The Duke, a nickname given to him for his classy style and leadership qualities, wore red, white and blue and became and remains part of New England's football fabric. Gino Cappelletti still proudly wears red today, as in the red blazer reserved for Patriots Hall of Famers. In this, the 50th anniversary of his 1964 American Football League MVP season, it is appropriate to tell the story of Cappelletti's on- and off-field impact on New England football.
He was an original – a star player and a personality that helped put football permanently on New England's map. Make no mistake, when the Patriots set out to establish roots in Boston, there was no guarantee those would take hold in a region that had been a temporary home to football teams like the Boston Yanks and Boston Redskins. It was a new team in a new league fighting against the established National Football League. The New York Giants were effectively New England's team as the American Football League's Patriots kicked off in 1960 at Boston University Field. But Cappelletti's popularity grew and as it did, the team's roots strengthened. Cappelletti's accomplishments did more than just help establish the AFL as a legitimate league that could hold its own against the NFL, they also gave local fans a sort of football folk hero. Cappelletti helped build pro football in New England. One can only wonder if the foundation he helped build is partly responsible for the three Super Bowl trophies on display at The Hall at Patriot Place presented by Raytheon. Heck, there may be no Patriots Hall of Fame, Gillette Stadium or other football MVPs were it not for the original Mr. Patriot.
"I think fans were hungry for pro football at the time the American Football League and the Patriots came to town," Cappelletti said. "In 1958, the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts played in the first sudden death overtime in an NFL Championship Game in what has been called the greatest game ever. The drama in that game and its exciting finish made the timing right for football in Boston."
To gain a full appreciation for Cappelletti's career that spanned five decades as a player, coach and broadcaster, it is best to start in 1960 – the year the team was founded into the upstart American Football League.
His on-field prowess and versatility is a tale in and of itself. Cappelletti achieved many honors during his 11-year career (1960-70) with the Patriots. During the course of the decade he amassed 1,130 total points as both a wide receiver and a kicker. He holds the AFL record with 1,100 career points and 170 field goals, led the AFL in scoring on five occasions, was a five-time AFL All-Star and is one of only three players to play in every AFL game, joining Jim Otto and George Blanda. He averaged more than 100 points per season during his career and holds the top two scoring seasons in AFL history with 155 points in 1964 and 147 points in 1961. And, he became the team's first Most Valuable Player, winning the award in 1964.
Cappelletti, who entered the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1992, originally made the Boston Patriots as a defensive back. He was effective at the position, once registering three interceptions in a single game. However, Cappelletti handled kicking responsibilities in college and that carried over to his Patriots career.
"I played quarterback at the University of Minnesota in the single-wing offense," Cappelletti said. "In the single-wing offense, the quarterback was not what it is today. The quarterback often blocked the end on a play, with the ball being directly snapped to one of the backs.. Part of the job in college was also to play both ways, so I was also a defensive back. I did not get drafted out of college, but I wanted to continue to play football, so I played for a semi-pro team in Canada. I eventually got a tryout with Detroit, but as a quarterback. After getting cut by Detroit, I had a college friend by the name of Bob McNamara that was , and he helped me get in touch with the new head coach. I was not going to make the same mistake that happened in Detroit, so I told him that I could play as a defensive back."
The story on how Cappelletti moved from defensive back to wide receiver shows something about his work ethic, athleticism and character. In addition to his ability as a kicker, Cappelletti is ninth on the Patriots receiving list with 292 catches and eighth with 4,589 receiving yards.
"I had this habit of staying behind the offensive huddle during practice when I was not in on defense," said Cappelletti. "I started to pick up the offense. One day in practice one of the receivers was winded and a little slow to get back to the huddle. Without the coaches knowing, I jumped in the offensive huddle and ran the play. Sure enough the quarterback threw the ball to me and I caught the ball. Our offensive coach, Mike Holovak , took notice of my route running and my ability to catch the ball. The next season, the coaches said that if I was going to make the team it would be as a receiver. They even started me at wide receiver in the last game of the 1960 season to see what I could do."
All he did was blossom into a standout offensive player, but he also began growing into an iconic community figure that even opened a social club in Boston called The Point After.
"In 1966, I started to work for WBZ-TV as a sports anchor doing the nightly news," Cappelletti recalled. "Our owner understood that it was good for our team to get the exposure, saw the public relations value and he convinced our coach to allow for me to handle this assignment. The restaurant was started in 1967 in Copley Square and it was the hottest place to go in town. All of the sports figures from all across the other sports were there when they were in town. I do think it helped put the AFL in the spotlight."
Without fan support, the AFL would not have developed nor would it have been able to pressure the NFL into a merger. The popularity of players like Cappelletti laid the groundwork for some of the major changes that the NFL adopted from the AFL following the merger. For example, the AFL started the practice of using scoreboards to show the game clock while the NFL relied on the referee's stop watch. The AFL put players' names on the back of the jerseys, used the two-point play and shared the profits from the television contacts among the teams – a practice that is the basis for the current NFL business model. The AFL also first used field microphones to help the television viewing audience better experience the sounds of the game.
Cappelletti also pointed out that the AFL had a forward thinking mentality and took advantage of television by putting a national game on at 4 p.m. In some ways, that set the stage for national primetime games that we see today.
Cappelletti was an all-star kicker and a very good receiver in the AFL. However, there were a few receivers that had better numbers and received the all-star votes. League officials did not think it was fair to omit him from the game with such fantastic offensive statistics , so they created another position on the all-star ballot for special teams players, a practice that is still used today.
Today, Cappelletti watches the games without a uniform, clipboard or microphone. When he retired from doing the team's radio broadcasts following the 2012 season, he had a great football analogy – "As they say in the huddle after a long, successful day's work, it's time to take a knee and celebrate the win!" Patriots fans have been celebrating The Duke's Patriots Hall of Fame career for decades and surely will for decades to come. Fifty years ago, he became the first Patriots MVP. In many ways, he remains an MVP throughout New England.
Cappelletti in the Community
Cappelletti (second from right) speaks with President Gerald Ford (far left) at the Bicentennial Lantern Service on April 18, 1975.
Patriots Hall of Famer Gino Cappelletti is one of the most beloved figures in New England football history, and deservedly so considering his on and off-field influence. The five-time AFL All-Star and 1964 AFL Most Valuable Player earned his place in the record books as both a kicker and wide receiver and was the Patriots' all-time leading scorer until 2005. After retiring, he moved to the broadcast booth alongside play-by-play announcer Gil Santos, and the pair called Patriots games together for close to 30 seasons.
The 80-year-old Cappelletti has been an integral part of the franchise ever since its inception in 1960, but perhaps more importantly, he has immersed himself in the New England community. He was named an Honorary Chairman of both the Massachusetts National Kidney Foundation and the Massachusetts Muscular Dystrophy Association in the early 1970's and was also a Jimmy Fund Charities host for 10 years. Cappelletti was a staple as a narrator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing reads of "Peter and the Wolf" in 1972 and "Freddie the Football" in 1975.
Cappelletti played a key role in the bicentennial lantern service held at the Old North Church on April 18, 1975 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere's "midnight ride." He read "Paul Revere's account of April 18, 1775 – one if by land, two if by sea," at the service and also assisted President Gerald Ford in the lighting of three lanterns to be hung in the church steeple as a symbol of hope for the future and "a new signal to call us to renewed effort in our third century." Cappelletti's willingness to become a lasting part of the community in which he played set him apart from other athletes of his generation and also helped to entrench the Patriots as New England's football team.