In January, Mike Catapano knew he had to stand out on the practice field as he took part in the 88th annual East-West Shrine all-star college football game in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“I needed to show I could play against a higher level of competition,” said Catapano, a star defensive lineman for the Princeton University football team who was the 2012 Bushnell Cup recipient as the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year last fall in his senior season.
“If I were the Player of the Year in the ACC, I would be a first round draft choice but I was coming from the Ivy League. The practices were the biggest part for me. There were a lot of one-on-one drills and a lot of NFL coaches watching the practices.”
The 6’4, 270-pound Catapano caught the attention of the pro coaches and ended up getting selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round of the NFL Draft on April 27.
This week, Catapano will be looking to turn heads as he makes his pro debut by participating in the team’s opening mini-camp.
“I want to make a great first impression and show the coaches that I am going to be their hardest worker,” said Catapano. “I want to show that I have a high motor.”
When Catapano arrived at Princeton in the fall of 2008, it was hard to imagine him as a future NFL draft choice. He was a 215-pound fullback before being switched to defensive line. Gaining 50 pounds between his freshman and sophomore year, the Bayville, N.Y. native grew into a force.
After earning second-team All-Ivy League honors in 2011, Catapano caught the eye of NFL scouts and he realized that his dream of playing at the next level was viable.
Getting the chance to come back for a fifth season in 2012 due to being sidelined as a freshman, Catapano decided to hone his skills by working with former NFL player Chuck Smith, who has been training defensive linemen and pass-rushing outside linebackers through his company, Defensive Line Inc., since 2000 in Suwanee, Ga.
“I took the spring off from school so I could play that fifth year,” said Catapano.
“I couldn’t play spring ball because I wasn’t in school. I saw an online clip from Osi Umenyiora (former New York Giants star defensive lineman) talking about a six-sack game in the day and how he had been helped by Chuck Smith. I called him and sent some tapes. I stayed there a month and a half; we did pass rush drills everyday. It was mostly technique-oriented. It was developing an arsenal of moves. It paid off last fall.”
As a senior, Catapano led the Ivies with 12 sacks and helped Princeton go 5-5 as it bounced back from two straight 1-9 campaigns. As a result, NFL scouts made daily pilgrimages to Princeton to check out Catapano.
“There was one at every single practice my senior year,” said Catapano. “They don’t talk to me. You see them there. They would talk to the coaches, my defensive line coach and my strength and conditioning coach. They would go up in the office and look at film.”
After the season, Catapano’s first stop on the road to the NFL was the East-West Shrine game. He then headed up to northern Jersey to train for nine weeks at the Parisi Speed School to get ready for his pro day at Princeton where he performed running, jumping, and weight lifting drills. Catapano ended up posting some impressive numbers in the March 20 session, putting up 33 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press, running the 40-yard dash in 4.75, and doing a vertical leap of 37.5 inches.
Between pro day and the draft, Catapano had contact with several NFL teams. “I was able to do workouts on site for local teams, the Giants and the Jets,” said Catapano.
“I was able to work out for other teams at Princeton or my high school. The Vikings sent their defensive line coach and the Eagles sent a coach. I visited other teams out of the area and I was only able to do physicals and interviews with them. I went to New Orleans, Minnesota, Green Bay, and Cincinnati.”
Once the draft started on April 25, Catapano was based at home in Long Island as he waited to be chosen.
“I watched the draft in Bayville with a small group of family and friends,” said Catapano, who was not picked on April 25 or 26 as the first three rounds were completed.
“I knew who was calling my agent. I was confident and hopeful. I tried to stay positive and not let negative thoughts flood in.”
As Catapano woke up on April 27, he was confident that he would get some good news. When the seventh round approached at around 5 p.m., it became clear that his dream of getting a shot at the NFL was about to come true.
“I heard from my agent that a couple of teams were ready to take me with their next pick,” recalled Catapano.
“Then I got a call from Missouri from the Chiefs’ general manager asking me if I wanted to get aboard the big red train. I was passed to coach [Andy] Reid and then the defensive coach. I was flooded with emotion; I couldn’t think. I can’t remember what I said; I hope it was good. It was so emotional seeing my name flash up on the board.”
The Chiefs have told Catapano that they plan to have him switch positions. “They want me to play outside linebacker,” said Catapano. “
There is a lot of pass rushing and I get to show my athleticism by stepping back in coverage. It is a good mix of the things I have been doing.”
Princeton head coach Bob Surace, a former assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, is confident that Catapano will do the things necessary to succeed in the NFL.
“I saw that he had the work ethic and professionalism,” said Surace, recalling his first impressions of Catapano after he took the helm of the program for the 2010 season.
“He was a guy who was going to work harder than anyone else; that is a trait that separates good players from great players. It is like Jason Garrett [former Princeton star quarterback and Surace’s college teammate] even though he played a different position. When he wanted to get better on his three-step draw; I had to make 500 snaps a day.”
In Surace’s view, Catapano’s success reflects well on the Princeton program.
“It is great; first and foremost, you want the 25 seniors to all get jobs in the fields they have chosen,” said Surace.
“It is great to see that happen for Mike, you know how much this means to him and how hard he has worked for this.”
Drawing on his NFL experience, Surace has given Catapano some advice on making himself invaluable to the Chiefs.
“I told him to find out who is the special teams coach and live in his office,” said Surace.
“Mike is a tough, hard-working, no-nonsense guy but there are a limited number of players who can dress for games. The late-round and middle-round picks need to be able to play special teams. I think he can be a good special teams player, he is explosive. He has a motor that doesn’t stop, that is what the pro guys all say after they watch him.”
Catapano, for his part, believes he is already on the same page with coach Reid, who in his first year with the Chiefs after 13 seasons guiding the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I look at what he wants as he starts a new era for Kansas City,” said Catapano. “He drafted tough-minded guys, that was the commonality. I like that he appreciates my college career and what I bring to the table.”
After exceeding expectations in his college career, Catapano has some big goals as he enters the NFL.
“I am not satisfied,” said Catapano. “I want to earn a spot and show the league that I can be a starter. I want to be in the Pro Bowl. I have been used to setting the bar high.”
While choosing to play Ivy football made Catapano a longshot to end up in the NFL, he wouldn’t trade his Princeton years for anything.
“In the end, it was a blessing,” asserted Catapano. “It was not the normal path but it was so fulfilling. It was such a long road, there was so much emotion. There were so many up and downs and some really low moments. It was a great experience.”