Retired No. 22 stressful for Heisman winner

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
12:30
PM ET
John Cappelletti could barely eat for more than a week. He slept for a few hours at a time, tossing and turning about how Saturday's unprecedented honor might be received by Penn State fans.

Penn State announced on Saturday during halftime of the Nittany Lions’ home opener that Cappelletti’s No. 22 jersey would be retired, a first for the school’s football program. The halftime ceremony also would help honor the 40th anniversary of his Heisman and the undefeated 1973 team.

[+] EnlargeJonn Cappelletti
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesJohn Cappelletti waves to the crowd during halftime ceremony at Penn State.
For any other player on any other team, it would be an overdue award received with a mixture of excitement and honor, marinated for days with anticipation. But at Penn State, where last names didn't grace the jerseys until 2012, it was a bit different.

Joe Paterno, the old ball coach with the Coke-bottled frames, preached team-first this and team-first that. If it were up to Paterno, he might've gotten rid of the Heisman Trophy altogether. So he certainly wouldn't have retired a jersey number, even for a running back as skillful as Cappelletti.

No number was retired during JoePa's reign. That's how he wanted it, and that's just how it was.

"My initial reaction was one of just kind of, 'OK, wow, that's quite an honor,' " Cappelletti told ESPN.com. "And my subsequent reaction is that this was something that's never been done before. How are people going to react?

"And then you get into the dynamic of what the school's been through and you think, is this a good time to do this? And should I be the first one with all the great players who played there? And I got into a bit of conversation with [athletic director David Joyner] about, 'Are you guys sure you want to do this?' "

They were. Only eight days before the ceremony, Joyner had told Cappelletti, while he channel-surfed from his orange-and-green couch in California, about the tribute.

And Cappelletti couldn't say no to the honor, of embracing his proud 87-year-old mother on the field and once again making Penn State history. He reassured himself that this could be a good thing for the school, even if Paterno might have opposed it, and that it could be another positive part of Penn State history -- "and maybe we need more of that."

But he was still nervous. Very nervous. He kept a pen and pad next to his bed so, when he laid awake at night, with the fear of fan reaction coursing through his veins like a liter of coffee, he could jot down sudden thoughts. Of why he wanted to do this. Of what he wanted to say. Of why it was important to carry on with the future.

"My brain was kind of nonstop for a week," he said with a laugh. "I don't think it slowed down until after the reunion Saturday night when everybody could relax and have a good time.

"I could not get my mind off what this could mean, what this meant and again starting to think about what I would say. It gets into stuff like, 'Why me? Why me?' And I know why me, and why me is because I was the first one to win the Heisman Trophy, a movie came out with my brother, I had a relatively successful NFL career, and I lived my life in a pretty good way."

Behind the scenes Saturday afternoon, Cappelletti continued to worry. Cappy, as some call him, walked past the goal line while the crowd cheered -- but they didn't yet know what was coming.

When the jersey was unveiled, the applause and the chants picked up. Cappelletti smiled, while he said with a laugh Tuesday evening that some fans surely had to make sure they heard right. The PA announcer told the crowd, for the first time ever, PSU was retiring a number. Cappelletti's number -- No. 22. Half-interested fans suddenly perked up; the applause cascaded. Many stood up, hollered or clapped.

"Did he just say they're retir--," one reporter asked in the press box.

"Yup."

Equipment manager Brad "Spider" Caldwell relayed a message to redshirt freshman tailback Akeel Lynch, who currently sports No. 22. It wasn't a number Lynch originally wanted, but Caldwell insisted because of the history behind it, in large part because of Cappy. After Lynch looked up the greats who preceded him, he kept the number -- even after the one he wanted, No. 5, became available. ("Once I found out the history I'm like, 'No, I'm keeping it,' " Lynch said.)

"Kid," Caldwell told him. "You might have to change your number."

Cappelletti, beaming from the crowd reception and a flood of relief, pulled Lynch aside after the 45-7 victory. He had talked to Joyner days before, telling him he wanted Lynch to finish out his career with the jersey, but Lynch hadn't known of the decision.

The two shook hands and Cappelleti joked with him to make sure he returned the number when he was finished with it. Lynch told the media he felt grateful, that he'd remember Cappelletti and the greats before him every time he slipped the jersey over his shoulder pads.

Cappelletti said afterward that Saturday afternoon played out like a dream, like a best-case scenario. He discovered a connection with Lynch, and the old school had united with the new school. Cappeletti hoped to help Penn State take a step forward, that this might be a positive element for the Blue & White. And, when strictly discussing the decision to allow Lynch to continue wearing No. 22, Cappelletti might have just explained in a microcosm what torn Penn State fans have felt.

"It just felt like it wasn't right otherwise," Cappelletti said. "I didn't feel like something from the past should ever affect a person in the present negatively. I just want to help Penn State and give the fans something to cheer about."

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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