After being signed and released by four teams last season, Villanova product Austin Calitro is making the most of his second opportunity in Seattle. That means rotating with Shaquem Griffin in place of injured linebacker K.J. Wright.
One day a year, professional football players develop an uncommon fear of a phone call.
It’s understandable, of course. By 1 p.m. on the final Saturday before the first game week of the regular season, each NFL team is required to trim its roster from 90 to 53. That means 41 percent of players are instantly unemployed. They get a call, turn in their playbook and pray for a spot on the practice squad. Their NFL dreams fall victim to an iPhone.
On cut-down day, no news is good news. Silence means survival.
Austin Calitro knows this better than most.
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Calitro — a 6-foot, 240-pound second-year linebacker — was waived on cut-down day by the San Francisco 49ers prior to the start of the 2017 season. That’s after he signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent and was released 10 days later. He would also be cut by the Seahawks (after a 15-day stay) and Browns before resurfacing in Seattle in June.
Four franchises said no.
But the Seahawks reconsidered.
“I was just trying to figure it out last year,” Calitro said last week. “I knew I liked it here more than anywhere else. Then when I got an opportunity to come back here, I didn’t want to give it up.”
So instead, he gave even more. In four preseason games, the former Villanova standout produced 21 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack as Bobby Wagner’s back up at middle linebacker. He consistently outperformed oft-injured veteran D.J. Alexander, a former Pro Bowl special teamer.
Still, cut-down day arrived without any assurance of a roster spot. So Calitro waited, worried and tried to distract himself with household tasks. The former communications major took a trip to the laundromat — “just trying to keep my mind off of it.” He waded in the water with his girlfriend on a beach on Lake Washington.
And, on the one panic-inducing day when you don’t want to get a call, he got a call.
But not from Seahawks general manager John Schneider.
“What’s up, Bobby?” Calitro said to Wagner, his mentor at middle linebacker.
“How you doing?”
“Well, I’m waiting. How are you doing?”
“Well, I’m just calling to say congrats.”
“So I kind of figured it out on my own,” Calitro said with a smile last week. “It was a nice way to find out, coming from him.”
For the first time in his career, Calitro cracked a 53-man roster.
And once that call ended, the other calls commenced.
“We were out of town,” said Sharon Calitro, Austin’s mother, who was driving back from a Villanova football game. “Our phones were just … I think my husband was on the phone for two and a half hours on the car ride home.
“Our family, his grandmother and grandfather, cousins, friends, everybody was just so excited for him. We were happy. We were really happy for him.”
The Calitros were happy for a notoriously hard worker — a (mediocre) Pop Warner quarterback and kicker, a twin and big brother, a high school linebacker and running back (and catcher on the baseball team). In his free time, Calitro is taking online classes, pursuing a Master’s degree from Villanova in public administration. Someday, he’d like to work with non-profit organizations or help bring better education to inner cities.
Someday. Not today.
Today, he’s taking names.
“I think we have a certain style that we like to have here and Austin epitomizes that — running and hitting and competition and just giving him a chance to show himself, to show who he is,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton said last week. “If you watched the practices or you watched the preseason games, if there was one person who was taking full (advantage) of his opportunity, it was Austin Calitro.”
That’s the same 24-year-old kid who wasn’t offered an FBS scholarship out of Danbury (CT) High School, who wasn’t invited to the scouting combine, who waited through seven rounds and three days of the NFL Draft but never got a call.
A kid like that has learned to appreciate every available opportunity.
“It’s very satisfying, because I’ve heard no so many times,” Calitro said. “To finally get an opportunity to show what I’ve got during the regular season is truly a blessing.”
Calitro was granted that opportunity against Denver last weekend, and again, he took advantage. In place of injured veteran K.J. Wright, he rotated with rookie Shaquem Griffin at weakside linebacker and finished with four tackles in 33 snaps.
And that’s despite only beginning to practice at that position the week before.
“Austin has done a really good job for us,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said in the postgame press conference. “He has been playing the other spot and we just switched him over when K.J. got banged up, but I think as we look forward that was a really positive move to get him in the game.”
Added Calitro in the locker room after his regular season debut: “I think that was the most fun part for me, that I’ll probably look back on one day and be proud of — just the fact that I was out there with guys like Earl (Thomas) and Bobby (Wagner) and (Jarran) Reed and we were all communicating and getting on the same page.”
That process will have to continue this week, as Wright — who is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery — is unlikely to play on Monday night against Chicago. Wagner also missed two practices this week with a groin injury, potentially putting his status in doubt. To combat the sudden lack of depth in the middle of the Seattle defense, the team on Friday signed former Browns linebacker Mychal Kendricks — who pleaded guilty last month to a felony insider-trading charge but is expected to be sentenced no earlier than January.
Calitro, meanwhile, may be expected to contribute at both weakside and middle linebacker.
That shouldn’t be a problem. Adjustments are nothing new.
“I’m telling you, criss-crossing the country and flying from one place to another (last season), not being signed and then being signed and let go, you’ve got to have a strong determination,” Sharon Calitro said. “He just continued to work hard.”
And, when he was needed, Austin Calitro answered the call.
“It’s hard,” Calitro said of enduring cut-down day. “But at the same time there’s a very limited number of people that are even able to get this far, so I look at it like it’s a blessing and try to roll with the punches, because there’s hopefully going to be sunshine on the other side.
“Hopefully I broke through and found my little bit of sunshine.”