BY JAY GREENBERG
NEW YORK – Mike Catapano lays out in his unfinished senior thesis the potential single-mindedness in all of us that enabled him to lay out quarterbacks en route to becoming the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“The mind is so advanced, works so fast, it summarizes what you are seeing every day and you actually miss a lot,” said Catapano, who, with 12 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and 41 tackles actually didn’t miss much of anything within his grasp in 2012. “My thesis is about how much you miss everyday because your brain is so advanced it summarizes things for you.
“I like to call it the heavenly essence of what you are seeing.”
It couldn’t have felt so heavenly to the offensive linemen he put through hell. But Bob Surace certainly considers Catapano the essence of the program the defensive end sparked to a four-win improvement during his senior season.
“He practiced at a super high level, the level at which we expect our guys to practice,” said Surace. “I think anyone who watched an Alabama or Oregon practice who also came to ours would say ‘these guys practice the right way’ and I think Mike was contagious to freshmen and sophomores who looked at him with big eyes.
“To work in the weight room, study the playbook, always be on time, and have something to say when it was important to say it. Mike does everything right, like the Princeton men I played with (from 1987-89) who have gone on to have great success in life.”
An overwhelming majority of Princeton grads have had great success in life. But only seven ever have won the Asa S. Bushnell Cup and Catapano follows Walt Snickenberger (1974), Jason Garrett (1988), Judd Garrett (1989), Keith Elias (1993), Dave Patterson (1995) and Jeff Terrell (2006) as one of them.
In outpolling runner-up A.J. Cruz, the Brown senior defensive back and return specialist, in a vote of the league’s coaches, Catapano became the first Tiger defensive player to claim the prize – which was split into offensive and defensive awards prior to 2011 -- since Patterson 17 years ago. Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple outpolled Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews for the offensive Bushnell Cup.
|Mike Catapano '13|
The honor, named for a 1921 Princeton alum and former commissioner of the ECAC, may even be weightier than the actual Cup, the lifting of which during Monday’s announcement at the Waldorf-Astoria presented Catapano’s first rep towards the next phase of his life: The heavenly essence of a place on an NFL roster.
“I’ve spent the last few weeks healing up from all the shots I took during the season, now I’m getting ready to hit it again,” he said. “Workouts, combines and I have one All-Star Game (the East-West Shrine game in St. Petersburg, Fla. on January 19) coming up.
“I think I’m the only player from the FCS at this one, so it’s my chance to compete against the LSUs and Alabamas. That’s the next step, just keep pushing as far as you can.”
Few names are called from the Ivy League in the NFL draft and, because of the investment in seven rounds of picks, even fewer free agents make teams. If he is not selected, the volume of the visits -- and especially repeat visits -- to the Princeton campus by NFL scouts tips off Surace that Catapano will begin receiving camp invites within minutes of the last pick.
That might not be such a bad thing for him, being able to strategize his best shot or perhaps even fulfilling his childhood fantasy in the camp of his beloved New York Jets. But he wants to be somebody’s investment, not their afterthought.
“Since I was 12 years old I wanted to hear my name called,” he said. “I want a team that appreciated my college career, that believes in me.
“I think there is a bias against Ivy League players to a certain point. But I think once you prove you are athletically capable it can work to your advantage. Why wouldn’t they want a guy who works and prides himself as being a student of the game? I want to use it as my advantage, don’t think there is any reason it should be a disadvantage.”
It won’t be, Surace insists, because Catapano, a senior from Bayville, New York who will be represented by Alan Herman of Sportsstars Inc., will take advantage of every snap, pushing himself through every drill and to the front of the line for the next one.
“I know this, tough guys who are intelligent, that’s the kind of guy they want,” said Surace, who coached eight years with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You don’t know where the fit is going to be. But I know he would have fit into the Bengals room, and I know he will work as hard, if not harder, than the pros I have coached. On special teams, he will run down the field on kickoffs and be an explosive guy. You have to have a little bit of edge, and as nice a guy as he is, he flips the switch when he goes on the field.”
The switch jammed not only in Catapano’s injured freshman year, but also during his sophomore and junior seasons, when he played well despite almost never feeling well on the field. It wasn’t just the losing that was making him sick, but certain carbohydrates because of undiagnosed gluten allergies.
“I felt like I had some kind of curse or mental thing going on,” he said. “I was so sick, I would be running to the bathroom while I was trying to focus on the game plan.
“I remember celebrating a sack in Harvard my junior year and I got sick on the sideline. I finally found out it wasn’t in my head, there was something I could do to fix it. I had been loading up on pasta for fuel for the game and basically poisoning my body. I switched to rice and potatoes and this year I woke up not having to throw up on game-day.”
The results started to stay down too, even though never he had wondered whether he had made the correct choice of schools. The only holdover from that staff that recruited him, defensive line and assistant head coach Steve Verbit, was one good reason for Catapano to stay.
“I thank Coach Verbit more for the support off the field than on ,” he said. “And yet he did so much for my game, taking a 220-pound running back who wanted to play hard and fast and turning him into a defensive lineman who can play at this level.
“Schools were recruiting me at all kinds of positions. Some at tight end. Penn wanted me as a running back. Princeton was the only one that wanted me as a defensive lineman.
“I didn’t really care. I fell in love with the school, the team and the campus. At whatever position, I wanted to be here.”
And never lost that desire, even after losing 24 of his first 30 games, even though he had to jump through hoops to get back his fourth year of eligibility after losing his first one to injury. Despite FBS offers on the table last winter, he stayed.
“I want to thank the school, the administration, everyone involved for pushing to get him this year,” said Barbara Catapano, Mike’s mother. “It was very stressful, very uncertain, he had one foot in and one foot out, but it all came together and I want them to know it was life-changing for my son.”
Turns out, it was for the program, too.
“The award is a testament to the commitment Mike made to become the very best player he could be,” said athletic director Gary Walters '67. “I am very happy that we could provide an environment at Princeton in which he could excel.
“Furthermore, I am happy for the entire program and the coaches because Mike’s improvement was a significant step in improving Princeton football to the levels we aspire to achieve.”
That was Catapano’s predominant motivation, too.
“We laid the foundation for the future of this program and that’s all I wanted to do before I left here, just be able to say were part of the turning point,” he said. “I think this award helps brings that back to Princeton.
“This team needed to believe and that’s what the senior class did, brought the belief we could win again. I’ll be rooting hard over the next few years.
“We have some guys who are so mature for their age, so well engrained in the system already, I can’t wait to watch. I really think the best is shortly around the corner for Princeton University Football.”