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Handoff from the Heart

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Posted: Monday October 16, 2000 2:29 PM
Updated: Sunday October 22, 2000 8:09 PM

To see his big brother win on Saturdays, Joey Cappelletti had to win on Fridays.

Monday through Thursday, Joey stoically endured spinal taps and chemotherapy, headaches and nausea, doctors and medications. He could barely leave bed. But he brightened and bounced around like any other kid when Friday came. He knew that if he let the leukemia beat him that day, his parents would think he was too sick for a football weekend in State College, Pa. And for Joey, there was nothing like a football weekend in State College, where his brother, John, was Penn State's star tailback and Joey was one of the guys. "Going up there was like we were going to heaven," says the boys' father, John Cappelletti Sr.

After watching his brother run through opponents, Joey would slip into the locker room to see him, say hello to Penn State coach Joe Paterno and go from locker to locker, ribbing his buddies on the team.

The weekends so exhausted Joey that he sometimes needed hospital visits to recover. His dedication wasn't lost on John, though. "He would always rally himself," he says. "No matter how sick he was, he'd have to get ready for the game. That started to be my mentality. He was doing it, so I was doing it the same way."

Joey's motivation would carry John a long way-to the 1973 Heisman Trophy, and what may be the most emotional moment in the history of football's most storied award.

Cappelletti's Heisman hopes got a big lift the last weekend in October when the Nittany Lions faced West Virginia a few days before Joey's 11th birthday. In the pregame locker room, John asked what his brother wanted as a present. "Three touchdowns," Joey replied. "No, four."

John reluctantly agreed, stomping the Mountaineers for three first-half scores before Paterno decided to give his powerful workhorse the rest of the day off. But when a Lions player told the coach about Joey's birthday wish, Paterno ordered number 22 back in. Cappelletti rushed onto the field, scored that fourth touchdown and smiled as he trotted to the bench. "Thanks for my present!" Joey yelled from the stands.

That was nothing compared to John's next gift. After finishing the season with 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns for the undefeated Lions, Cappelletti became Penn State's only Heisman winner, beating Ohio State offensive tackle John Hicks.

Toward the end of his acceptance speech at the black-tie Heisman dinner, Cappelletti spoke from the heart, not from the script he had written with brother Martin earlier that day. "My brother Joseph is ill. He has leukemia," John said, tears streaking his face. "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. I want him to have this trophy. It's more his than mine, because he's been such an inspiration to me."

Amidst sobs from a crowd including Vice President Gerald Ford, Joey turned to his mom, Anne, and said, "Did he really just give me the Heisman Trophy?" Joey put the trophy on the mantel at home, next to one he earned in Little League baseball.

After Cappelletti helped Penn State complete a 12-0 season with an Orange Bowl win over LSU, he moved on to the Los Angeles Rams. A little more than two years later, at the age of 13 and eight years after he was diagnosed with leukemia, Joey died with John at his bedside.

The brothers' close bond was recounted in a 1977 TV movie and young-adult book titled Something for Joey. John still answers letters from students touched by the story. "People write, 'I never appreciated my family as much as I do now,'" John says. "Having some small contribution to someone's life is a lot more meaningful than scoring some touchdowns."

Cappelletti, 48, now a businessman and father of four in Southern California, has worked with Ronald McDonald House and other leukemia-related organizations. He believes Joey has inspired others to do the same. John and his parents are grateful that Joey's death, and the poignancy of John's speech, have influenced so many people.

"Joey was an extra-special person," says Anne, who still visits schools with her husband to discuss the book. "He had a lot of love for everybody. When I think back, it seems like it all had to be. Somehow Joey had to leave his mark."

Maybe the family's story should have been called Something from Joey.

-- Brad Young

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