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My glory days: Mario Cappelluti, Oakcrest High School, 1986

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Mario Cappelluti’s career as a running back lasted all of about three seconds. With time winding down in Oakcrest’s annual Thanksgiving Day game against rival Absegami in 1985 — and the visiting Falcons trailing 21-20 — Cappelluti was one of the up men on the kickoff return team. The short kick in a driving rain floated to him, and he knew what he was supposed to do. He was supposed to lateral the ball back to one of the faster players on the return team. Nah. Heck, this was his final game in an Oakcrest uniform. He had visions of taking it the distance, etching his name in Falcons lore as a Thanksgiving Day hero. Those heroic fantasies lasted a split second, as Cappelluti was drilled by a Braves player and fumbled the ball. Luckily, Oakcrest recovered the fumble, and eventually drove down the field for the winning score. “I caught it, started running, took about three steps and the dude hit me and the ball went about 30 feet in the air. Fortunately we recovered the fumble,” said Cappelluti, who now is a 47-year-old owner of Mario’s Uptown Grill as well as Uptown Guitars, both in Egg Harbor City. While his moment as a ball carrier was forgettable, the rest of his high school career was anything but. Cappelluti started for three years as both an offensive guard and inside linebacker, helped lead Oakcrest to an undefeated regular season as a senior, and capped his career by earning first-team all-state honors. “I was very surprised (to be named all-state). That’s a big thing. All-Cape is one thing and all-South Jersey, but, yeah, it was a cool thing. I got a plaque and got invited to a big dinner up in North Jersey,” Cappelluti said. Mario Cappelluti shows off his all-state plaque from his days as a lineman for the Oakcrest football team. These days, he runs Mario's Uptown Grill as well as Uptown Guitars, both on Philadelphia Avenue in Egg Harbor City. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan) Mario Cappelluti shows off his all-state plaque from his days as a lineman for the Oakcrest football team. These days, he runs Mario’s Uptown Grill as well as Uptown Guitars, both on Philadelphia Avenue in Egg Harbor City. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) Cappelluti said he was surprised at just how successful his high school football career turned out to be. Illness forced him to miss seasons in eighth grade and his freshman year, but it didn’t take him long to prove himself on the varsity level as a sophomore. “I was hoping it would go well. I played all through the youth leagues with the Crusaders. I had gotten sick in eighth grade, came down with mono. I couldn’t play any sports in eighth grade or freshman year, so I kind of fell behind a little bit,” Cappelluti, a 1986 Oakcrest graduate, said. “(When I was a sophomore) they had a lot of returning starters who were seniors. I think two or three games into the season I ended up starting. I was scared to death. But, the more you play, the more confident you get. I was just thinking ‘don’t mess up.’ We had a solid team with a lot of good guys, and the upperclassmen helped me out. They were all guys who I had grown up with and played with all through the youth leagues. “‘Don’t let us down, Cap.’ That’s what I remember them saying.” Despite the success he and the Falcons enjoyed, it is a loss that still sticks in his craw nearly 30 years later. As a senior, Cappelluti and the Falcons put together an undefeated regular-season campaign and entered the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs as the No. 1 seed. They were matched up against eighth-seeded Hammonton, a team they had beaten during the season. But the Blue Devils scored the upset, leaving Cappelluti just one more game to play — the Thanksgiving game against Absegami when he envisioned himself pulling off the most legendary play in school history. “Probably that playoff loss (is what I remember most). It was so big because we hadn’t made the playoffs in a long time — it might have been the first time in school history — and we kind of choked,” Cappelluti said. “That kind of overshadowed all the personal stuff.” Still, beating rival Absegami in the rain on Thanksgiving was a nice consolation prize, and a good way to end his high school career, he said. “It was pouring rain and we were playing at Absegami. You kind of had to tip-toe the whole game, it was just a big mud bowl. We jumped on them quick. Being bummed out about the playoff loss or being overconfident, I don’t know what it was, but with about three minutes left in the game we were down 21-20. We wound up driving down the field and scoring. But it was always tight when Oakcrest and Absegami played,” Cappelluti said. “I miss it a lot. And that’s what is nice about having (Cedar Creek High) in town now. I help out there as much as I can. I don’t get to go to many of the games, but they are very supportive of me and I do what I can for them. We see the kids come in quite a bit and I do a lot with the booster club, and the coaching staff is very supportive of me.” One of Cappelluti’s fondest memories is his old coach getting the team pumped up prior to Cappelluti’s senior season with the help of a Bruce Springsteen tune. “Before our senior year, our coach broke out the boom box and Bruce Springsteen was on there talking about the glory days, you know. Coach was saying ‘thirty years from now you guys will be telling stories about your glory days,’ and he went on to play the song,” Cappelluti said. “When I saw Glory Days Magazine come out, I thought it was the greatest thing.” Cappelluti said he and some of his old teammates still relive their glory days from time to time. Every few years, Cappelluti invites a group of them to his pizzeria on a Sunday afternoon to watch some of the old film, joke around, and just enjoy looking back on a special time in their lives. “A lot of guys come in and eat here, some of them, their kids go to Cedar Creek now. We got together a couple times with our old coaches and the old eight millimeter films. I’d put out a spread on a Sunday afternoon after we closed. I guess we had about 25 guys here the last time we did it. We try to do it every couple of years,” Cappelluti said. “The game is a lot different now. We didn’t pass a whole lot. It was kind of jam-it-down-your-throat, smash-mouth football.” He said not many of the current Cedar Creek players who frequent Mario’s Uptown Grill know that the guy wearing the apron and making pizzas and subs is a former all-state football player. “Nah, I don’t talk about it much,” Cappelluti said. “I guess they will know now.” Cappelluti said one of the great things about high school football — and high school sports in general — is the lessons taught that can be carried throughout a person’s life. And he tells kids who come into the pizzeria to savor the days of strapping on the helmet and shoulder pads, because once high school is over, so is that time in your life when you get to call yourself a football player, at least for most of the guys on the team. “I think the things you learn growing up playing sports, when you apply those things to life it helps you get through,” Cappelluti said. “If you work hard and put a lot into it, more than the other guys, you’re going to go a little bit further. I tell kids to work hard and enjoy it, because you only get one shot at it. You only go to high school once.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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