ST. JOSEPH — When choosing a college, Mike Catapano figured he could make it to the NFL as easily from Princeton of the Ivy League as he could from any big-time, major-college program.
Catapano, the Chiefs’ seventh-round draft pick this year, is trying to win a job as an outside linebacker after rolling up 12 sacks and 15 1/2 tackles for losses last year, and becoming the first Princeton player to win the award for Ivy League defensive player of the year in 17 years.
“I thought I could do it,” Catapano said of taking the rare route of the Ivy League to the NFL. “It’s not as easy, but I thought ‘Why not? Why can’t that be me?’ People go from the Ivy League every so (often), and I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t. I feel bringing a smart, capable mind as well as a hard-working football player is a plus. That just adds go my football resume that I’m a smart guy who loves to play football.”
Catapano is a well-chiseled 6 feet 4 and 270 pounds with a square jaw that earned him the nickname Drago, after the Russian boxer from “Rocky IV,” from one of his college coaches. He caught the attention of NFL teams with a solid performance in the East-West Shrine Game but was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, which is often an indicator of what the league thinks of a college player’s chances of playing pro ball.
“Every player wants to go to the combine. Every player wants to take the high road to the draft,” said Catapano, who is from Bayville, N.Y., on Long Island. “That was never my way. I roll with the punches. I had to capitalize on every opportunity, whether it was the all-star game or whether it was my pro day.
“I had to do everything I could and make the most of my opportunities. I had to capitalize more than a guy from Michigan State or Ohio State. … Every opportunity I was given was a really small window, but that made it more exciting and my story that much more fun. I got here every way I could and now I’m here. It doesn’t matter how I got here, I’m planning to stay.”
Catapano was one of three Ivy Leaguers taken in the 2013 draft, joining Harvard running back Kyle Juszcyk, taken by Baltimore, and Cornell tackle J.C. Tretter, taken by Green Bay, both in the fourth round. Catapano is the 10th player in the 144 years of Princeton football to be drafted but the first since 2001. The last time the Chiefs selected an Ivy Leaguer was fullback Shane Bannon of Yale in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, but he failed to stick.
“Three drafted from the Ivy League this year was the most in a long time,” Catapano said. “The league is up and coming. It shows, three guys drafted shows smart guys that love to play football. The Ivy League has great competition, and I’m proud to represent that community in the NFL.”
The Chiefs are looking to deploy Catapano in different roles, as a pass rusher from the outside and from the inside in the nickel defense. He has the measurables for the NFL with size, 4.75 speed in the 40-yard dash, and 33 3/4-inch arms.
“He’s a smart kid, obviously, but a very tough kid,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He gives us a little flexibility. He’s got a little knack for pass rushing.”
Ever the student, Catapano said he learned as much as he could from Chiefs pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston during the offseason program.
“Just the dedication to the little things,” Catapano said. “The really minute details … even so far as finger and hand placement. Everything gets you one step closer to the quarterback. They’re perfectionists, and that’s the way you have to be in this league to be the best of the best.
“My No. 1 thing is my relentlessness. When I get out there, I’m having the time of my life and am like a Tasmanian devil. I don’t stop until I hear a whistle and someone is on the ground. My work ethic is how I got here today, by far. That’s what I pride myself on.”
Catapano received his degree in psychology, but he hopes he doesn’t have to fall back on that field to make a living.
“This has been the plan since before Princeton came into the question,” Catapano said of the NFL. “I was lucky to be able to go to Princeton. I had the grades in high school, but the goal ever since I stepped on the field when I was 8 years old was to stand here … and play as long as I can. I’ve had one love of my life so far and that’s been football.”