Hard-nosed and selfless, John Cappelletti was the workhorse star of one of Penn State’s greatest teams. We look back at the 1973 season that ended with a perfect record and the program’s only Heisman Trophy.
Two years before he won the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football, John Cappelletti was lining up as a defensive back. With seniors Lydell Mitchell ’72 Edu and Franco Harris ’72 H&HD starring in the backfield in 1971, Cappelletti, then a sophomore, played defense and returned kicks. But in ’72, he earned the starting job at running back and had a solid junior season; he went into his senior year confident about his team’s potential, and his own. Years later, Cappelletti ’74 H&HD would recall his head coach’s words that fall: “Joe always said ... if we focused on winning the game and had a good season as a team, individuals would get attention. Of course, that’s what happened.”
As the season went on, in close games or blowouts, home or away, the story was the same: Cappelletti couldn’t be stopped. His inevitability took on added meaning in late October, when he scored four touchdowns against visiting West Virginia. The true story behind his record scoring day was dramatized a few years later in the TV movie and accompanying novelization Something for Joey: John asked his leukemia-stricken younger brother, Joseph, what he wanted for his birthday. Joey asked for four touchdowns in the Lions’ next game. Cappelletti scored three before Paterno pulled the starters; only after teammates let their coach in on Cappy’s promise did Paterno send his star back into the game. His fourth and final touchdown (below) followed soon after, promise kept.
The best game of Cappelletti’s career came against North Carolina State (below), a 35-29 victory at Beaver Stadium in November 1973. A week after running 37 times for 202 yards against Maryland, he eclipsed his own school record, recording a staggering 41 carries for 220 yards and three touchdowns in the win. It was a testament to his toughness and seeming refusal to wear down—he missed just one game after partially separating his shoulder earlier in the season—and made clear just how much the Nittany Lions relied on their star running back. He would finish the season with 1,522 yards on 286 carries, a 5.3-yard average—better than halfway to a first down every time he touched the ball.
As the victories piled up, Cappelletti’s numbers were too much for Heisman voters to ignore. His acceptance speech at the award ceremony in New York that December remains distinctive in Heisman history, a tearful tribute to his parents, coaches, and teammates, and, most memorably, to the courage of his brother Joey, who was 13 years old when he died in 1976.
Fifty years on, John Cappelletti remains Penn State’s only Heisman winner, and the only Nittany Lion to have his jersey number retired. And yet, as he told authors Lou Prato ’59 Com and Scott Brown ’94 Com for their book What It Means To Be A Nittany Lion, “I’m really not that much different from my teammates or anyone else who played football at Penn State.”
For more on Cappelletti's Heisman season, read "You're Something Else, John Cappelletti" from our January1974 issue.