Looking back at Joe Cappelletti's (left) Heisman Trophy-winning season

Heisman Trophy Winners: Something For Joey

In the spring of 1977, I was on a family March break trip to Florida, with two main goals: read the book Something for Joey, and hear the song Jack and Jill by Ray Parker, Jr. on the radio as often as possible  

(Hey, I was 13, gimme a break). 

If Brian’s Song, the movie about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer, is the biggest tearjerker ever, NFL division, then Something for Joey, also made into a movie, has to be up there for college football. 

Try to watch either film and not choke up. 

Something For Joey

Something for Joey is the story of the 1973 Heisman Trophy-winning season of Penn State running back John Cappelletti, still the only Heisman won by a member of the Nittany Lions. That season took place at the same time Cappelletti’s little brother, Joey, was battling leukemia. 

To bet back then, you had to have a bookie you knew and could call (on a dial phone), or you might be lucky enough to have a bar in your neighbourhood where the bartender would take some action. Or you could go to Vegas. 

Of course, you’d be super knowledgeable, because you would be referring to the 1973 College & Pro Football BETTING MAGAZINE GUIDE, for which you put a cheque or money order for $4.99 in the mail, but the information therein wasn’t exactly updatable. 

There are no week-by-week odds to examine for the 1973 season, for the simple reason that gambling was, for the most part, illegal.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno called John Cappelletti was "the best football player I ever coached," and this was at a time when Paterno wasn’t a national disgrace, but revered. 

Cappelletti Could Play Everywhere

Cappelletti was a quarterback at his high school in suburban Philadelphia, and in the era before freshman eligibility, switched to running back on the freshman team at Penn State, then played as a defensive back during his sophomore season. 

That might sound crazy until you realize PSU’s lead running back that season was Lydell Mitchell, who would be drafted in the second round of the NFL draft, and the backup RB was Franco Harris, also pretty good (drafted #13, multiple Super Bowls, Hall of Fame, etc). 

Cappelletti took over running the rock as a junior in 1972, during which he recorded the third best season in Penn State history, rushing for 1,117 yards. As a senior he rushed for 1,522 yards on 286 carries and scored 17 touchdowns to lead the Nittany Lions to a 12–0 record.  

Cappelletti gained over 100 yards 13 times during those two seasons for an average of 120 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry.

Heisman-Winning Performance

His most memorable performance during that Heisman season came against West Virginia in late October. Joey Cappelletti’s chemotherapy had caused all his straight black hair to fall out, and when it grew back, it was in chestnut brown curls. The girls in his class loved how it looked, which mortified the little boy. 

The morning of the West Virginia game, John Cappelletti asked Joey what he would like for his 11th birthday.  

"I want you to score three touchdowns for me,” Joey replied. “No, four." 

John was of course motivated to give his dying little brother anything he could, but as the book relates, he told a teammate the task seemed impossible. 

“How am I going to score four touchdowns?” he said. 

At halftime, Cappelletti had crossed the goal line three times. However, Joe Paterno, to his credit, was reluctant to needlessly humiliate an opponent, so he told Cappelletti he would be on the bench for the second half.  

Joey Cappelletti had by now become a familiar figure around the Penn State program, but his brother took his seat without telling the coach about the birthday wish.

The Power Of Teammates

Late in the third quarter, one of Cappelletti's teammates told Paterno what was up, and the next Penn State possession, Paterno shouted the running back’s number. Cappelletti ran on the field, scoring his fourth touchdown on the same possession, pointing to Joey as he ran off the field and the crowd went stark raving apeshit. 

Whether you’re watching or reading Something for Joey, this is an excellent point at which to have a big box of Kleenex on hand. 

The performance against West Virginia set the stage for quite a month of football for Cappelletti as he followed up the win over the Mountaineers by rushing for 202, 220 and 204 yards in consecutive wins over Maryland, North Carolina State and Ohio University.  

Interestingly, though Penn State would go undefeated, the Nittany Lions finished the season fifth or seventh, depending on which poll you believed, the CFP still decades in the future.

An Uphill Battle Still...

All of the top 10-finishers in the 1972 Heisman Trophy voting had been seniors, which meant Cappelletti, as a notably performing junior at a high visibility program, was one of the most widely circulated names under Heisman consideration heading into ’73. 

But the N.C. State result, which made Penn State 9-0 on three Cappelletti touchdowns and 41 carries (!), pretty much ended debate over who would win the Heisman.  

As he said about the night of the trophy presentation: 

“I was in New York on that Saturday for the Bob Hope All-American special that they had back in those days. We were just filming the special, and the cool thing about it was a representative from the Heisman came over and announced it right there. Then I’m whisked away in a limo with Bob Hope, from the studio to the Downtown Athletic Club. That’s one of those things you never dream is going to be happening to you. Once we got to the Downtown Athletic Club, everything exploded: You got reporters and photographers, and I don’t even remember what happened with Bob, but I remember the ride.” 

His Heisman acceptance speech, in which he dedicated his award to Joey for “his courage around the clock rather than just on the football field,” is considered the most memorable in the history of the trophy. 

He said, "If I can dedicate this trophy to him tonight and give him a couple days of happiness, that is worth everything." Archbishop Fulton Sheen was to follow with a closing prayer. He simply said, "There is no need for a benediction. God has already blessed you with John Cappelletti."  

Something for Joey was the most-viewed TV show of the week when it aired in April 1977, a year after Joey Cappelletti died.  

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