Walt Moody | Running numbers: Controversy over No. 22 retirement offers potential for more debate in future

Last Saturday afternoon, a humble John Cappelletti — surrounded by teammates and family — strode onto the Beaver Stadium turf and made history once again.

The 1973 Heisman winner, the only Penn State player ever to be awarded college football’s ultimate prize, added another first — the first player (in any sport) to have his jersey officially retired by the university.

Cappelletti admitted that he had “one of the most miserable weeks of my life,” knowing he would receive the honor.


Well, by becoming the first Nittany Lion to have his number retired, Cappelletti became the first to break with a longstanding tradition.

And at Penn State, that’s enough to make anyone a little nervous.

Indeed, just a little while after the story was on the CDT’s website, a comment was posted not only decrying the break with tradition, but saying Cappelletti wasn’t close to being “the No. 1 Penn State player of all-time.”

Let’s tackle the first part.

In the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, the subsequent firing of coach Joe Paterno, implementation of the STEP program, names on the backs of uniforms and no more “Sweet Caroline,” many fans feel like the tradition that was such a big part of the program has been uprooted like legendary coach’s statue, possibly never to be seen again.

Many of the core values of the program are being changed outright or tinkered with on a regular basis.

While some change is inherent, many of the things Penn State fans and alumni held near and dear are disappearing on Saturday afternoons.

One of those mantras was that Penn State emphasizes team accomplishment over individual accomplishment. Thus, no numbers were retired.

But now that has changed and many (not just the one commenter) believe it’s one more nail into the coffin of tradition.

Of course, there are two sides to any argument. There are plenty that support the move, believing it’s long overdue.

When they think of Penn State, they remember the legends that made the program one of the nation’s best.

Yes, the teams were great, but there always will be some stars that are brighter than others. Shouldn’t those legends be recognized in some fashion, like the years of the championship and unbeaten teams at Beaver Stadium?

It’s a tough call, one that you’ll never get everyone in Nittany Nation to agree upon.

Now let’s go to the second part of the comment and maybe expand a little beyond.

Let me say right now that I’ve never met John Cappelletti.

But someone I do know and respect has nothing but great things to say about “Cappy,” who has always presented a positive image for the university.

As a child of the 70’s, I remember shedding tears when seeing the TV movie, “Something for Joey.” It was almost as bad as when Brian Piccolo died in “Brian’s Song.”

What time helps you forget is that Cappelletti was a stud tailback. In his two seasons, he averaged 120 yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry. He had 13 100-yard games and went over 1,000 yards both seasons. If he had played all four seasons, who knows what numbers he would have racked up.

Some argue that Curt Warner, Ki-Jana Carter, Larry Johnson, Lenny Moore, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, D.J. Dozier and Blair Thomas were better backs than Cappelletti.

They could be right.

Some argue there’s plenty other players at other positions, including some of the six in the NFL Hall of Fame, that deserve the honor more.

They could have a point, too.

I’ll argue that Cappelletti was in the right place at the right time and embodies an unselfish spirit that is synonymous with the program. Remember, this is a guy who couldn’t play as a freshman and played defense as a sophomore because he was behind Harris and Mitchell before he got his shot.

In today’s college football, he would have transferred out of here after Year 1.

If Jack Ham says Cappelletti should be the first to get his number retired, that should be good enough for everyone else.

The bigger problem is going to be how future selections will be made.

Director of Athletics Dave Joyner said rigid guidelines will be set up determine others to be honored, including other sports.

But, football is the big problem.

Right now, Penn State has 17 players in the College Football Hall of Fame, in addition to the six NFL legends enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

Those numbers don’t include several future College Football Hall of Famers.

First, how do you decide to retire a number when there have been two or more great players that wore it?

Take No. 31 for example — Shane Conlan and Paul Posluszny. Two of the best that ever played linebacker here. Who goes first or do you retire the number for both at the same time?

And even though the NCAA doesn’t recognize he exists, where does Evan Royster, the school’s career rushing leader, fit in when the No. 22 is already retired?

Then there’s the sheer volume of numbers. With walk-ons, Penn State already has to double up on its numbers.

Much was made last week over redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch keeping the No. 22 until he is finished here. But, there’s also another No. 22 on the roster, linebacker T.J. Rhattigan.

Even with the names on the back of the jerseys, two guys wearing the same number can get confusing at times.

It will be interesting to see how Joyner and his successor handle things in the future.

Penn State’s great past — starting with No. 22 — won’t make it easy.