Many football players who played prior to the modern era filled multiple roles on and off the field. Few were as successful as former Patriot and Minnesota great Gino Cappelletti. His lengthy football career led him from the small town of Keewatin, Minnesota, to the University of Minnesota, the Canadian Football League, the Ontario Rugby Football Union, the Boston Patriots, and finally to the broadcast booth.
The man known as “Mr. Patriot” and “Duke” played the rare combination of quarterback, running back, wide receiver, place kicker, kick/punt returner, and defensive back—although not necessarily at the same time—during his career.
His journey started as a high school student who moonlighted as a railroad track layer in addition to starring at running back. He led his high school to three state championships and gained the personal honor of being named all-state his senior year. These accomplishments culminated in a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
In his time as a Golden Gopher, Duke did not have an opportunity to impress until his senior season because he was stuck behind All-American quarterback Paul Geil on the depth chart. He did, however, get to kick extra points and field goals from his sophomore year on. As the starting quarterback his senior season, Duke led the Gophers to a 7-2 record but failed to make an impression on an NFL team and thus was not drafted. At the tender age of 21, he entered the Ontario Rugby Football Union.
Duke bounced around the ORFU from 1955 to 1956 before being drafted into the U.S Army and serving for two years. In 1958, he got an opportunity to play for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers but was traded and subsequently cut by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The 1959 season was essentially Duke’s final chance to make an impression as a professional. He signed with the Sarnia Golden Bears of the ORFU, and as quarterback and place kicker, he led the Golden Bears to the league championship and earned himself a tryout with the Boston Patriots, a team in a new football league called the American Football League.
Versatility earned Duke a spot on the Patriots. He played a variety of positions in his first few seasons. He played defensive back, punt/kick returner, wide receiver, and place kicker, eventually sticking as the star wide receiver and place kicker. He was an AFL All Star for the first time in 1961, an honor he would go on to receive a total of five times during his 11-year career with the Patriots.
The 1964 season was a magical one for Duke. Making 64.1 percent of his field goal attempts (a great percentage for that time period; most kickers made just over 50 percent), catching 94 passes for 875 yards, and scoring seven touchdowns paved the way for Duke to win his only MVP award during that season. This MVP award helped validate the Patriots within the AFL, considering they only contended for a title once while in the league. Accomplishments like this earned him his second nickname, Mr. Patriot. He stayed with the Patriots through the 1970 season before becoming an assistant coach on the Patriots staff. He was also inducted into the Patriot Hall of Fame in 1992 and had his number 20 retired.
Even after all of the on-the-field success, Duke’s legend grew as a broadcaster in the Boston area. For the better part of 30 years he lent his voice to both the Boston College football program and the New England Patriots. Alongside Gil Santos, Duke called 28 seasons worth of Patriots games, which is the longest a radio duo has ever lasted in the NFL. These Broadcasts became legendary because of their undeniable chemistry with Santos on the play-by-play and Duke with the in-depth but easy-to-understand analysis. There are stories of fans who would mute their televisions and turn on the radio so they could hear “Gil and Gino” instead of the ho-hum announcers on the local station. Sadly, he decided to retire prior to the 2012 season, thus ending what was legendary career.
Gino Cappelletti was more than a football player turned broadcaster; Duke nearly singlehandedly asserted the Patriots as a franchise. The Patriots did not have a good team while in the AFL and he gained the respect of the rest of the league and carried the team as much as a field goal kicker/wide receiver possibly can. Although the beginning of the Patriots’ tenure in the NFL didn’t go well, having the foundation that Cappelletti built helped the organization keep fans through these times and the Pats still owe him to this day. He spent 42 total years associated with the Pats, and as a proud Patriots fan myself, I can confidently speak for all of us by saying we salute Gino Cappelletti, the original Patriot.