"Aw, don't believe the junk cluttering up this place," says
Nantucket (Mass.) High School football coach Vito Capizzo as a
visitor studies his memorabilia-filled office. "It's nothin' but
32 years of propaganda."
Propaganda, maybe, but it's impressive: feature stories from The
New York Times and The New Yorker, two state Super Bowl and 10
Mayflower League championship trophies; a plaque from the
Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame, into
which Capizzo was inducted in April of this year. The items
adorning his office are testimonials to a coach who turned one
of the smallest high schools in Massachusetts that fields a
football team (324 students) into one of the winningest schools
in state history. Along the way, says Marianne Stanton, editor
and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's oldest
newspaper, Capizzo's team became "the most popular institution
on the island."
"I guess I've done a few things right," says the 56-year-old
coach. "Otherwise, they would've run my butt off this island a
long time ago."
Nantucket, 30 miles off Cape Cod in the Atlantic Ocean, bustles
with tourists in the summer, but with only 7,000 full-time
residents, it is quiet the rest of the year. Football was the
school's most popular sport until the late 1950s, when
basketball took over. Then the football team began struggling to
find players. Game losses piled up. Attendance dwindled. By the
spring of 1964 Whalers football was gasping, having had three
coaches (and not many more wins) in the previous three seasons.
November 11, 1996
That's when Capizzo showed up. He was a gregarious, newly
married 24-year-old graduate of Alabama with a year's experience
as defensive backs coach at a small high school in Florida. At
Alabama he had walked onto the football team as a linebacker and
absorbed coach Bear Bryant's gridiron gospel. "Bear was a
dictator, like Mussolini, really," says Capizzo, whose family
emigrated from Salemi, in Sicily, to Natick, Mass., when he was
10. "But he was successful, so you did things his way, or you
took the highway."
That attitude inspired Capizzo to take the Whalers job. "I was
going to be the boss," he says. "How could I have said no?" He
had second thoughts, however, when only 17 boys showed up on the
first day of tryouts. To make matters worse, the home field "was
so ugly that cows wouldn't even graze on it, and attendance was
so bad, there were more dogs than people," Capizzo says.
The Whalers tied two games in Capizzo's first season. The next
year they won two. The third year, 1966, was magical. The
Whalers were winning every week and by big margins. New kids
were showing up for practice daily. So many fans went to away
games that extra boats had to be chartered from Nantucket to the
mainland. Going into the last game of the season, against
Pioneer Valley, in Northfield, Mass., the Whalers were
At halftime Pioneer led 6-0 and had knocked the Whalers
quarterback out of the game. Capizzo glumly looked over his
reserves in the locker room. There was only one quarterback
left, Glen Menard, but he was in street clothes and wore a
removable cast on his sprained right ankle.
Menard ripped off the cast, borrowed a uniform from a reserve
and took the field for the second half. He passed for two
touchdowns. He also played cornerback, and in the fourth quarter
he ran back an interception for another TD. The Whalers
dominated Pioneer on offense and defense. Final score: Nantucket
26, Pioneer Valley 6. Final record: 8-0. The dynasty and the
legend had begun.
"At the time we didn't really know the importance of what we'd
done," says Karsten Reinemo, an offensive lineman from the '66
team and the father of two current Whalers players. "We were
just trying to knock opponents out of the way, fearing that
otherwise Vito would knock us out of the way."
It is a warm and sunny October Saturday afternoon in New
England. The Whalers are going through pregame drills at
Southeastern Regional Vocational High School in South Easton,
Mass. This is Nantucket's fifth game and first league contest of
the year. Since losing the season opener the Whalers have won
three straight, and if they remain undefeated (including a win
over another island school, powerful Martha's Vineyard), they'll
make the state Division 5 Super Bowl, which will be played, for
the first time, on Nantucket.
"Is that enough to fire you up?" Capizzo says during a pregame
Apparently not, for the players are groggy. Last night the team
took the boat to the mainland, a 21/2-hour trip. All the other
Whalers sports teams fly to away games, but the athletic
department's $90,000 annual travel budget isn't enough to cover
the football squad, which this year includes more than half the
school's 130 or so boys.
After the boat ride, the Whalers took a bus to the Hyannis Mall,
where they ate dinner and shopped. The varsity crashed at a Days
Inn. The jayvees, as usual, closed their eyes in sleeping bags
on a gym floor at their opponents' school.
Today everybody rose early because 12 seniors had to take the
SATs in the morning, which is why the start of the game has been
pushed back to 2 p.m. "We're used to the travel," Capizzo says,
puffing on his pipe before kickoff. "But the waiting around
could hurt us."
He's right. Southeastern opens gaping holes for senior running
back Jason Mallard, whose 62-yard TD gallop puts the Hawks up
6-0 in the first quarter.
But if Capizzo teaches anything, it's mental toughness and
conditioning. So instead of collapsing, the Whalers get
cracking. After Southeastern's touchdown, Nantucket junior
Carlon Gumbs runs back the kickoff 70 yards to tie the score,
and the Whalers never look back. By the fourth quarter
Nantucket's outsized players--most of whom are about 20 pounds
lighter than their opponents and go both ways--are dominating
the line of scrimmage.
Offensively, Capizzo isn't married to any one scheme. He tailors
his offense to the abilities of the players he gets. Last year
he installed a passing game built upon the rocket arm of
quarterback John Aloisi, now a freshman special teams player at
Holy Cross. This year he has switched to a running game because
of senior running back Bobby King. "We are like patchwork," says
Matt Bridier, a senior tight end. "Things always change, but in
the end Coach finds a way to make it gel."
Today the Whalers are saved by King and by a defense that gets
stronger as the game goes on. Nantucket holds Southeastern to
less than 70 yards of offense in the second half, while King's
gritty nine-yard TD run with 7:40 left ices the game for the
Whalers, who win 12-6. The victory gives Capizzo a 224-68-4
"You play Nantucket and you're not just playing 11 guys on the
field," says Joe Dawe, Southeastern's coach, after the game.
"You're up against mystique and tradition. You're battling a
town, a community, a whole island."
That might be the Whalers' biggest asset, after Capizzo. The
whole island shows up for home games, of which Nantucket has
lost only five in the last 15 years. Even at away games the
Whalers feel at home. Legions of Nantucketers trek by plane and
boat to road battles. Islanders who can't get to away games
listen to them live on radio or watch them on tape delay on the
town's cable channel on Monday nights.
How long Capizzo will continue to coach is a topic of intense
speculation on Nantucket. He has chronic gout and a herniated
disc. He says he's tired of the hassles of being the high
school's athletic director as well as football coach, even
though he has five coaching assistants. He says he wants to
spend more time with his wife, Barbara, an artist who owns a
gallery on the island. And though football is still king at
Nantucket High, soccer became a varsity sport two years ago and
is drawing players away from football.
Whether he retires this year or next, Capizzo knows what he'll
miss most: the kids. His office is the school's most popular
hangout, for boys and girls alike, because Capizzo is as
friendly to students off the field as he is stern with them on
"More than anything, Coach is our friend," says John Hedden, a
junior tight end. "Sure, he can breathe fire. But you always
have that sense that he respects you. And off the field, once
you get to know him, he's really a big teddy bear."