If there is one thing John Cappelletti would wish for the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl - other than a victory for his alma mater, Penn State, over LSU - it would be for a clear day with lots of sunshine and good footing on the natural-grass field at Orlando's Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
"You always want the best possible playing conditions," said Cappelletti, 57, who became the Nittany Lions' only Heisman Trophy winner after he ran for 1,522 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a senior in 1973. "It makes for a better game and for a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved."
Cappelletti, the local kid who made good - he played at Monsignor Bonner High and was recently inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame - should know. In the final game of his storied Penn State career, and in the only previous matchup between the Lions and LSU, the 6-1, 215-pound tailback was held to a season-low 50 yards on 26 carries while playing on a sore ankle and the rain-slicked PolyTurf surface in the Jan. 1, 1974, Orange Bowl. A pregame downpour was so intense that a crowd of only 60,477 braved the elements, with 13,677 ticketholders electing to stay home or in their hotel rooms to catch the action, what little there was, on television.
"The field was pretty bad," Cappelletti said about the Lions' unsightly, 16-9 victory to put the wraps on a 12-0 season. "Worst field I ever played on."
And if you don't believe Cappelletti, Penn State coach Joe Paterno's take on the slip 'n' slide show was just as uncomplimentary.
"The field conditions were brutal," said JoePa, even then an old-school type not easily deterred by wind, rain, snow or gloom of night. You know it had to be an awful night out for Paterno to complain, and to this day he maintains that artificial turf would be installed in Beaver Stadium only over his dead body.
How bad was it? Penn State finished with a total of 28 rushing yards, which seems really bad until you consider that its total in the second half was minus-30 yards.
But trying to play with a limp on soaked, plastic grass wasn't the only obstacle Cappelletti had to overcome that very damp night. There was a fast, aggressive LSU defense led by linebacker Warren Capone that had determined beforehand that the Tigers' best chance of pulling off the upset was to swarm Penn State's Heisman hero every time he touched the ball, or even came anywhere near it.
"I had 11 people going after him," then-LSU coach Charlie McClendon, who had played for and coached under Bear Bryant at Kentucky, said of his team's defensive strategy. "I told 'em, if he went up in the stands, go join him."
Fortunately for Penn State, the Lions were able to take advantage of one big offensive play - wide receiver Chuck Herd's miraculous, one-handed, 72-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown - and generally favorable field position.
Yet for all the apparent success the Tigers had in limiting Cappelletti to way-below average numbers, he showed enough to make an impression.
"He's better than anybody we've played," Capone said after the final splashdown. "Even tonight, you could tell, the way he hits people and they bounce off him. Several times he'd get hit and still make 3 or 4 or 5 yards."
Apparently voters in the Associated Press poll weren't impressed by Penn State's third undefeated season in 6 years; the Lions finished fifth in the final voting, the national championship going to Notre Dame, which held off fellow unbeaten Alabama, 24-23, in a thrilling Sugar Bowl played in favorable weather.
Paterno took a private poll of his players, who voted themselves No. 1, and JoePa took a swipe at anyone who downplayed the Lions' Orange Bowl victory because of the rain-induced conservatism.
"What was I supposed to do, get reckless and lose the football game so people could say it was a thrilling game? That's crap," Paterno said. "How come defensive football is so great when a Southern team plays it and dull when an Eastern team plays it?"
Cappelletti, whose eight-season NFL career was played in Southern California sunlight - he played 5 years with the Los Angeles Rams, 3 with the San Diego Chargers - remained in the area after his retirement. He and his wife, Betty, raised four sons in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and the passion that Cappy once had for running hard on a football field has been transferred to the restoration of classic cars. He's the man to see if you want a line on, say, a late-1960s Pontiac GTO Judge or, if you're prepared to put out really big bucks, a 1930s Packard or Duesenberg.
"I didn't keep up with Penn State as much as I would have liked when my boys were growing up and playing football," said Cappelletti, a defensive back his first 2 years in Happy Valley because a couple of guys named Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris got all the carries. "But I'm more involved now. I was at the Ohio State game this season, and I'm trying to decide whether I'll go to Florida for the Capital One Bowl or watch it on television. But one way or the other, I'm definitely going to watch it." *