Gino Cappelletti sat in the radio booth at the New Orleans Superdome on Feb. 3, 2002, alongside longtime broadcasting partner Gil Santos and watched Adam Vinatieri kick a 48-yard field goal as time ran out to give the New England Patriots their first Super Bowl championship.
Mr. Cappelletti, an original Boston Patriot in 1960 who kicked 176 field goals during an 11-season career with the team, stood in the booth after the 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams and reflected.
“I looked at the numbers on the players’ jerseys and I was speechless as I recalled the players on our 1960 team who wore those same numbers,” Mr. Cappelletti told the Globe in 2016. “I thought of how they must have been feeling and how elated they would be.
“It all paid off, didn’t it?”
Mr. Cappelletti, whose own number 20 was retired by the Patriots and who is enshrined in the American Football League and the Patriots Halls of Fame, died Thursday. He was 89 and resided in Wellesley.
“My heart aches after learning of Gino Cappelletti’s passing this morning,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “For the first 51 years of this franchise’s history, Gino contributed as an all-star player, assistant coach, and broadcaster. You couldn’t be a Patriots fan during that era and not be a fan of Gino’s.”
His accomplishments on the gridiron were extensive and varied. He led the AFL in points five times, setting two of the top five AFL season scoring records, 147 points in 1961 and 155 in 1964. In addition to his placekicking prowess, he was a standout receiver, often hooking up with quarterback Babe Parilli.
In 1964, the league named Mr. Cappelletti its Most Valuable Player.
By the time he hung up his spikes, he had become one of the most popular and prolific players in the game. For his career, he would convert 342 points after touchdowns, make four 2-point conversions, and receive 42 touchdown passes. He would be the Patriots’ all-time leading scorer for 35 years until 2005, when he was passed by Vinatieri. He now ranks third, with Stephen Gostkowski the team’s leading scorer.
Yet when Mr. Cappelletti walked onto the field at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the Patriots’ first training camp in 1960, there was little in his background that suggested gridiron greatness. With $30 in his pocket, the former iron ore miner had left his job as a bartender in Minneapolis to try out for the Patriots.
“I went broke in that first training camp. I figured the 30 bucks would be enough because I didn’t know how long I’d last,” he said in a 1965 interview with the Globe. “Finally I ran out of cash and [teammate] Bob Dee let me take some money until I got my first check.”
Debuting Sept. 9, 1960, at Boston University Field in the AFL’s first regular-season game before 21,597 fans and the Baron Hugo Orchestra — whose members wore tricorn hats and introduced the Patriots fight song – Mr. Cappelletti scored the first points in the new league: a field goal.
The Denver Broncos prevailed, however, 13-10, and the Patriots and their short-term coach, Lou Saban, struggled through a 5-9 season.
For Mr. Cappelletti, however, that season changed his life. It also led to his being an eyewitness to Boston baseball history. Like several of the new Patriots, he stayed at the Hotel Kenmore in Boston after the team broke camp, near Fenway Park. In late September 1960, he saw Red Sox slugger Ted Williams hit his final home run.
The Patriots’ fortunes improved under new coach Mike Holovak: They posted four straight winning seasons through 1964, defeating the Bills, 26-8, in the divisional championship in 1963 before losing to the Chargers in the AFL championship game, 51-10.
Mr. Cappelletti remained lifelong friends with Parilli, who held for him on field goals and extra points and connected with the 6-foot, 190-pound Mr. Cappelletti on many gutsy in-a-crowd receptions.
Mr. Cappelletti and Parilli were dubbed “The Grand Opera" because of their Italian heritage.
After Dick Burdette’s biography “Kentucky Babe: The Babe Parilli Story” was published in 2011, Parilli sent Mr. Cappelletti a copy in which he inscribed, “To Gino. What a run we had. My Grand Opera Twin. Babe.”
When that run was over in 1970, Mr. Cappelletti held every team kicking record — and remains the AFL’s points leader.
“It’s remarkable how good of an athlete he was," Gostkowski told the Globe in 2014. “I don’t think there’s many kickers that can go out and play a real position today."
Gostkowski continued: “Any time you see a guy who’s been so established and accomplished and is a Patriots Hall of Famer, it’s an honor just to be able to talk to him."
Admired for his on-field achievements, Mr. Cappelletti was beloved by Patriots fans for his work in the booth.
He was Patriots radio color analyst for 32 years, 28 of them with Santos as his partner, including 21 consecutive years before Mr. Cappelletti retired in 2012.
Before joining Santos in 2004 for the call of Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Mr. Cappelletti quipped to the Globe: “It’s one of the highest booths I’ve ever been in. I’ve got to watch Gil. He gets excited and tends to lean over. If he does that here, he’d better be wearing his parachute.”
Mr. Cappelletti would have been in Houston anyway. He annually represented the Patriots at “A Taste of the NFL” at the Super Bowl, a hunger relief party benefiting food banks in the host city.
Gino Cappelletti was born on March 26, 1933, in the small town of Keewatin in northern Minnesota, where he grew up. As a teenager, he worked on the railroad and in iron ore mines.
As quarterback at the University of Minnesota, he was named to the Big Ten Conference second team in his senior year in 1954.
Mr. Cappelletti was not selected in the 1955 National Football League draft. He served in the Army and played in the Canadian Football League before sticking with the Patriots. He returned to Minnesota in the offseason in his early days in the AFL, one summer tending bar at Mac & Caps, a sports bar in Minneapolis co-owned by his brother, Guido.
Early into his Patriots career, Mr. Cappelletti met Sandra Sadowsky. They married in 1963.
Funeral arrangements are pending for Mr. Cappelletti, who in addition to his wife leaves their three daughters Gina, Cara, and Christina, and 10 grandchildren, according to the Associated Press.
“Through five decades, my romance with football and my relationship with the Patriots organization have provided me with a lifetime of wonderful memories,” Mr. Cappelletti said in 2012, when he retired from announcing. “I have had the privilege of sharing the broadcast of six Super Bowls and amazingly, five in the past decade.”
The memory of the first Super Bowl victory “will always be fresh in my mind," he said, serving as a special reminder “of how far this franchise has come, the challenges that were met, and the adversity we faced in those early years.
“But as they say in the huddle after a long successful day’s work, it’s time to take a knee and celebrate the win.”