(Photo courtesy of New England Patriots)
by Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
If nothing else, the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s voters are consistent. This year they rejected the candidacy of the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, Morten Andersen. For the past 40 years they’ve done the same to the AFL’s all-time leading scorer, Gino Cappelletti.
What other sport regularly locks out of its Hall of Fame the game’s two highest scorers? Maybe golf, but that’s because the less you score the better. Football is the opposite, in case someone forgot.
The knock on Andersen is that he was a mere placekicker, which is perceived by some Hall voters as a part-time job. But that knock doesn’t apply to Cappelletti.
Cappelletti was a record-setting AFL wide receiver, as well as the league’s leading scorer five times and its Most Valuable Player once, in 1964, when he scored an AFL-record 155 points. Of that total, 54 came on nine touchdown receptions, which meant Cappelletti scored on nearly 25 percent of the passes he caught. Playing in a 14-game season, he hauled in 37 passes for nine touchdowns, averaging 18.7 yards per catch.
And he might have done more had he been asked.
He began his AFL career in 1960 as a defensive back, and intercepted three Tom Flores passes in a game. That season he became the only player in history to run for a two-point conversion, throw for a two-point conversion, catch a pass, intercept a pass and return both a punt and a kickoff. Despite all that, Patriots’ head coach Lou Saban had another idea about how to use him in 1961.
“I had this habit of staying behind the offensive huddle during practice when I was not in on defense,” Cappelletti recalled. “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, and the next season the coaches told me 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.”
What he did over the next nine years was catch 292 passes for 4,589 yards and 42 touchdowns. He also led the league in scoring in 1961 and 1963-66. He is one of only three players to play in every AFL game during its 10-year existence, joining Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Jim Otto and George Blanda on that very short list. In addition to being the AFL’s all-time leading scorer and a five-time All-AFL selection, Cappelletti also ranks in the league’s all-time top 10 in both receptions and receiving yardage.
Despite his success, no one would have predicted Cappelletti would play 11 years of pro football after he went undrafted in 1955 following his senior season as the quarterback of the University of Minnesota. Unwanted by the NFL, he headed north to play semi-pro football for the Sarnia Golden Bears of the Ontario Rugby Football League (ORFL). In 1956 he played for the Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers — honest, he did — in the ORFL before being drafted into the Army.
After playing football at Fort Ord during his two-year military stint, Cappelletti went back to Canada to play with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, then the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, before being released and sitting out football for a year.
But in 1960, with the football fires still burning, the 26-year-old Cappelletti caught on with the newly-formed Boston Patriots of the AFL. Although Saban played him at defensive back, Cappelletti would score the first points in AFL history, a 35-year field goal in a 13-10 loss to the Denver Broncos on September 9, 1960 at Boston University’s Nickerson Field.
Thus began a cascade of points during a career that ended when he retired following the 1970 season, his first in the newly-merged NFL.
Cappelletti was not done with pro football, however. He would go on to serve the Patriots as an assistant coach before moving into the radio broadcasting booth, where he would serve as an analyst for 585 games, including seven of the Patriots’ eight Super Bowl appearances.
When The Talk of Fame Network ran a poll to select the most deserving AFL player not in the Hall of Fame, Cappelletti won with 50 percent of the vote. Maybe one day, the voters in Canton will take the same notice and enshrine a guy who did more of what the game is about than anyone else in AFL history: Score points.