Football: Catapano impresses at shrine game
Four years and 50 pounds of muscle later, the medically redshirted senior has been named Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and toiled his way into the NFL Draft spotlight. Catapano’s league-leading 12 sacks and All-America recognition attracted the attention of pro scouts and earned him an invitation to the next step in his NFL quest: the 2013 East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19.
The Shrine Game remains the nation’s oldest annual college all-star game, occurring each January in St. Petersburg, Fla. The contest recruits the upper echelon of D-I talent and typically sends around 80 percent of its players to the NFL. This year’s squad included a plethora of Division I-A seniors, including 32 who represented the SEC, Big 12 or PAC-12 conferences. Of the 113 players invited to compete, only 14 were Division I-AA players like Catapano.
“I went down there with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I needed to ... prove that I did not have a fluke career in the Ivy League. My goal was to prove to everyone that I can compete against anyone from any league.”
During his trip to Florida, the 6-foot-4-inch senior did exactly that. A week before the game, scouts from all 32 NFL teams evaluated their prospects for three exhaustingly competitive practice days. Catapano demonstrated high levels of energy, quickness and intelligence all week long, impressing scouts and journalists alike.
“Not only productive rushing the passer, his ability to defeat run blocks allowed him to make plays against the run at him and away,” one blogger at National Football Post raved. “His strong week of practice has put Catapano in position to be a third-round pick if he continues to perform well.”
Catapano’s success in St. Petersburg did not materialize by chance. Since his final game as a Tiger back in November, the senior has been training furiously with Rich Sadiv, a strength and speed expert who has coached such professional stars as Chris Long — the second overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft — and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. In addition, Catapano attended NFL All-Pro Chuck Smith’s pass-rushing training center in Georgia, where he received nothing but praise from the Pro Bowler.
“I’ve trained a lot of great DL/LB/OLB,” Smith tweeted. “Mike Catapano won’t take a back seat to anyone in this year’s Draft! He will be special!”
With a scintillating senior season and an impressive all-star week under his belt, Catapano is inching closer to his lifelong dream of playing professional football. The likely final steps of his journey will include the NFL Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 23-26 and a later Pro Day at Princeton, where he will be asked to showcase his skills through the bench press, the 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jumps and position-specific drills. From there, the Bushnell Cup Winner will play the waiting game until Thursday, April 25: Draft Day.
For Catapano, the most difficult part of this process has not been figuring out how to push himself to the limits of physical exertion — he does just fine with that. Instead, his biggest challenge has been learning how to relax. The same emotions that helped him stand out from the masses on the Florida practice fields have also kept him awake at night while he anxiously awaits his future.
“I play with an intense fire and passion for the game, but I also am learning how to control it,” he said. “There [are] a lot of pressure situations and stress still to be faced, and I have to control myself and know when it is time to turn it all off and relax.”
If he can continue to tackle those pressure situations as well as he has to this point, Catapano will become the first Princeton football player to be drafted since Dennis Norman ’01 was drafted 12 years ago. The senior is thrilled about the opportunity to follow in Norman’s footsteps and remains confident in his ability to excel under the growing scrutiny of his assessors.
“Feeling these emotions and using them for my play is what I do best, so in a way as it gets more exciting and nerve-wracking I think my level of play will continue to go up,” he said. “This was my dream since I was a little kid, and I am just so excited to play my heart out and show everyone what I got.”