"Aw, don't believe the junk cluttering up this place," says Nantucket (Mass.) High School football coach Vito Capizzo as a visitor studies his memorabilia-filled office. "It's nothin' but 32 years of propaganda."
Propaganda, maybe, but it's impressive: feature stories from The New York Times and The New Yorker, two state Super Bowl and 10 Mayflower League championship trophies; a plaque from the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame, into which Capizzo was inducted in April of this year. The items adorning his office are testimonials to a coach who turned one of the smallest high schools in Massachusetts that fields a football team (324 students) into one of the winningest schools in state history. Along the way, says Marianne Stanton, editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's oldest newspaper, Capizzo's team became "the most popular institution on the island."
"I guess I've done a few things right," says the 56-year-old coach. "Otherwise, they would've run my butt off this island a long time ago."
Nantucket, 30 miles off Cape Cod in the Atlantic Ocean, bustles with tourists in the summer, but with only 7,000 full-time residents, it is quiet the rest of the year. Football was the school's most popular sport until the late 1950s, when basketball took over. Then the football team began struggling to find players. Game losses piled up. Attendance dwindled. By the spring of 1964 Whalers football was gasping, having had three coaches (and not many more wins) in the previous three seasons.
That's when Capizzo showed up. He was a gregarious, newly married 24-year-old graduate of Alabama with a year's experience as defensive backs coach at a small high school in Florida. At Alabama he had walked onto the football team as a linebacker and absorbed coach Bear Bryant's gridiron gospel. "Bear was a dictator, like Mussolini, really," says Capizzo, whose family emigrated from Salemi, in Sicily, to Natick, Mass., when he was 10. "But he was successful, so you did things his way, or you took the highway."
That attitude inspired Capizzo to take the Whalers job. "I was going to be the boss," he says. "How could I have said no?" He had second thoughts, however, when only 17 boys showed up on the first day of tryouts. To make matters worse, the home field "was so ugly that cows wouldn't even graze on it, and attendance was so bad, there were more dogs than people," Capizzo says.
The Whalers tied two games in Capizzo's first season. The next year they won two. The third year, 1966, was magical. The Whalers were winning every week and by big margins. New kids were showing up for practice daily. So many fans went to away games that extra boats had to be chartered from Nantucket to the mainland. Going into the last game of the season, against Pioneer Valley, in Northfield, Mass., the Whalers were undefeated, 7-0.
At halftime Pioneer led 6-0 and had knocked the Whalers quarterback out of the game. Capizzo glumly looked over his reserves in the locker room. There was only one quarterback left, Glen Menard, but he was in street clothes and wore a removable cast on his sprained right ankle.
Menard ripped off the cast, borrowed a uniform from a reserve and took the field for the second half. He passed for two touchdowns. He also played cornerback, and in the fourth quarter he ran back an interception for another TD. The Whalers dominated Pioneer on offense and defense. Final score: Nantucket 26, Pioneer Valley 6. Final record: 8-0. The dynasty and the legend had begun.
"At the time we didn't really know the importance of what we'd done," says Karsten Reinemo, an offensive lineman from the '66 team and the father of two current Whalers players. "We were just trying to knock opponents out of the way, fearing that otherwise Vito would knock us out of the way."