Football: From shy youngster to bold leader
You would never know it from looking at him now, but before he was 6-foot, 4-inches and 270 pounds, senior defensive end Mike Catapano was just a shy kid who was bullied for loving school. Now in his second year as captain of the football team, the Long Island native has shown that he has the talent, and the work ethic, to potentially bring change to a Tigers team that has struggled in recent years.
It was Mike’s mom, Barbara, who signed him up for the town football league at eight years old. His dad was a baseball player who tried to get him to follow in his footsteps, but, as Catapano says, “I wasn’t very good at baseball” — so football it was.
“I was actually getting bullied in the town and my mom signed me up for football,” Catapano recalls. “She regrets it now, cause she has trouble watching the games now, but that’s how it started.” Rather than nervously awaiting injury or error, Mrs. Catapano takes countless pictures of her son, preferring to watch the games through the safety of the lens.
Growing up, Catapano played running back, a far cry from the defensive end position he currently fills for the Tigers. In fact, he had never played defense before coming to Princeton.
“I was always taller than everyone, but when I was little I was always faster than everyone, so they just gave me the ball and I would run straight,” he said.
Princeton was one of the only schools that recruited Catapano as a defensive lineman; others saw him mainly as a tight end, linebacker or fullback. As a result, his freshman year was difficult — he took a lot of hard hits and got knocked around a lot — but after recovering from some injuries, he came back a stronger and more dedicated player. He was an All-Ivy League Honorable Mention in 2010 and earned a second-team All-Ivy award last season.
“Not playing defense at all to playing defensive lineman at 220 pounds, my freshman year was pretty tough. I got thrown around, I got beat up, I was out for the whole year … just getting smashed so much, it was not fun,” Catapano admitted.
What changed from then to now?
“I was watching a lot of film, diagnosing plays, defenses and techniques. You have your classes at Princeton ... and football becomes like a class, and you have to study it. I think that’s what really changed me on the field, just getting in and becoming a scholar of the sport.”
Head coach Bob Surace ’90 commended Catapano’s attitude and diligence when it comes to learning the game and doing the small things.
“[Mike’s] terrific at picking up tips from film on the opponent. He’s outstanding in terms of taking notes. It’s nice when the best players are the ones who are so diligent about doing those things, because they’re such role models for the other guys. And Mike’s been tremendous at that,” Surace said.
Whether it is cleaning up the field after practice, making sure he’s first in line to do a drill or simply keeping his locker clean, Surace noted that Catapano is a true leader both on and off the field.
“Mike is so committed to doing the little things well,” Surace said. “He’s just grown up that way, and I’m very proud of the way he’s handled those things.”
Not only have the coaches demanded a lot from him, but Catapano also demands a lot from himself.
“Being chosen captain made me realize, I need to step up my game, I need to bring this team to a new level,” he said. “I took that as a challenge to myself, to be [a] more vocal leader both on and off the field and to bring this team to where it needs to be and where it has been in the past.”
Surace said Catapano has always been a quiet player — reminiscent of the eight-year-old boy whose mom signed him up for football to build up his confidence — but one who leads by example.
“He goes all out every rep. Everything he does in practice, he never takes a play off, he never takes a drill off,” sophomore safety Jimmy von Thron said. “Pretty much everyone on the team sees how hard he’s working and it inspires us to work hard too.”
Besides working hard and trying to be the best player, teammate and leader he can be, Catapano attributed much of his identity, maturity and character to football.
“Football was everything for me — it really defined me. It really made me who I am. You learn so much in the game. You learn confidence. One thing I really needed was confidence — growing up, I was a really shy kid, I was really insecure, and football gave me confidence both on and off the field,” he said.
Catapano’s first coach when he was eight years old contributed to this confidence. The coach who taught him to “take no crap from anybody” and stick up for himself. “He got me addicted to it; he made me fall in love with the game,” Catapano said.
Now a psychology major, Catapano didn’t know what he wanted to do when he first started looking at colleges. But after seeing Princeton’s campus, team and overall environment on his first visit, he knew where he wanted to be.
“When I started looking around, I wanted to go to the biggest school for football. I was set on football, you know,” he says. “But when the Ivy Leagues started coming around, I didn’t even know how to react to that. I would have to be an idiot to turn that down.”
His favorite part of the game, he said, are the teammates who, after the brutal practices in storms and hot summer sun with coaches yelling in everyone’s face, seem more like brothers.
“The harder it gets, the closer you get,” Catapano said. “I think that’s what I love about the sport the most: the camaraderie. It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about being out there with your friends and playing the game you love.”
Catapano hopes to one day go all the way with football and find a place in the NFL — in a perfect world, with his hometown Jets. But if that doesn’t pan out, law school is his backup.
“I want to be a litigator. I’m a competitor; I compete in everything way too much. I think that to go on trial, you prepare, you compete and there’s a winner and a loser,” he said. “I think I could do that pretty well. I enjoy that stressful situation.”
It sounds just like how he plays on the field. Evidently, for Catapano, football has become more than just a game, but a way of life.