Jason Capizzi was a big recruit for Pitt coach Walt Harris, literally (6-feet, 9 inches tall and 300-plus pounds) and figuratively (highly rated by several services), but after being cited for underage drinking he never returned from the coach's doghouse and eventually transferred to Division II Indiana (Pa.) University. At IUP, he became an All-American offensive tackle and was another one that got away for the Panthers.
The Pine-Richland High School grad wasn't selected during the NFL's annual draft April 28-29, but he signed with his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent shortly thereafter and worked out with them during a mandatory minicamp Friday through Sunday in an attempt to earn a spot on the training camp roster this July.
"I took the road less traveled, and a lot of people doubted me whenever I left Pitt,'' Capizzi said. "They said I blew my opportunity. I blew my shot, but I had it in the back of my head that I would prove everyone wrong and fulfill my dream. And here I am, playing for my hometown team, playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers with some guys that I've idolized.
"Oh, yeah, I was a huge Steelers fan growing up. My father always had season tickets. He's had them since 1970, and I've been going to Steelers games my whole life, way back at Three Rivers Stadium. So, to be here with these guys and hopefully prove that I can help the team win is amazing. Like I've said, I'm fulfilling a dream right now, and I don't want it to end.''
In retrospect, Capizzi's time at Pitt must have seemed like a nightmare. Sure, it was precipitated by his own actions, but he strongly believed that the punishment did not fit the crime. Capizzi started out as a grayshirt, enrolling in January, 2002, and practiced with the team during the ensuing spring drills. He took a redshirt that fall and expected to make an impact the following season (2003) with four years of eligibility remaining.
That's when he was caught drinking on the South Side and never made the impact he had hoped for on the football field, but his off-field actions were everlasting. He eventually transferred to IUP and was a three-year starter from 2004-06 with selection as a Division II All-American his career capper.
"I had a lapse in judgment,'' Capizzi said. "I got in a little bit of trouble and got put in the doghouse, and I felt like I was never going to get a fair shot. But I felt like my punishment was a little bit of a double standard, compared to some other people's punishment.
"I felt like I was never going to get a good shot at playing time at Pitt, and you've got to play college football to get into the NFL, which was my ultimate dream, so I decided to get out of there at that time. I still had three years of eligibility remaining, and I transferred to IUP.''
Capizzi played in 30 games at IUP and started each one. While he was committed to Pitt as a fresh-faced recruit, Capizzi quickly changed allegiances when he transferred.
"It was a great experience, and I was able to play well enough to get some interest from the NFL,'' Capizzi said. "After Pitt, I had to play down so I didn't lose any eligibility. I was going to go to Richmond or Delaware, both I-AA schools, and maybe James Madison. But I've been playing ball in Western Pennsylvania all of my life, so I picked IUP.''
As far as the NFL goes, the Steelers called in the fifth round and said they weren't sure what they were going to do. Then, they called back in the sixth to tell him that they weren't going to draft an offensive tackle. But they wanted Capizzi to be their first free-agent signing after the draft. Capizzi wasn't sure what to do.
The Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles all called Capizzi to inquire about his plans. Cincy had the third-to-last pick, No. 253 and believed the Bengals would pick him. If they did, Capizzi decided he would sign with them. If not, no matter what happened with the final two NFL draft picks, Capizzi would sign with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.
Capizzi and some friends watched the entire second day of the draft in his Pine Township, Pa. home, from 11 a.m. until the final pick, with his buddies secretly hoping that he wouldn't get taken at the end so he could go to the Steelers. Capizzi was a little disappointed that he wasn't selected, but was thrilled to eventually sign with his hometown Steelers.
"We watched and watched that whole day,'' Capizzi said. "After a while, I didn't think my name would be called. We were all waiting for the phone to ring, but we weren't sure what would happen. When the Bengals picked that Notre Dame guy, my friends were pretty happy. And, I guess, I was happy, too. I really love the Steelers.
"And I thought they liked me at IUP's Pro Day. Now, I have a great opportunity with them. My agent believed that was the best thing for me, too. He told me that in the seventh round. Sure, I wanted to get drafted, but I think this worked out pretty well for me, especially when you consider where I was all those years ago at Pitt.''