Rene Capo used the leverage learned in judo to play college football, then returned to the sport to qualify as a U.S. Olympian in '88 and '96. He died Monday at age 48.
By Monday, Rene Capo could no longer talk, but he could still smile. So anyone who knows how Capo approached his life will know how he faced death:
A Cuban emigré who grew up in Hialeah, Fla., Capo played nose tackle for the University of Minnesota from 1979 to 1982, then went on to qualify for the United States Olympic judo team in 1988 and 1996. Capo, who lived in Naperville, Ill., died Monday of lung cancer in Chicago at age 48.
"I'm just numb," said former Gophers defensive back Glen Cardelli, a college roommate of Capo. One of Capo's closest friends, Cardelli was at his bedside Monday. "But I'll say this: He lived his life to the fullest. He didn't leave anything behind."
And he left smiling, which is what Capo was doing when he came to visit Minnesota as a high school senior. Cardelli was his host, and the two were virtually inseparable from then on. Capo was listed as 6-1, but that was probably generous. Closer to 5-11, Capo was a two-year starter at nose tackle, where he used his judo skills -- and a smoldering intensity -- to succeed. He tied for the team lead with four sacks in 1982.
Former Gophers captain Ed Olson Sr. -- whose son, Ed Jr., will be a Gophers freshman this fall -- was a center who spent a lot of time going against Capo in practice.
"He'd be swatting me upside the head, his hands flashing, slapping me silly," Olson said. "The whistle would blow and he'd become the nicest guy. He'd pat me on the butt, say, 'Good job, Eddie.'"
Well, sometimes that intensity moved past the whistle. Olson remembered one practice in 1979 when Capo, a freshman, got tangled up with 6-7 offensive lineman Greg Murtha.
"Murtha came at him, and Rene did some judo move and next thing you know big Murtha was flying over his back. He laid there, the wind knocked out of him and all of us just sat there with our jaws on the floor. He could use his leverage."
After college Capo, a junior judo star, refocused on the sport. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic team twice and nearly made it a third time in 2007. About two months after placing fifth at the USA Judo Senior National Championships in April 2008, Capo was diagnosed with lung cancer.
"I can't think of another judo person who was dominant on a national level for so long," USA Judo president Lance Nading said.
It was that intensity some of his former Gophers teammates remembered. "He was an undersized nose guard, but with his intensity and his judo, he was able to take on guys twice his size," said Jim Fahnhorst, a linebacker who led the Gophers in tackles in 1981.
"I always remember him being a proud guy, very intense," former Gophers guard and teammate Ken Dallafior said.
Capo leaves behind two sons, Alex, 11, and Anthony, 8.