Orange County Register Article - Dec. 11, 1997
Photos by MARK AVERY
The Orange County Register
Football star John Cappelletti
is bigger than his son Nick,
who wants to make a name
His Own Man
HIGH SCHOOLSJohn and Nick Cappelletti are father and son, but they are quite different as football players.
By BEN BOLCH
The Orange County Register
Dec. 11, 1997
LAGUNA NIGUEL Wearing what looks like a maroon bowling shirt and a two-day growth, Santa Margarita senior linebacker Nick Cappelletti sits in his dimly lit den, talking about his iffy prospects for playing college football at the Division I level.
On the mantelpiece, nestled among various awards and plaques, sits the Heisman Trophy.
The Heisman Trophy.
Only this one is adorned with a Santa cap over its head and a stocking over its outstretched arm in celebration of the upcoming holidays.
John Cappelletti, the trophy's owner and Nick's father, walks in and out of the room from time to time. John is clean-shaven and wears jeans, a dress shirt and a tie.
There is little resemblance between father and son in both appearance (the father is husky, the son is built like a pencil) and inflection of voice
(the son's is deeper and more monotone). And this might be at least partially by design.
For all the perfectly fine reasons he could try to emulate his father, Nick Cappelletti has made a conscious effort to be his own person.
It's not that Nick doesn't admire his father's knack for storytelling, the kind way he treats people, or his storied pro and college football careers. He does. And Nick hopes to incorporate many of those things into his own personality and life.
It's just that this very different-looking Cappelletti has different interests. He likes different schools, roots for different pro teams and plays on a different side of the ball.
As an undersized linebacker for the Eagles, Nick has racked up 149 tackles, 4 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two pass blocks. Quite different figures from his father, who amassed yards by the bushel as a Heisman-winning tailback for Penn State in 1973.
Both have the football pedigree bestowed upon a select few. Only Nick doesn't have the size. He is listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, which is considerably smaller than the linebacker mold most college coaches are looking to fill.
"I know that teams are always looking for size and speed, and right now he doesn't have tremendous size," John Cappelletti said. "But he's got good speed and he works hard and he's always going to be there for his team. So he's got a lot of good qualities that are built in.
"I think if he was 6-2, 210 pounds right now, we'd have people who would think he could play very well at the highest level of the next level."
Nick has applied to San Diego State and has nearly finished an application to the University of San Diego. He's unsure of his football prospects at both schools but said that if coaches decided not to offer him a scholarship, he would at least try to walk on. Either way, he said he wouldn't be disappointed.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Nick has had his share of hardships to overcome in recent years, including a torn thigh muscle that kept him out for nearly half of the 1996 season.
But that was nothing compared to what John had to endure 20 years earlier when his younger brother Joey died after a prolonged battle with leukemia. Joey, a talkative boy who was nicknamed Hoss after a character on the television show "Bonanza," was a source of joy and inspiration in the Cappelletti home throughout his 14-year life.
"For most of his life, what he knew was basically hospitals and needles and drugs and therapy, stuff like that," said John, who is a partner in an Irvine company that provides products to the pharmaceutical industry. "He didn't have much of a normal life. He was able to be home a lot, though. He still had to go through a battery of chemotherapy that would make him sick for periods of time.
"For the position he was put in all his life he was a relatively happy kid, a smiling kid. He never let it really bother him except when he couldn't control it anymore, when it got so bad that he had to be in bed or resting or whatever. When he was feeling good, he was like everybody else."
Despite being 10 years older than Joey, John and his brother were extremely close.
Their bond was revealed to the world when John decided to dedicate his Heisman Trophy to his brother during his 1973 acceptance speech, just a few years before Joey's death.
"My brother Joseph is ill," John told a packed house that included Joey and Vice President Gerald Ford in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton hotel. "He has leukemia. ... They say I've shown courage on the football field, but for me it's only on the field, and only in the fall. Joey lives with pain all the time. His courage is round the clock."
The poignant story became the subject of a book and a television movie, both titled "Something for Joey." The book (Doubleday, 1978) was based on the 1977 teleplay that starred Steve Guttenberg and Marc Singer as John Cappelletti.
John has since named one of his four sons Joseph. Nick, 18, is the oldest, followed by John, 15, Thomas, 13, and Joseph, 8.
After he graduated from Penn State in 1974 with a degree in criminal justice, John embarked on a productive NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers that lasted until 1983. He finished his career with 2,951 yards rushing, 1,233 yards receiving and 28 touchdowns.
Nick went to his dad's games as a youngster but doesn't recall anything about them. That's probably just as well. Nick liked the Bears and Lions. Still, he certainly got a sense of John's career in other ways.
"When he was little it was, `OK, Penn State's on this weekend,' and he got to know who Penn State was," John said. "And the Heisman Trophy show was on. `Oh yeah, that's that thing on the mantelpiece. We've got one of those.' When they're little they absorb it, but they don't really understand what it all means. I think they got it a little at a time."
John decided not to put his children in Pop Warner football at a young age so they could experience "other things." But they didn't get too far into elementary school before other children started taking notice of "that kid whose dad won the Heisman."
"It was kind of cool," Nick said, "but the other side was, do they really like me because of me or because my dad won the Heisman?"
John, 45, whom Penn State coaching legend Joe Paterno once described as "the best player I've ever coached," was only 10 to 15 pounds heavier than Nick when he was a senior in high school. But he certainly was more heavily recruited.
Growing up in Philadelphia, it was only natural for John to consider attending Penn State. When Paterno came for his home visit and saw Joey lying on the sofa, he dismissed the customary recruiting pitch and spent the evening chatting with the sick boy. It was a touching memory that John would recount in his Heisman acceptance speech.
Unfortunately, coaches haven't lined up at the Cappelletti doorstep in recent years. Still, John has a plan for getting the word out about his son. After the season ends this weekend with Santa Margarita's CIF Southern Section Division V championship game against Tustin, John and Eagles coach Jim Hartigan will sit down and assess some realistic opportunities for Nick.
"I think he can play at the next level," Hartigan said. "Whether he's a Division I linebacker, he may be too small. But he's got all the intensity, all the intangibles. He probably needs to improve his speed a little. He understands the game, it's just whether he can continue to grow."
When asked what his dream school would be, Nick shrugged, while his dad raised his arms as if to signal a touchdown and jokingly offered, "Penn State!"
Nick then came up with his own answer: Michigan. It's just another way he has expressed his individuality.
"My experience with Nick is that he doesn't talk about his dad much," Hartigan said. "You could say he's lived up to the Cappelletti name, but I think that he's done that by being himself.'