These days, Chiefs defensive end Mike Catapano is feeling stronger — and more grateful — than ever.
Catapano missed the 2014 season because of a mysterious illness — which was later determined to be a gastrointestinal virus and a concussion — that sidelined him for the majority of training camp.
He spoke with reporters about the ordeal for the first time in a conference call Thursday.
“It turned out that I had the virus-type thing going on during camp, and I was running around to doctors, and it turns out I had concussion-type stuff going on as well, so just the combination of both was a tricky thing to get a hold of,” Catapano said.
For a man who loves football — fewer players speak with more feeling about the sport — it wasn’t easy. He’s determined to resume his career with a frenzy when organized team activities begin May 26.
“These are your teammates out there, and I want to be out there fighting with them in any way that I can,” Catapano said. “Football has been the love of my life since I was 8 years old, so of course it broke my heart.”
Yet Catapano says he has managed to turn this negative situation into a positive.
“At the end of the day, dealing with unfortunate circumstances, I believe you have to use it to make you stronger,” Catapano said. “Especially at this level, where everybody’s competing (and) there’s going to be issues (and) you’re always going to have something try to tear you down.
“But who I am today, I just believe that this maybe could have been the best thing that ever happened to me. The shape that I’m in, my mentality — I’ve never been stronger — and I’m just ready to roll like I’ve never been before. I feel like I’ve had a fire ignited inside of me right now.”
Catapano isn’t the only one excited about his current physical status.
“If you look at Mike Catapano right now, he’s 295 pounds,” general manager John Dorsey said. “He looks wonderful.”
Catapano, who is listed at 270 pounds on the Chiefs’ roster, credits the intense amount of training he has undergone since his illness was diagnosed for the way he was able to change his body.
“After I got cleared by everybody, probably midway through the season, I was rehabbing, and I was with the trainers, and I was just working on it,” Catapano said. “So I had some time now to really, really get after it.
“I’m a little over 290 (pounds) right now, but you’d never, ever know. I’m a lot leaner. People look at me like I lost weight. This is probably the best I’ve ever felt at this weight. I’ve had a lot of time just to train and work at my fitness and keep my speed and my explosiveness.”
Catapano, a seventh-round draft pick, had four tackles and a sack as a rookie reserve in 2013. He largely played the five-technique defensive end spot behind veteran Mike DeVito, who has become a mentor of sorts for him.
“He’s taught me so much, and really just been like my big brother on this team and really believed in me,” Catapano said. “The whole D-line is that way. We’re family. We believe in each other more than anybody else — more than the media, maybe even more than the fans, as hard as that might be to believe.”
To that end, DeVito is high on the potential of Catapano and fellow defensive end Jaye Howard. He noted at the outset of the Chiefs’ offseason training program that both have Pro Bowl potential.
“Mike had a hiccup. I really feel he has all the tools to be great,” DeVito said. “This is a great D-line, and I’m excited to watch those two guys continue to grow.”
Hearing those words meant a lot to Catapano.
“We believe in each other, and coming from him there’s no greater compliment,” Catapano said. “I respect him more than any player in the game right now. I hope to make him proud.
“But of course, I believe I’m capable of that. I know I missed some time, but I know that, No. 1, nobody’s going to outwork me, and No. 2, that I have the ability to get to the next level, which is being a special player for this team, and in the AFC West and in the league.”