Cappelletti heads list of hundreds of letterman honoring Paterno

Pallbearers, including Joe Paterno's son, Scott (bottom right), place casket into the hearse before the funeral procession around the Penn State campus.
Pallbearers, including Joe Paterno's son, Scott (bottom right), place casket into the hearse before the funeral procession around the Penn State campus. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 26, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - Maybe it really is true that what goes around comes around.

Penn State's only Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti, made nearly everyone in attendance at New York's Downtown Athletic Club in December 1973 choke up, including himself and his coach, when he tearfully dedicated college football's top individual award to his young brother, Joey, who was seriously ill with childhood leukemia, a disease that took his life on April 8, 1976. The running back's acceptance speech, one of the most emotional moments in sports history, later became the basis of a best-selling book, "Something for Joey," and made-for-television movie of the same name.

Seated at the dais behind Cappelletti, tuxedo-clad Penn State coach Joe Paterno was observed removing his glasses and dabbing at his glistening eyes with a handkerchief. Player and coach embraced afterward in a genuine display of shared affection, and shared pain.

A little more than 38 years later, Cappelletti, now 59, returned to his alma mater from his home in Laguna Niguel, Calif., with his entire family - wife Betty and sons Nicholas, John Jr., Thomas and Joseph - for another occasion marked by tears and hugs. But this one was something for Joe.

Paterno, who always considered his players to be an extension of his own family, was being given the sort of farewell by hundreds of his "boys" that illustrated that he was not merely a teacher of a game, but a teacher of life.

For Cappelletti, a Monsignor Bonner graduate who acknowledged being distressed that his old high school is facing closure, the death of his beloved mentor was a reminder of both good times in Happy Valley and the sad realization that no one, not even the seemingly ageless Joe Paterno, goes on forever.

"Joe was so instrumental in my life," said Cappelletti, who rushed for 1,522 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in his Heisman-winning season. "I can't believe he's gone."

So appreciative is Cappelletti of what Paterno and Penn State did for him, he donated his Heisman Trophy to the school's All-Sports Museum, where it is on display.

Besides Cappelletti, the former Penn State greats on hand to pay somber and respectful tribute to Paterno, who died Sunday from complications of lung cancer, included Jack Ham, Franco Harris, LaVar Arrington, Lydell Mitchell, Lenny Moore, Ki-Jana Carter, Courtney Brown, Matt Millen, Todd Blackledge, Blair Thomas and Brandon Short. Some estimated the number of former Penn State lettermen to be between 500 and 800, a not insignificant percentage of a crowd of nearly 10,000 who filed past Paterno's closed wooden casket in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

Officials estimated that 36,000 people paid their respects at the spiritual center and funeral home in 2 days.

Arrington, the onetime All-America linebacker who is now a sports-talk radio host in the Washington area, was particularly vociferous in his criticism of Penn State's Board of Trustees after it fired Paterno on Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. He also expressed displeasure that the six-member Penn State search committee, headed by acting athletic director Dave Joyner, looked outside the "family" in naming a new head coach, bypassing longtime Paterno assistant Tom Bradley in favor of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who had no previous ties to the school.

But while the Penn State Lettermen Club has toned down any criticism of the O'Brien hire, Paterno's firing remains a touchy subject for many former players.

Harris, the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, was terminated from his spokesman's position with a racetrack/casino after his comments in support of Paterno following Sandusky's Nov. 5 arrest.

"Joe told us he didn't want to be bitter," Harris, 61, said of Paterno's final days. "Saying that after what he had to endure, he's a better man than I am."

But if Paterno chose to keep things positive as he faced the end, his family appears to still harbor at least a bit of a grudge. Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Gov. Corbett, a Penn State trustee, said Tuesday that Corbett would not attend today's memorial service in the Bryce Jordan Center "at the request of the family."

That situation changed yesterday when Paterno's family issued a statement saying that Corbett and individual board members could attend the memorial, though not as a group.

"This is a time to celebrate the life of Joe Paterno," the statement read. "Gov. Corbett has been supportive and helpful with all the arrangements. We are grateful for the respect he has shown our family and if he feels appropriate [we] would welcome his attendance at the memorial celebration."

And celebrating Paterno's life is what motivated nearly everyone in the queue to get into the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, some of whom drove for hours to be there and then stood for hours in the near-freezing temperatures to enter the building.

"We were blessed to have him," said Shannon Evans, a Penn State graduate who drove from Wayne with her husband, fellow PSU alum Phil Evans, and their children Philip, 16, Patrick, 14, and Emma, 13. "After we graduated, we came back so my husband could earn another degree. Two of our children were born here in State College.

"Our children are fortunate to have had someone like him to look up to, and to aspire to be the sort of leader he was. That's why we made the trip from Philly. We just felt it was important to do so."

After the 4-hour public viewing - which followed a 10-hour public viewing on Tuesday - Paterno's casket was placed in a blue (what else?) hearse and transported to 157-year old Pine Hill Cemetery for a private burial.

Jay Paterno, one of Joe's five children and, for 17 years, a member of his father's coaching staff, said he was touched that so many players thought enough of his dad to be here, some of whom traveled long distances and at considerable expense.

"Listening to all the stories and the anecdotes, that's Joe's legacy," Jay said. "They loved him like we did."