It reads like something out of a Hollywood script — a late-blooming player from a smaller school gets picked near the end of the NFL draft and goes on to become a contributor for an unheralded team that rises from last place to the playoffs.
But that is the story that former Princeton University football star Mike Catapano wrote last fall as the fullback turned defensive lineman was chosen in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs and went on to help the club go from 2-14 to 11-5 and an appearance in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
As Catapano prepared to start his second training camp this week, he was drawing on a silver screen hero for inspiration.
“I tune out all distractions, it is Rocky 4 mode,” said Catapano, a native of Bayville, N.Y. who will be arriving at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. this week with camp slated to kick off on July 24.
“I turn off my cell phone and computer. It is getting ready for war. I take it really seriously, preparation is everything. Everybody in the NFL is strong and fast. It comes down to who is preparing the hardest and I am confident that I am doing that.”
Learning that he had survived the team cuts last summer and made the NFL was a special moment for Catapano.
“That was a huge step, it was another rung on the ladder,” said Catapano, 2012 Bushnell Cup recipient as the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league with 12 sacks.
“I was confident that I had done enough to stick with the team. Each time you knock down one of your goals, you look to the next one. That is what you have to do to become great at what you do.”
Seeing action in the 2013 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Catapano had a great time in his NFL debut.
“It was welcome to the NFL, it was a blast,” recalled Catapano. “I had so much fun. I played pretty well. I hit the quarterback a few times. I was like a scared kid out there.
Growing into a special teams starter and rotation player on the defensive unit for the Chiefs, a highlight for Catapano came in week six when he got to the quarterback in a 24-7 win over the Oakland Raiders.
“I think that sack in the Raider game when we broke the decibel record was big,” said Catapano, referring to a day when the Arrowhead Stadium became the loudest crowd at an outdoor sporting event as the volume reached 137.5 decibels in the closing moments of the contest, breaking the record of 136.6 set by Seattle Seahawks fans earlier in the season.
“My parents were there and a lot of my Long Island friends were there. It was special. I pointed up to the crowd.”
A low point of Catapano’s rookie campaign came in the Chiefs’ 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs when he committed a penalty as Indy overcame a 38-10 deficit to pull out the win.
“I learned I couldn’t help the team from the sidelines,” said Catapano.
“I got caught on offside, Andrew Luck (Colts quarterback) saw I was all excited. It showed that I have some growing and development to do. I was dying standing on the sidelines.”
Catapano credits Chiefs head coach Andy Reid with helping him develop as a player.
“Coach Reid is great; he is such a professional,” said Catapano, who appeared in 15 games last fall and was credited with four tackles to go with his sack. “He treats everybody on the team like men. He gives us space. He has high expectations for us but gives you leeway. He doesn’t micromanage things.”
Things went well for Catapano this spring in the club’s offseason mini-camps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs).
“It is about just being confident and knowing what I am doing,” said Catapano. “I can see the difference already, having done the technique and being in the system for a year. I want the coaches to be confident in my being out on the field.”
As Catapano enters his second NFL campaign, he is being moved up the field.
“I was drafted to play outside linebacker, they see now that I am a better fit at defensive end in the 3-4 alignment with my ability to rush the passer,” said the 6’4 Catapano.
“I had to gain weight. I wanted to get stronger but keep my speed. I want to play every down, not just on third and long. I am weighing a little over 290 (up from 270 pounds at the start of last season), somewhere around 293-294.”
In order to maximize his pass rushing skills, Catapano has undergone some varied and rigorous training. He has worked with Mixed Martial Arts expert Derek Panza and Justin Miller of Power Fitness on Long Island as well as Chuck Smith’s Defensive Line Inc. in the Atlanta, Ga. area.
“It is about exploding and blowing out of my stance,” explained Catapano. “I am doing a lot of mixed martial arts training, trying to stay strong and be explosive.”
After the Chiefs’ bounce back season in 2013, the team is looking to be even stronger this fall.
“We have got great talent from top to bottom, our mindset and heartbeat are one,” said Catapano. “We are a tight group. We had a great season but we also had to learn some lessons. Culminating with that loss is motivating us to do well.”
Catapano, for his part, is determined to have a greater impact for Kansas City.
“I want to be a dominant player in the AFC West,” asserted Catapano. “I want Mike Catapano to be a name they are talking about.”
If Catapano can achieve that goal, it will be quite a sequel.