Over the years, Penn State football has seen many talented running backs come and go. Icons such as Ki-Jana Carter, Blair Thomas, and Larry Johnson have all anchored the Nittany Lion run game.
Today, Saquon Barkley is the man responsible for the majority of Penn State’s rushing highlights, and he has established himself as one of the best players in all of college football. The Coplay, PA native has a real chance to do something that Carter, Thomas, and Johnson never could: bring the Heisman Trophy back to Happy Valley.
Only one Penn Stater has earned the most prestigious trophy in all of college sports, and his name is John Cappelletti.
Cappelletti’s Penn State career is one of the best in program history. He’s the only player to have his number retired. Akeel Lynch was the last to wear his No. 22 after the ceremony at the beginning of the 2013 season.
His story and legacy, however, reach far beyond being a great football player.
Before signing on to play for Penn State in 1970, Cappelletti was born in Upper Darby, PA, where he would play his high school ball for Monsignor Bonner High School.
Over the course of his football career, Cappelletti lined up at a handful of different spots, but he played quarterback for the Friars before joining Penn State. As a high school senior, he was selected to the All-Catholic and All-Delaware County first teams.
In his first season in Happy Valley, he shined as a defensive back for the freshman team (in the days before freshmen played on the varsity squad), and continued to play there due to the abundance of talent at running back. His potential was clear, however, and he would get a shot with the varsity squad as a sophomore in 1971.
Penn State Debut
As a sophomore, Cappelletti played defensive back while Penn State icons Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell held down the fort in the backfield.
“[Cappelletti] was too good an athlete to keep on the bench,” Joe Paterno once said. “We put him on defense, knowing he would return to offense in his junior year.”
The Nittany Lions finished that season 11-1, with their only loss coming on the final day of the regular season; then-No. 12 Tennessee knocked off Joe Paterno’s fifth-ranked squad at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville to derail Penn State’s undefeated campaign.
The season would end on a brighter note, with Penn State winning its bowl game handily, a 30-6 victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Cappelletti and the Nittany Lion defense held the Longhorns to just 242 yards of offense in one of the most iconic victories in Penn State history.
The game had increased meaning for Penn State, mainly because President Richard Nixon had declared Texas as national champions in 1969 when both the Longhorns and Nittany Lions went undefeated.
“I’ve wondered how President Nixon could know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969,” Paterno said in his address at Penn State’s 1973 commencement ceremony.
Transition To Tailback
In the spring of 1972, the Nittany Lions lost both of their star tailbacks to the NFL Draft. Harris was selected 12th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Lydell Mitchell went 48th overall to the Baltimore Colts. Penn State now needed a new elite tailback to anchor the offense.
As a junior, Cappelletti rushed for more than 1,100 yards and scored 13 total touchdowns, but he was never really considered a Heisman candidate. Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers won the award, and the only Penn State player to finish in the top ten for voting was senior quarterback John Hufnagel, who came in sixth.
Penn State finished the season 10-2 and as the No. 10 team in the country. Its only two losses were to Tennessee on opening day, and in the Sugar Bowl to then-No. 2 Oklahoma.
Entering the 1973 season, Penn State was still a national power in college football, but the Nittany Lions wanted to record their first undefeated season since 1969.
The 1973 Penn State football season is one of the best in program history, mainly because of Cappelletti’s heroics. It is immortalized on the Beaver Stadium suite facade as one of 16 years recognized as the greatest in Nittany Lion history.
When all was said and done, the Nittany Lions were never ranked below No. 7 in the polls, finishing the season undefeated as the fifth-ranked team in the country. They won the Orange Bowl over then-No.13 LSU, 16-9, to cap off the perfect season.
The Cappelletti-led offense was downright dominant. Penn State scored 30 points or more in eight of its twelve games, and only scored less than 20 twice. In the Orange Bowl, LSU kept the star senior in check, but he did find the end zone on a 1-yard score.
Before the Orange Bowl, however, Cappelletti was awarded the Heisman Trophy on December 13, 1973.
The defining aspect of Cappelletti’s Penn State career had almost nothing to do with the football team; it instead came from one of his three siblings.
Growing up, John Cappelletti was one of four children in his family. The youngest, Joey, would be his biggest source of inspiration throughout his football career, and surely his life.
Joey Cappelletti was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three, and was one of the first ever cancer patients to undergo chemotherapy. He sadly passed away from the illness at the age of 14 in 1976.
During his Heisman acceptance speech, John held back tears as he named Joey as his main source of inspiration on the football field due to his bravery and courage while battling the disease.
“If I can dedicate this trophy to him tonight and give him a couple days of happiness, this is worth everything,” he said during his speech. “I think a lot of people think that I go through a lot on Saturdays and during the week as most athletes do, and you get your 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 round and it is a battle that is unending with him and 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.”
In 1977, a movie called “Something For Joey” was released exclusively on TV, profiling the bond between the two brothers during John’s football career at Penn State.