The voice on the other end of the telephone kept talking, but Mike Catapano couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“You’re going to have to come in. And bring your playbook . . .”
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It was “a numbers thing,” Catapano was told, as he stood inside his Kansas City apartment. Then came the final blow.
“We’re going to have to waive you.”
Just like that, his time with the Chiefs was over.
“My heart dropped,” the Bayville native said, recalling the September phone call from the organization that had drafted him. “I was kind of blindsided.”
But the 25-year-old refused to believe his NFL career was over. His parents, Barbara and Mike, Sr. — who, coincidentally, were in town when that dreaded call was made — had always taught him differently.
His father, once a heavily-recruited pitcher at Holy Trinity whose major-league dreams were derailed by a high school shoulder injury, had never allowed his son to believe the NFL was out of reach. And whenever doubt crept in and Catapano questioned his talent and his worth, he remembered his father’s words. “The thing he said that always stuck with me was: ‘Why can’t that be you, Mike?,’ ” said the Chaminade and Princeton alumnus.
Their tight-knit family has always believed everything happens for a reason. So now, when they think back to that phone call, the last thing they feel is regret. Instead, they count it as a blessing that paved the way for something special: a new beginning with the Jets.
“It went from being quite blindsided to almost elation in one weekend,” Barbara Catapano said by phone earlier this week in the days leading up to Sunday’s Jets-Gants game at Metlife Stadium.
But her son’s journey has been anything but easy.
Bullies tried to break his spirit. Injuries threatened to derail his college career. But none of it stopped him.
“I believe hard work trumps everything,” the Jets defensive end told Newsday, as he sat inside the Jets’ fieldhouse Thursday afternoon. “I’ve seen a lot of talented guys not get half as far as I did.”
The former small-school football player has beaten the odds. But Catapano is not at all content or comfortable.
He’s hoping his first sack of 2015 comes against Eli Manning, but not because of a Jets-Giants rivalry. It’s far more personal than that. He needs it for his family and his friends. And, most of all, himself.
“Just to ring the bell again like the old days, and feel like I’m back on top, would be really, really good for me,” he said.
Catapano’s chiseled physique and intense gaze belie the softie who resides deep inside.
But his good-naturedness once made him a target.
The bullying he endured as a boy was a “mixture of everything” — harsh words hurled in his directions, plus “there were a couple episodes . . . um, physically,” Catapano said softly, staring off into the distance. “It was enough to do some damage on me.”
It’s hard to envision this 6-4, 280-pounder with the broad shoulders and square jaw was once a shy, skinny, “super nerdy” kid who only adored school and video games. But back then, he was a sweet, naive child desperate for an identity. And the game gave him one.
“I put him in football when he was younger because he was just too nice,” his mother said. “Football really turned him into a man.”
In pads, he discovered his voice. In time, he found his assertiveness, too.
“I realized I could do stuff,” Catapano said. “I’m not just whatever these guys are saying I am. I can be somebody.”
But his path to the NFL was riddled with roadblocks.
A former fullback and linebacker at Chaminade, he played in only nine high school games because of three separate shoulder surgeries, his father said. “I felt so bad because I was hoping what happened to me didn’t happen to him,” his father said.
Catapano went to Princeton, where he became the Ivy League’s best defensive player as a senior, with 12 sacks and 15 1⁄2 tackles. In 2013, he became the first Tiger drafted in more than a decade when the Chiefs selected him in the seventh round.
He played in 15 games as a rookie, getting a sack, but spent the 2014 season on injured reserve due to a gastrointestinal-based virus and a concussion. And then, came the news he never expected.
“I wasn’t really mentally prepared for it, honestly, with how good I played in the preseason and all the feedback that I was getting,” said Catapano, who was signed to the Jets’ practice squad on Sept. 8, three days after he was released. “It’s humbling.”
Undeterred, he worked his “way up the totem pole again” on scout-team defense.
“I know what kind of player I am,” said Catapano, who is represented by Long Island-based agents Alan Herman and Jared Fox. “And not for one second did I think I wouldn’t be where I am.”
On Nov. 21, just before the Jets boarded a plane bound for Houston, Catapano was activated to the 53-man roster.
“Being the underdog and coming back,” his father said, “that’s what he thrives on.”
Catapano’s intensity is an acquired taste for some.
“I knew that some people would maybe not agree with how hard I’m going,” said Catapano, who played 57 percent of the defensive snaps in last week’s win over the Dolphins.
So which offensive lineman did he have an issue with?
“Probably, 77. Carpenter,” he said with a smile, referring to the Jets’ starting left guard. “We joke about it now. Sometimes we still butt heads. But when I first got here, we were rattling each other a little bit.”
Catapano’s high energy has also caught the attention of a coaching staff that has been searching for more speed on the edge. “If you watch Mike in practice, he’s been really flashing,” said defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers.
The same laser-sharp focus that aided him in the classroom has helped him easily digest the Jets playbook.
“I don’t know about ‘photographic.’ But that was one thing I always excelled with in school, being able to memorize things quickly,” Catapano said. “Usually, as soon as I walk through a play once, I’ve got it . . . But there’s a lot of guys on this team that do that very well too. You don’t have to go to Princeton to be good at that.”
HOME SWEET HOME
Life has come full circle for the childhood Jets fan, who played his college home games roughly 40 miles from the team’s Florham Park, New Jersey facility.
Catapano revered Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin and still considers Martin’s No. 28 Jets jersey — which still hangs in his closet — a prized possession.
He was enamored with Martin’s running style, but Catapano was most impressed by his character. “He was such a standup gentleman of a guy. That’s what really stuck with me,” he said.
On Sunday, he’ll have his chance to make an impact for the Jets.
“I just cant wait for the atmosphere,” he said. “That feeling of the stadium being electric.”
He still remembers the Jets-Giants preseason game he and his father attended at the old Giants Stadium. And after all these years, the snapshot of Catapano and his younger sister, April, posing with former Jets receiver Wayne Cherbet, remains a family treasure.
“It’s a mother’s dream for him to be close,” Barbara Catapano said. “ . . . I don’t think too many players have ever been able to say that they played for their hometown [team]. To be back in New Jersey, where he launched his career, is just surreal and special.”
Catapano’s childhood bedroom is just as he left it: decorated with a few pictures from his Princeton days, some motivational sayings, images of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the quote: “A smart meathead is a dangerous thing.”
“My mom keeps it like a sanctuary,” he joked.
The local boy admits he still has “a ways to go.” But in the Jets, he sees “a growing organization,” one whose head coach, Todd Bowles, evaluates players strictly on their daily performance.
And that’s all he ever wanted.
“I can only sleep when I know that I gave today everything that I had,” Catapano said. “Whether it be on the football field, whether it was at college, whether it was interning. I’m just 110 miles an hour all the time.
“And I sleep really well at night.”