Gino Cappelletti was one of, if not THE greatest football player and goodwill ambassador not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Not only was the versatile kicker/wide receiver the all-time leading scorer in the American Football League, but was one of only three players, along with George Blanda and Jim Otto, to have played in every AFL regular season game.
Cappelletti was a Patriot for nearly seven decades, taking time away from the game briefly to work in business prior to returning as an assistant coach and later as the team’s radio color commentator. He was as beloved a figure to Patriots fans as Tommy Heinsohn was to the Celtics and Johnny Pesky to Red Sox Nation. Known to all as “The Duke”, he savored the glories of the Brady era while more than earning his regal nickname serving as the living symbol of, and elder statesman for, his many AFL teammates.
When news of the formation of the American Football League reached the former University of Minnesota quarterback in the spring of 1960, Cappelletti was tending bar and playing touch football in Minneapolis. It had been a half dozen years since he’d starred at the university, and his football career had taken him to a wide array of teams. Included in this journey were several stints in the Canadian Football League, time with an army team in Fort Still, Oklahoma and an unsuccessful tryout with the Detroit Lions.
At age 27, with his athletic options dwindling, Cappelletti was at first overlooked by Patriots coach Lou Saban, who’d traveled to the Twin Cities to scout and sign several of Cappelletti’s former Minnesota teammtes and current touch football buddies. In an interview with sportswriter George Sullivan, Cappelletti noted, “There were two voices in my head. One said to forget it, it wasn’t meant to be , and the other argued to give it one more try.”
Cappelletti made several calls and tracked Saban to his home in Illinois. While pleading his case to the former Northwestern coach, he even offered to pay his own expenses to Massachusetts if it meant getting a tryout. Upon his arrival at training camp, the former quarterback announced his intention to kicks and play defensive back. In five exhibition games, his defensive prowess earned him a roster spot, and his kicking improved with each game.
On September 9, 1960, Cappelletti made football history when he kicked the first points in AFL history with a first-quarter, 34-yard field goal during a game against the Denver Broncos at BU’s Nickerson Field. In the Patriots’ 13-10 loss, he also lost his job as defensive back-but soon bounced back to serve as the team’s most versatile player.
At practice one afternoon, Cappelletti stepped in for an injured wide receiver. Assistant coach Mike Holovak, a man known for his sharp eye for talent, liked his moves and soft hands. Cappelletti kept practicing and even started at wide receiver for the last game of the team’s inaugural season, catching one pass.
The 1961 season proved to be the ultimate test of Cappelletti’s strength and adaptability as he fought back from a severe case of hepatitis. The growing pile of medical bills and the fact that Saban had informed him that he’d lost his kicking duties to former Syracuse star Bob Yates served as powerful incentives for a make-or-break training camp.
In the Patriots final exhibition game in Buffalo, Cappelletti caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Babe Parilli and watched as Yates point-after attempt was blocked. Later in the game, Saban put Cappelletti back in as kicker and was rewarded with three field goals from 32, 35, and 38 yards, with the last coming with only thirty seconds remaining in a tied game.
His career restored, Cappelletti enjoyed a breakout season that year, catching 8 touchdowns, while kicking 17 field goals and 48 extra points to lead the AFL in scoring. It was the first of six straight seasons in which he scored 100 or more points. That record was even approachable until the Patriots’ own Adam Vinatieri reached the century mark in ten straight seasons.
Amazingly enough, Cappelletti’s 155 points scored in fourteen games in 1964 remain the third highest season total in team history after Stephen Gostkowski’s sixteen game totals of 158 in 2013 and 156 in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Cappelletti enjoyed his greatest season in 1964, leading the Patriots to a 10-3-1 record and capturing league MVP honors.
In 1992, the Patriots retired his number 20 when he was named to the team’s Hall of Fame.
In the nearly forty years I knew him the Duke never turned down a request from The Sports Museum to participate in our golf tournament or assist with one of our many other fundraisers.
My enduring memory of him will be that of the AFL warrior, dressed to the nines while gathered at the 19th hole following a round of charity golf, swapping stories with teammates Larry Eisenhauer, Tom Yewcic, and Larry Garron.
Mister Patriot, now and forever.