Cappelletti, humbly, accepts ultimate tribute

UNIVERSITY PARK – Over the summer, Penn State invited its 1973 team back for this weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its undefeated season and John Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy.

About a week ago, Nittany Lion Athletic Director Dave Joyner called Cappelletti and told him, “It’s going to be a little bit more than that.”

Not one to seek or enjoy the spotlight, Cappelletti said, “Last week was probably one of the most miserable weeks of my life. I was just nervous about the whole thing.”

Penn State’s decision to retire Cappelletti’s jersey No. 22 – the first retired jersey in the school’s rich football history – was greeted with the loudest ovation of the day Saturday when it was announced at halftime of the Lions’ 45-7 victory over Eastern Michigan.

The universal response put Penn State’s only Heisman winner at ease and added to his high level of humility.

“It’s unbelievable,” he told a throng of reporters in the Beaver Stadium tunnel following the stirring tribute. “In all the years this school has been here, and all the players that have been through here, for me to be the first one that gets a jersey retired, it’s unbelievable.”

Almost all of Cappelletti’s family, including his mother (his father died a few years ago), was on hand. The Cappy throng surrounded him for a photo op at midfield as halftime festivities closed.

“It’s hard to comprehend right now,” he said.

Known for his emotional speech at the Heisman Trophy dinner that he dedicated to his younger brother Joey, who was battling leukemia at the time and later died, Cappelletti has always represented the highest of Penn State ideals.

That’s why there’s only one reaction to this gesture: It’s about time.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Jack Ham, currently the analyst for the Penn State radio network and a former teammate of both Cappelletti and Joyner, said. “A guy like John Cappelletti – a Heisman Trophy winner – and what he meant to Penn State and this university – I think it’s fabulous.”

Penn State has had 97 All-Americans – 11 of which were two-timers – and six busts in Canton, but its Heisman Trophy club remains exclusive to just Cappy.

“When you start with that guy [Cappelletti] – he’s very, very special in the history of Penn State football – and I think it’s a good idea going forward,” Ham, himself a former Pittsburgh Steeler great and 1988 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said. “But you start with him.”

Joyner said rigid guidelines for potentially retiring numbers in the future have been developed, and Cappelletti said he’s been told the tribute will also include other sports.

“They just didn’t want to make this a one-time thing,” he said.

“There’s some pretty stringent criteria,” Joyner said, “but this is a good place to start.”

Bill O’Brien enthusiastically supported the idea, saying Cappelletti, who spoke to the Lions after Saturday’s victory, raised “a high bar.”

Penn State currently has a No. 22 on its roster. Running back Akeel Lynch, a redshirt freshman – fittingly – enjoyed a breakout game with 108 yards rushing and a touchdown on a team-high 13 carries.

Cappelletti felt strongly that Lynch continues to wear No. 22.

“I said, ‘Don’t tear that number off the kid,'” he said. “Let him be the last one to wear it. Maybe that will be some incentive. I don’t want him to feel that it something from the past should overshadow what he’s going to do.”

When Lynch came to Penn State, he wanted No. 5, but Bill Belton had it before switching to No. 1. Equipment manager/PSU legend Spider Caldwell suggested No. 22. Lynch was lukewarm until learning Cappelletti and Evan Royster, the Lions’ all-time leading rusher, wore it.

“Spider told me it’s a big number,” Lynch said. “I looked it up, and every time I put it on, I remember the guys before me.”

Lynch felt honored to meet Cappelletti after the game and receive his encouragement.

“That was pretty cool,” he said. “I get to wear it for three more years so I’m pretty excited about that. He said he wanted me to continue wearing it. I was like, ‘thank you.”’

Penn State paid John Cappelletti the ultimate thank-you Saturday, while sending a message that it’s more than OK to single out the greatest of the greats.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or You can also follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.