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Right Place, Right Time

Photography by Barry Reeger

The former All-America tackle has led a charmed life since he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 23. The team’s electrifying 27-23 victory over Arizona little more than a month later made Capizzi the first IUP alumnus included on the roster of a Super Bowl-winning team.

He later rode in a rollicking victory parade through a sea of adoring fans in downtown Pittsburgh, was measured for a mammoth Super Bowl ring, and collected a check for $78,000, the amount earned by each member of the winning team. Yet another perk was pending at press time: The Steelers were scheduled to visit the White House for an audience with President Obama.

The last few months have been a head-spinning joy ride for the kid from Gibsonia, a lifelong Steelers fan who used to watch from the stands at Heinz Field and wonder how he’d look in black and gold. Now he’s wedded to the championship tradition of a franchise founded by one of his football forebears at IUP, Art Rooney.

“Being from the Pittsburgh area,” Capizzi said, “it’s pretty cool to have your best friends from high school say, ‘Man, you’re one lucky S.O.B. We would kill to have this chance that you have.’”

Three other IUP products were part of Pittsburgh’s record sixth Super Bowl victory. Bob Ligashesky, a defensive back under coach George Chaump from 1982 to 1984, hit pay dirt in his second season as the Steelers’ special teams coordinator. Field manager/assistant equipment manager Rich Baker and equipment intern Andrew Ferguson were also on hand in Tampa.

Capizzi arrived in Florida only after an extended personal odyssey through the NFL. He spent time with the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Bucs, Kansas City Chiefs, and St. Louis Rams and was afforded two earlier opportunities to stick with the Steelers. Capizzi was cut both times, the second after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot during training camp last summer. He rejoined the team in December when Marvel Smith’s season-ending back injury left Pittsburgh dangerously thin at tackle.

Team photo

Courtesy of Jason Capizzi

The six-foot-nine, 330-pound Capizzi felt a little like an interloper when he returned, the Steelers having clinched the AFC North title and secured a playoff berth in his absence.

“It was weird, because these guys had worked so hard all season to get there, and I’m coming back and kind of accepting some of the glory that I felt like I didn’t deserve,” he said. “I didn’t know how my teammates were going to take it. But a lot of the guys told me, ‘Don’t feel bad. If you wouldn’t have got hurt, you would’ve been here all along.’ That made me feel better.”

Capizzi practiced with the Steelers the rest of the season, although he was never activated for a game. He watched Super Bowl XLIII from the sidelines, the climactic event of a momentous week.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” Capizzi said. “But as much as I liked being there, I really loved seeing the smiles on my parents’ faces. There were about six or seven family members in the stands, all in a row, and they all had my jersey on. It was a pretty cool feeling to see that.”

Cooler still was the Steelers’ comeback. Arizona jumped into a 23-20 lead with 2:37 remaining when Kurt Warner drilled a sixty-four-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald, a former teammate of Capizzi’s at Pitt before Capizzi transferred to IUP. Nerves were as taut as Joan Rivers’ face as the Steelers lined up to receive the ensuing kickoff.

“At no point did I not have confidence that we could do it,” Capizzi said, “but I was worried about my father having a cardiac. I’m thinking, ‘I’m having a cardiac, I wonder how he’s doing.’ He’s thirty years older than me.”

Peter Capizzi, like the other Steelers fans at Raymond James Stadium, leaped from his seat when Ben Roethlisberger tossed a six-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes for the game-winning score with thirty-five seconds left, a play that irrevocably altered the life of his son. It meant Jason Capizzi would soon ride in a victory parade through a throng of 350,000 Terrible Towel-twirling zealots while he furiously waved his own from atop a truck. It meant planning for a trip to the White House and some quality time with the commander in chief.

It meant a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring—bling on a scale that would turn even a rapper’s head. And it meant gaining membership in an exclusive fraternity.

“There have been only forty-three Super Bowls, and there are only fifty-three guys on a team,” Capizzi said. “There’s a lot of people in the organization that get Super Bowl rings, but actual players who were on the fifty-three-man roster when their team won the game, there’s only 2,200 guys—and I’m one of them.My name’s gonna be etched onto the back of the [Vince Lombardi] trophy. That’s something that I can show to my kids when I’m older and tell my grandkids about.”

And to think he could have missed it all. Capizzi admits there were moments during his two years in the NFL when he contemplated quitting football, but he just couldn’t bear the thought of walking away from the game he loved. So Capizzi persisted, until the break of a lifetime fell into his lap.

“This is a tough business,” he said. “You’re trying to find somewhere where you can just hang your hat. Sometimes you wonder, ‘Am I even doing the right thing here? Should I not just go out there and work in the real world like everyone else?’ But then you realize you’ve invested so much time, so much work, so much effort, so much blood, sweat, and tears into all of this. So for something like this to pay off for me—it’s the ultimate.”