Gino Cappelletti, Versatile Boston Patriots Star, Dies at 89

Gino Cappelletti was a quarterback, a defensive back and a kicker at the University of Minnesota. But his versatility held little appeal for N.F.L. teams, and he was ignored in the league’s 1955 draft.

He played semipro football in Canada, was dropped by a Canadian pro team and was signed and then dropped by the Detroit Lions of the N.F.L. He was tending bar at his brother’s lounge in Minneapolis when he gave the pro game one final shot.

In the summer of 1960, Cappelletti pleaded for a tryout with the Boston Patriots, one of the eight teams in the newly created American Football League. Coach Lou Saban added him to the dozens of players being given a look.

“Saban would put up a list of cuts in the dorm,” Cappelletti told Sports Illustrated long afterward. “He didn’t have time to tell everybody personally, and after every practice we’d run like hell for the dorm to see if we got cut. A lot of guys who were cut stuck around a few days, eating three square meals and sleeping there.”

Cappelletti stuck around and then some.

Playing wide receiver and kicking field goals and extra points, he amassed an A.F.L.-record 1,100 points and appeared in all of the Patriots’ games during the league’s 10-year run.

When Cappelletti died on Thursday at 89, he was remembered as one of the most popular figures in the history of a franchise that, as the New England Patriots, would later become an N.F.L. powerhouse.

The Patriots announced his death but did not say where he died or specify a cause.

Known as Mr. Patriot, Cappelletti was a face of the team through six decades as a player, assistant coach and longtime radio color commentator.

“We were pioneers, and there was a lot of adversity, and we were trying to build a team and a league,” Cappelletti told The St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2015.

The old Boston Patriots faced plenty of hurdles and made it to only one A.F.L. championship game, losing to the San Diego Chargers, 51-10, in January 1964.

But they had some outstanding players. In addition to Cappelletti, who was selected to the A.F.L.’s All-Star Game five times, they had quarterback Babe Parilli and running back Jim Nance to spur their offense.

Cappelletti brought his career points total to 1,130 after tacking on 30 in 1970, his final season and the first year of the A.F.L.-N.F.L. merger. His Patriots record was not broken until December 2005, by the place-kicker Adam Vinatieri.

Gino Raymond Michael Cappelletti was born on March 26, 1933, in Keewatin, Minn., and grew up there. His father was an iron worker.

As a senior at the University of Minnesota in 1954, Cappelletti was the starting quarterback in a split T formation, but he had little in the way of passing highlights; the team usually ran the ball.

Given a chance by the Patriots six years later, Cappelletti accounted for the first points in A.F.L. history when he kicked a 35-yard field goal in the first quarter of Boston’s 13-10 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sept. 9, 1960, a Friday night game that preceded three other games on the season’s first weekend.

Cappelletti played defensive back as a Patriots rookie in addition to place-kicking, but Mike Holovak, who became the team’s coach in 1961, switched him to receiver. Cappelletti was only 6 feet tall and 190 pounds and not especially fast, but he learned to run precise routes.

He won the league scoring championship five times and kicked six field goals in a 1964 game against the Broncos.

Cappelletti was one of only three players who were in every one of their team’s games over the life of the A.F.L. — 14 regular-season games in each of 10 seasons. The others were George Blanda, the quarterback and kicker for the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders, and Jim Otto, the Raiders’ center.

Cappelletti retired after 10 seasons in the A.F.L. and one in the N.F.L. with 292 receptions for 4,589 yards and 42 touchdowns, along with 176 field goals, 342 extra points and four two-point conversions.

Cappelletti in 2009. He was a face of the Patriots through six decades as a player, assistant coach and longtime radio color commentator.Credit…Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

Survivors include his wife, Sandy; three daughters, Gina, Cara and Christina; and 10 grandchildren.

In their first three seasons, the Patriots played their home games at Boston University, at Nickerson Field. They switched to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, in 1963.

“We felt like we were legitimate because it was a major league venue,” Cappelletti told The New York Times in 2012, reflecting on the A.F.L.’s presumed inferiority complex as a long-shot challenger to the N.F.L.

“But,” he acknowledged, “we still had a ways to go.”

To avoid having one team blocking spectators’ view in the low-rising seats along Fenway’s first-base line, both teams’ benches were placed on the same sideline, in front of a temporary grandstand adjoining the left-field wall known as the Green Monster.

“That led to some crazy things,” Cappelletti recalled. “We could wander over near their bench and eavesdrop on their play-calling.”

He told of a game in which the Patriots put that plan into action against the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs:

“I remember Hank Stram calling for screen passes and us yelling to our defense about what was coming.”

Jordan Allen contributed reporting.

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