Editor’s note: In June 1917, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives invited Michigan back into the league, increasing membership to 10 and eventually spawning the iconic “Big Ten” nickname. One hundred years later, Land of 10 will spend the summer looking at the history of America’s legendary conference and its teams.
1. John Cappelletti, running back (1970-73)
There is one Heisman Trophy winner in Penn State’s long history of playing football. There is one jersey number retired in Happy Valley. Both belong to John Cappelletti.
His legacy goes beyond being judged the best football player in America in 1973. Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech is one of the most memorable in the history of the award. He dedicated the trophy to his younger brother, Joey, then 11.
His relationship Joey, who was battling leukemia at the time and died in 1976, became the inspiration for the movie Something for Joey. One of those legendary moments that are part of what makes sports so great was when his little brother asked for a birthday present and John delivered. Here’s a clip about that, courtesy of the Big Ten Network.
2. Shane Conlan, linebacker (1983-86)
This is Linebacker U. And it was called that before other schools decided they wanted to be called DBU or RBU or whatever other moniker they want to claim.
Picking the No. 1 linebacker for this list is almost as important as deciding who should be first overall. There are several strong candidates. It’s hard not to go with Shane Conlan, who was the leader of the 1986 championship team and a two-time All-America selection.
Conlan’s interception against Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, his second of the game, set up the game-winning touchdown in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. It’s one of the most iconic plays in program history.
3. LaVar Arrington, linebacker (1997-99)
Speaking of iconic plays in Penn State history, the “LaVar Leap” has to be near the top of the list. The stakes weren’t quite as high, but it personified LaVar Arrington’s ability to create incredible athletic feats.
Arrington was a consensus All-America pick and finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1999. He also won the Dick Butkus Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award, and he became the No. 2 pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
He’s probably the best pure athlete in program history. It would have been great to see him get involved on offense after being an indomitable running back in high school.
4. Mike Reid, defensive line (1967-69)
Mike Reid was a standout for the back-to-back undefeated teams in 1968 and 1969. He captained the 1969 team and won both the Maxwell Award and Outland Trophy while finishing fifth in the Heisman voting.
He became an NFL All-Pro and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. But he’s also the only man on this list who is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Reid won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song for writing Ronnie Milsap’s Stranger in My House.
Reid also recorded two albums of his own, including a No. 1 country song. And he composed music for six musicals. He’s a man of many talents, clearly.
5. Richie Lucas, quarterback (1957-59)
Quarterback Richie Lucas had a decent chance to become Penn State’s first Heisman winner until Halloween night in 1959. The Nittany Lions were still undefeated at that point, but No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Ole Miss squared off and LSU’s Billy Cannon went for a Heisman-clinching stroll.
It didn’t matter that LSU lost two games after that — or that Penn State did as well. Cannon had finished third in the voting a year before and was a favorite coming into the season. If someone had to clinch the trophy in October, his great run against Ole Miss was the right play to do it.
Lucas still won the Maxwell Award, finished second in the Heisman voting and became the fourth overall pick in the 1960 NFL Draft. He also was the No. 1 pick of the Buffalo Bills and signed with the American Football League team.
He helped Penn State earn a berth in the first Liberty Bowl in 1959 but was injured during the first half of a 7-0 win against Alabama. Backup quarterback — and future offensive coordinator — Galen Hall tossed a touchdown pass on a fake field goal for the only score.
6. Dennis Onkotz, linebacker (1967-69)
Dennis Onkotz was the first Penn State linebacker to earn back-to-back consensus All-America status. His NFL career was derailed by a broken leg in his rookie season, so he didn’t spend years collecting professional accomplishments like many other elite Penn State linebackers.
His Penn State résumé stacks up well against anyone in this argument. He was certainly one of the program’s best linebackers in pass coverage. Onkotz had 11 interceptions, including 3 returned for touchdowns.
One thing pushed him ahead of the next two players on this list: Onkotz also returned punts. He averaged more than 13 yards on 47 punt returns, including 2 that went for touchdowns.
7. Paul Posluszny, linebacker (2003-06)
There are 38 players in Penn State history who were considered consensus All-America selections. Only three have earned that honor twice, and only one has done it since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.
Paul Posluszny became the first junior captain at Penn State since 1968. He won the Butkus Award and the Bednarik Award as a junior in 2005, then repeated the Bednarik honor in 2006.
There’s at least one person who probably thinks Posluszny should be higher on this list, and that’s Jack Ham.
8. Jack Ham, linebacker (1969-71)
Ham is undeniably one of the greatest linebackers to ever play football. And he’s undeniably been a huge part of the fabric of Penn State football, first as a terrific player and later as a radio analyst.
We tried to limit the influence of what players did in the NFL or anywhere after college as a factor on this list, which is partly why he ended up below players such as Conlan and Onkotz. Ham probably deserved more recognition for his play on Penn State’s undefeated teams in 1968 and 1969, but he was an All-America selection just once, as a senior in 1970.
It’s a testament to how many all-time great college linebackers Penn State has produced that five of the top eight players are from that position. Any of the five could be the No. 1 linebacker on a similar list for a lot of programs.
9. Lenny Moore, running back/defensive back (1953-55)
Moore became Penn State’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 1954. He finished second in the country in rushing yards, even though he only rushed 136 times. Moore, however, didn’t finish in the top 9 of the Heisman Trophy voting despite eclipsing winner Alan Ameche of Wisconsin by more than 400 yards.
He also was a standout defensive back and has a strong argument for being the best two-way player in the program’s history. Moore finished his career with 2,372 rushing yards, a 6.2 yards-per-carry average and 24 touchdowns (23 rushing, 1 receiving).
Among the players who have run for at least 2,000 yards in program history, only Ki-Jana Carter and Larry Johnson averaged more per attempt. And they rested while the defense was on the field, obviously.
10. Glenn Ressler, offensive/defensive line (1962-64)
The Maxwell Award generally goes to an offensive skill player. It has every year since Pitt’s Hugh Green won it in 1980. Before then, non-skill players won it a few times per decade.
Glenn Ressler won the award in 1964 and was a consensus All-America selection. He excelled on both sides of the line for the Nittany Lions, then went on to play in two Super Bowls with the Baltimore Colts and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
At Penn State, he had a spectacular game as a senior against No. 2 Ohio State, racking up 15 tackles in a 26-0 victory. From the time the Associated Press poll started in 1936 until that day in 1964, Penn State never had beaten a top-3 team (0-5).
The Nittany Lions’ record against top 5 teams was dreadful (1-12-1, with a win against No. 5 Ohio State in 1956 and the famous tie with No. 4 SMU at the 1948 Cotton Bowl) before and after Ressler. They didn’t beat a team ranked No. 1 or No. 2 again until a 48-14 win against top-ranked Pitt in 1981.