ford and other luminaries who are fixtures at these types of awards banquets, the big Penn State tailback uttered one of the most intelligent and thoughtful short talks in American sports history.
Cappy, as he is called, brought the house down in tears and had wet eyes himself when he concluded by saying, “The youngest member of my family, Joseph, is very ill. He has leukemia. If I can dedicate this trophy to him tonight and give him a couple of days of happiness, this is worth everything.”
With his mother and father and brother Joey in the audience, John Cappelletti continued, “I think a lot of people think that I go through a lot on Saturdays and during the week as most athletes do, You get the bumps and bruises and it is a terrific battle out there on the field. Only for me it is on Saturdays and it's only in the fall. For Joseph, it is all year I round and it is a battle that is unending with him. He puts up with much more than I'll ever put up with and I think that this trophy is more his than mine because he has been a great inspiration to me.”
Not only was that speech a gift to Joey from deep in John's heart; it was a gift to those at the hotel banquet on a cold December night in New York City. It was also an open and public gesture of extreme tenderness and love at a time when those virtues seemed out of fashion in our country just after the Vietnam War ended and the Watergate scandal was heating up to destroy an administration.
Asked to give the traditional blessing at the conclusion of the 1973 Heisman Trophy dinner, Archbishop Fulton I Sheen said, “Maybe for the first time you have heard a speech from the heart and not from the lips. Part of John's triumph was made by Joseph's sorrow. You don't need a blessing. God has already blessed you in John Cappelletti.”
The first Heisman Trophy winner at Penn State, Cappy himself overcame a childhood handicap of constantly tripping while walking and running. He also had to overcome the pain of a deep thigh muscle bruise suffered in preseason practice late in the summer of 1973. With his leg taped tightly every Saturday afternoon, Cappelletti went on to become only the third man in Penn State's glorious football history to gain over 1,000 yards in a season. With 1,117 yards rushing in 1972 and 1,522 in 1973 , Cappelletti became the first Penn State player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of two seasons.
While working his way up to Heisman-like achievements, Cappy spent his sophomore season at Penn State as a defensive back. He did this as Coach Joe Paterno directed two of the nation's best running backs in 1971, Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell. Paterno and his associates at Penn State had tried everything imaginable to get the Heisman Trophy for Mitchell in a scramble that is often a high-pressured publicity battle not unlike a political election campaign. But Mitchell finished fifth behind Auburn's quarterback, Pat Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner
Then Paterno switched Cappelletti to tailback in 1972 as Harris began a spectacular pro career at Pittsburgh and Mitchell started his pro life in Baltimore. Cappy had a tendency to fumble. But, like most other problems he faced in life, Cappelletti managed to overcome that deficiency in order to become better at what he did.
As a powerful, 6-foot-1, 205-pound, deep-set tailback, Cappelletti led Penn State to the heights of another undefeated and untied season in 1973. Paterno and his Penn State publicists didn't have to raise a finger on Cappelletti's behalf. He won the Heisman Trophy in a cake walk after a season of 1,522 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, including more than 200 yards rushing in each of Penn State's last three regularseason games. Those 200 yards-plus efforts in three straight games established a major college record at the time and included 220 yards in a 35-29 victory over the North Carolina State team that was coached by Lou Holtz.
These numbers assured the Nittany Lions of a spot in the Orange Bowl against Louisiana State. Penn State won the New Year's night game, 16-9, despite the fact that Cappy played with a sprained ankle he suffered in practice a few days before the game. He played on a slick field as the result of a heavy downpour that preceded the Orange Bowl kickoff. With a bad ankle and a wet field, Cappy gained 50 yards and scored one touchdown, just a so-so outing for his final game as Penn State's tailback.
But bowl games were sort of a jinx for Cappy. A year earlier he missed the Dec. 31 1972, Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma because he was too sick with the flu and had a 102-clegree temperature at gametime. Penn State lost that game, 14-0, for only one of two losses by the Nittany Lions n Cappelletti's two seasons on offense for Paterno. The other loss was at Tennessee in Penn State's 1972 opener. Penn State was 22-2 with Cappy at tailback.
After rather easy triumphs on the road against Stanford and Navy to open the 1973 season, Penn State played the first of its six home games that year against Iowa on Homecoming Day, Sept. 29. By this time Cappy was the talk of the East, if not the nation. That would come as the victories mounted along with Cappelletti's yardage.John Cappelletti was also the talk of the Beaver Stadium press box at Penn State where a large group gathered every week to witness and write about his exploits. Each Saturday there were some bets made in the press box just before Penn State staged its first play on offense with Cappy at tailback.
The wagering was made over the earth-shattering issue: Would Cappy go off right tackle or would he go off left tackle on the game's first play of this week's very predictable Paterno attack?
Cappelletti always tested the defenders right up the gut on opening plays. But the Penn State sweep was also a show as Cappy went fast and powerfully around the wide corners behind the blocking of Mark Markovich, the guard who was one of Cappy's best friends. That pair of Penn State strongmen handed out a lot of those Saturday bruises Cappelletti spoke of in his acceptance speech.
Cappelletti once quipped during the 1973 season that “I've followed Markovich around so much on the field that I'm starting to follow him around on campus.”
Paterno actually had a fine bunch of blockers in addition to Markovich, making it imperative that he stick with his sometimes monotonous offense of Cappy rushing most of the time. One Air Force defender expressed total surprise when told that Cappy did not actually carry on every single play as Penn State whipped the Falcons, 19-9, on Oct. 6, 1973. “You can't prove it by me,” he said. “I thought he was in there every play. Felt like it.”
Cappelletti was a fullback at a tailback's position at Penn State. His was a one-man attack of rushing and speed. The plunge, the sweep and the strength needed for each made up Cappy's artistry. Paterno became a successful college coach because he used what players he had to his best advantage. This is true of any of the most successful coaches in history. So if his tailback was a powerful fullback type naturally he used power running most of the time.
The two years prior to Cappelletti's senior season were marked by much more varied Penn State offenses because the Lions had John Hufnagel, a real scrambler, at quarterback. Also, in 1971 there was the fullback, Franco Harris, and the tailback, Lydell Mitchell, to give different looks to the Paterno offense.
The result in 1973 was that by pounding team after team with Cappelletti's running, the Nittany Lions had a perfect season. The big tailback won the Heisman Trophy by a two-toone margin of points over his nearest rival, John Hicks of Ohio State. Hicks, an offensive tackle, was the first interior lineman to finish as high as second in the Heisman balloting. Archie Griffin of Ohio State, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1974 and 1975, and Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh, who won it in 1976, were among the offensive backs beaten out by Cappelletti for the Heisman in 1973.
Cappy went on to a good professional football career with the Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers. He served as a fullback in the NFL, blocking as well as carrying the ball. He started his rookie pro season in 1974 behind the well-established National Football League running star, Lawrence McCutcheon. Then at San Diego he was a running back in a pass-oriented attack. injuries and illness also interfered with his pro career But Cappy didn't complain anymore than he did when playing defense during the 1971 season at Penn State.
Complaints were not part of his nature. Cappelletti married his high school sweetheart, the former Betty Berry. They have four sons. Following 10 years in the NFL, Cappelletti retired from football and went into private business in California. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Through all of his success, the big, gentle man has remained rather humble about it all. That was spelled out clearly in his famous Heisman Trophy acceptance speech that remains his primary legacy. His speech was so touching that CBS-TV aired a two-hour movie entitled, Something for Joey.
After all, the 1973 Heisman Trophy was and will always remain just that: “Something for Joey.”