KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Chiefs guard Jeff Allen can laugh at it now, but he admits his first impression of Mike Catapano wasn't necessarily a positive one.
This was in May, the start of organized team activities (OTAs), and the Chiefs were getting their first real look at their rookies and veterans together. Teams use these practices to install the playbook, so without pads, there's often a lack of physicality.
But Catapano, a Chaminade graduate, who was a seventh-round pick out of Princeton, apparently didn't get that memo.
"The first day of OTAs, he's going full out, no pads," Allen said with a grin. "The older guys don't really like that . . . We're like, 'Hey, who is this kid?' "
Catapano, however, gained Allen's respect in training camp a few months later when the 6-3, 270-pound rookie defensive end practiced at the same speed he had in OTAs.
"Usually when the pads come on, rookies are like, 'All right, I'm gonna slow it down,' " Allen said. "But he didn't . . . he kept bringing it. He's one of those guys that never quits on a play."
Catapano, 23, has a reason for giving great effort. It's his trademark, something that has helped him grow from a target of bullies as a kid to a contributor on the NFL's top-ranked defense.
Catapano said he learned to play that way starting at age 8, when his mother, Barbara, signed him up for football. They lived in a new town, Bayville, and Catapano said he had trouble fitting in.
"Honestly, it was to kinda toughen me up a little bit," Catapano said. "I was like a nerd back then. I loved video games, I loved studying. And all the other kids were kinda like, 'What the heck's going on with this guy?' "
Catapano never stopped loving school, but football became a passion. He grew into a four-year letter-winner at Chaminade and the nation's 15th-best fullback, according to the recruiting website Scout.com. Princeton was no football factory, he knew, but he was determined to never let anyone deter him from his NFL dream, though countless people -- even some close to him -- tried.
"I guess I was naive or oblivious," Catapano said. "Maybe being naive was the best thing in the world for me because it never mentally inhibited me. I just thought if I worked hard and kept after it like everybody does, I mean, why shouldn't I be able to do it?"
After a junior season in which he racked up 49 tackles and career highs in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (five), NFL scouts started showing up at Princeton's practices. Catapano followed it up with a monster senior season in which he led the Ivy League with 12 sacks and impressed Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, who took him with the 207th pick in the 2013 draft.
"He's got natural pass-rush ability," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "That's what caught John's eye."
Since then, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has managed to work Catapano into games during the Chiefs' 8-0 start. He even earned his first career sack against the Raiders two weeks ago.
Catapano insists that people who think he's happy to simply be a rotational player couldn't be more off-base.
"I plan on making a career out of proving people wrong," said Catapano, who is expected to miss the Chiefs' game against Buffalo Sunday with a high ankle sprain. "Obviously, I've been doing good, I'm here, this is where I want to be. But I'm nowhere close to being satisfied."