Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of John Cappelletti’s 1973 Heisman Trophy

1973 Heisman winner John Cappelletti

The Heisman Trophy Trust recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of John Cappelletti winning the Heisman in 1972. Below is the article that was included in the 2023 Heisman Trophy Journal.

Honoring the 50th anniversary of Penn State great John Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy is honoring, arguably, the most moving moment in the history of the award.

In a story that transcended sports and grabbed the attention of the nation, Cappelletti, while accepting the 1973 Heisman Trophy, dedicated the achievement to his younger brother Joey, who was in the midst of a years-long battle with Leukemia.

“The youngest member of my family, Joseph, is very ill,” John said. “He has leukemia. If I can dedicate this trophy to him tonight and give him a couple days of happiness, this is worth everything.”

1973 Heisman winner John Cappelletti with his parents and his brother Joey.

That brief excerpt of Cappelletti’s moving speech at the Downtown Athletic Club elicited a standing ovation from everyone at the Heisman Trophy ceremony and cemented his place in college football history.

Joey had been an inspiration to John for years as his younger brother valiantly dealt with a leukemia, first diagnosed when he was 3.

John was born in Upper Darby, Penn., where he first attended St. Laurence School before switching to Monsignor Bonner High in Drexel Hill, playing quarterback.

He was a running back on the Penn State freshman team, just a few years before the NCAA allowed freshmen to compete. He might have competed at tailback as a sophomore, but the Nittany Lions already featured a loaded backfield that included future NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris. 

So he played defensive back in 1971 before the coaches moved him to running back ahead of his junior season. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Cappelletti rewarded the move with 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1972, helping Penn State to a 10-2 season and a No. 10 ranking.

Cappelletti’s 1973 Heisman season began with Penn State facing Stanford for the first time on Sept. 15, a 20-6 win for the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions. It was a bit of an inauspicious season debut for Cappelletti, however, as the senior fumbled twice. He did make up for it with a scoring run and also completed a 17-yard pass.

1973 Heisman winner John Cappelletti

Penn State traveled to Annapolis the following week and shutout the Midshipmen, 39-0, as Cappelletti rushed for 103 yards and a 10-yard  score. 

Cappelletti made his senior home debut against Iowa on Sept. 29 at Beaver Stadium, rushing for 87 yards and another touchdown in a constant downpour. As had been the case for the previous two games, Cappelletti was on the bench for most of the second half in another one-sided win.

It was off to Colorado Springs the next week to take on Air Force and Cappelletti, in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, rushed for a career-high 184 yards with one touchdown to lead the Nittany Lions to a 19-9 win over the previously 2-0 Falcons.

On Oct. 13, it was back to University Park to host Army for the third game in four weeks against one of the service academies as Penn State trounced the Cadets, 54-3. Cappelletti rushed for 151 yards on 17 carries, which included a season-best 60-yard burst.

Penn State travelled to Syracuse the following week for a rivalry tilt in old Archbold Stadium and dispatched of the Orangemen, 49-6. And they did it largely without the services of Cappelletti, who left the game after only three plays to nurse a shoulder injury suffered against Army.

Seemingly good as new a week later, Cappelletti ran the ball 24 times for 130 yards and four touchdowns in a 62-14 home win over West Virginia as Penn State closed October at 7-0 and ranked fifth.

But these four touchdowns were special, especially the final one. In an anecdote chronicled in the book and movie about the brothers’ bond called “Something for Joey,” John asked his younger brother what he wanted for his upcoming 11th birthday.  To which Joey replied: “I want you to score three touchdowns for me. No, four.”

John Cappelletti

Well, Cappelletti scored three in the first half against the Mountaineers. Pulled from the game in the blowout, it appeared Cappelletti wouldn’t get his chance to fulfill his brothers’ birthday request. But Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno put Cappelletti in for one more drive in the fourth quarter and he was able to find the end zone for the fourth time of the day, pointing to his brother in the crowd after the score.

Cappelletti next went on one of the best three-week stretches in Heisman history to start November, rushing for over 200 yards in three straight games — an NCAA record at the time — and stamping his name as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

The surge began in Penn State’s final road test of the season, a 42-22 win at Maryland that saw the star back not only rush for a career-best 202 yards but also set a school record with a bruising 37 carries.

Seven days later, he set more personal bests. This time, Cappelletti rushed for 220 yards on 41 carries and scored twice, including a 27-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that completed Penn State’s 35-29 comeback win over North Carolina State on a snowy day at Beaver Stadium.

After the game Paterno said: “I think Cappy is the best player I’ve ever been associated with.”  On the other sideline, Wolfpack Head Coach Lou Holtz didn’t disagree much, saying after: “If John Cappelletti were to receive the Heisman Trophy, he would not receive an argument from me.”

Cappelletti closed out his three-game streak of 200-yard games with 204 and four touchdowns in a 49-10 route of Ohio on Nov. 17, clinching a berth in the Orange Bowl.

Penn State completed its perfect regular season by beating in-state rival Pittsburgh, 35-13. Cappelletti closed out his Heisman resume with 161 yards on 37 carries for his 13th career 100-yard game. Oh, and by the way, a young freshman running back led the Panthers that day with 77 yards and a score, one future Heisman Trophy winner named Tony Dorsett.

Cappelletti, who finished the regular season with 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns, was announced as the 39th Heisman Trophy winner on Dec. 4, 1973, 533 points ahead of second-place Ohio State offensive tackle John Hicks. Future two-time winner Archie Griffin was fifth.

On Dec. 13 in New York, Cappelletti was on hand for the Heisman Trophy presentation, seated next to Vice President Gerald Ford on the dais.

John Cappelletti after winning the 1973 Heisman Trophy. 

After thanking his family and coaches, Cappelletti — Penn State’s only Heisman winner — began his remarks about Joey. Here is what he said in full about his brother.

“I’m very happy to do something like this — I thought about it since the Heisman was announced 10 days ago, and this is to dedicate a trophy that a lot of people earned, I’ve earned, my parents and the people I’ve mentioned and numerous other people that are here tonight and been with me for a long time.

“The youngest member of my family, Joseph, is very ill. He has leukemia. If I can dedicate this trophy to him tonight and give him a couple days of happiness, this is worth everything. 

“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.”

Joey battled his disease for another two-and-a-half years before succumbing in April of 1976 at the age of 13. John was at his side when he passed.

A year later, the movie “Something for Joey”, chronicling the love between the two Cappelletti brothers, was released.

John Cappelletti, who was drafted 10th by the Los Angeles Rams in 1974, had a successful 10-year NFL career, playing six seasons in L.A. and another four with the San Diego Chargers.

Cappelletti, whose No. 22 was retired by Penn State in 2013, is a member of the College Football, Philadelphia Sports and National Italian American Sports Halls of Fame. 

Years later, Cappelletti reflected on his speech in an interview and said: “The speech gave me an opportunity to express some things I think on all our behalf’s,” Cappelletti said. “Just what we were feeling. I don’t think even I expected it to come out like that. It’s something you can’t really rehearse. It was just a feeling at the time, the feeling of all my family, not just myself.”

Congratulations John, on the 50th anniversary of your Heisman Trophy and a Heisman ceremony moment that still touches us all.