It was a Friday night in October of 1965 and the mood inside Fenway Park had turned ugly. The Patriots, who’d lost their first four games, were being stifled by the Raiders and their quarterback was catching hell from the first-base grandstand. “Say goodnight, you Sweet Kentucky Babe,” the drunken fan in front of me shouted at Vito Parilli, who at 35 was well beyond being swaddled but not beyond being booed.
There were no catcalls, though, for his favorite target. Gino Cappelletti was beyond reproach that season as he was for nearly all of his 11 years in a Boston uniform. He was the team’s de facto Most Valuable Player, its go-to receiver and its perennial placekicker, the man who paid his way to the franchise’s first training camp in 1960 and played every week thereafter.
Cappelletti performed in five home stadia for four head coaches and suited up with six starting quarterbacks. Nobody else ever wore No. 20 for the Patriots and none offered as much versatility. Cappelletti, a tailback and quarterback in college, was an end, flanker and defensive back in the pros.
The kicking, which he performed in the old toe-first style, he considered a collateral duty. “I don’t consider kickers as players,” said the man who booted 176 field goals and made all but 11 of 353 conversion attempts.
But if it kept him drawing a paycheck in football Cappelletti was happy to do it. He’d sat for two years at the University of Minnesota behind Paul Giel, the two-time Big Ten MVP, and he was a kicker for a coach who didn’t believe in field goals. Cappelletti had to badger Wes Fesler to let him try the 43-yarder into the wind that helped the Gophers beat Iowa.
Even though Cappelletti quarterbacked the 1954 varsity to its best record in five seasons he went unpicked in a year when the NFL Draft went for 30 rounds. So he played semipro in Canada and after a couple of years in the Army (which did draft him) was jettisoned by a couple of CFL clubs and went back to semi-pro, which he found unsatisfying.
So Cappelletti took a job bartending at his brother’s place in Minneapolis and played six-man tag-rush in the city league. That’s how the game likely would have ended for him had he not heard that Patriots coach Lou Saban was talking to former Gophers about playing in the new league.
Cappelletti phoned Saban and wangled a tryout along with 125 other hopefuls. “I knew the mortality rate of quarterbacks at tryout camps,” he said. “So I said I was a defensive back and a placekicker.”
His first field goal attempt, against the Broncos in the 1960 regular-season opener, all but rendered him immobile. “What scared me the most was, if I had missed the field goal I might have been cut from the team,” said Cappelletti, who drilled it 35 yards for the AFL’s first points.
Cappelletti grew up in Keewatin, a town on Minnesota’s Iron Range whose entire populace could have fit inside the Harvard Stadium colonnade. His father spent three decades as an underground miner and Cappelletti himself had been elbow-deep in long enough to know that he didn’t want more of it.
So he set about making himself indispensable as a football player, the ultimate utility knife in spikes. Cappelletti still is the only pro to run and throw for a 2-point conversion, catch and intercept a pass and return a punt and a kickoff, all in the same season.
His receiving career was happenstance. When Jim Colclough was slow to return to the huddle during a passing drill Mike Holovak plugged in Cappelletti and liked what he saw.
For the next seven years Cappelletti started at end and flanker. “I didn’t have burning speed,” he said. “All I could do is get open and catch the ball.”
Despite his career receiving stats — 292 catches for 4,589 yards and 42 touchdowns — Cappelletti’s kicking is what people remembered. His soaring extra points that landed in the Fenway bullpen. The six field goals in Denver’s rare air in 1964. And the four field goals in the 1963 playoff at Buffalo that helped put Boston into its only AFL title game.
That was the team’s apex for the next dozen seasons. The eye-averting 51-10 loss to the Chargers was a sneak peek into future disappointments as the Pats devolved into the Patsies. Cappelletti played for only two more winning teams but he never missed a game for the rest of the time the team was in the AFL.
He was the franchise’s steadfast and stylish face, wearing custom-tailored suits to games and emerging looking like Dean Martin. Maintaining his perfect attendance record was less enjoyable in the latter years when the teams were bad and his role was reduced to kicking. “The luster of the game diminished for me when I had to give up receiving,” he said.
When it became clear that Princeton sidewinder Charlie Gogolak would take his job Cappelletti retired before the 1971 season. “I’ve had my day,” he said. “It’s been a good day and now I have to get on with the rest of my life.”
The rest of his life meant coaching the Patriots special teams for three seasons and calling their games on radio for more than three decades, almost all of them alongside Gil Santos, with whom Cappelletti said he was “simpatico.”
The undeniable highlight was watching Adam Vinatieri’s field goal produce the club’s first Super Bowl championship. Cappelletti said that he thought of all of his 1960 teammates who’d worn the same numbers. His own number, though, was missing. No. 20 had been retired for nearly a quarter century. There was no replacing Mr. Patriot.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.