Chandler Catanzaro had his degree, a good MCAT score and an interview set up with a medical school right in South Carolina when the Arizona Cardinals called and offered him a tryout. With Jay Feely already out there in the desert, a roster spot was no lock. But Catanzaro took a shot -- and, 17 field goals later, he's become the specimen in the lab: a nearly perfect NFL kicker.
"He can always go to med school when he's 50," Catanzaro's mom, Tonya, says with a laugh.
The 8-1 Cardinals have received contributions from corners both likely and unlikely. The most unexpected, though, might have come from this rookie kicker, a Clemson product with preternatural calm, an unabashed lack of guile -- he says he took it as a good sign when he found out Cardinals camp was held in Chandler, Arizona -- and the mental precision of a surgeon. Never mind that he actually wanted to be a dermatologist, like his father.
"My mom and dad always told me God blessed you according to your preparation. In kicking, I have to be prepared for any situation," he says. Teasingly reminded that things aren't always that easy, he quickly says, "I'm a kicker. My job is to make it look easy!"
Before last week's 53-yard miss against the St. Louis Rams, Catanzaro sure had, setting the record for consecutive field goals made by a rookie to start a season (17). After going 3 for 3 against Washington in a Week 6 win, he was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. He won the job this summer over the veteran Feely partly because of how consistently he booms his kickoffs.
The Cardinals' coaching staff had fun with Catanzaro's streak, with head coach Bruce Arians -- whose own son was a kicker -- barking at reporters not to "jinx" things by asking about it. But this has never been about luck. Catanzaro's work ethic is consuming, his focus meticulous. And his penchant for the big moment ... well, it runs deep.
As a high school freshman, Catanzaro won the deciding match for his team's tennis state championship. As a sophomore on his soccer team, he headed in the deciding goal in the state title game. He twice hit game-winning three-pointers for his basketball team, which he captained as a senior. And he was an option quarterback in middle school -- a fact that, yes, he tries to drop into conversation with his Arizona coaches every so often. He says he'd love to execute a trick play or two.
"The dream was to be a star quarterback or a star point guard," Catanzaro says. "I never thought about being a kicker. I don't even think I knew a kicker other than Morten Andersen."
It was Andersen, interestingly enough, who had a huge hand -- or leg -- in Catanzaro's getting here. After an uneven freshman season at Clemson, Catanzaro discovered the NFL's all-time scoring leader was offering private clinics less than two hours from campus. His father took him, and thus began a relationship Catanzaro said continues today. He still calls Andersen his mentor, and he still regularly consults with him. These days, they talk about the mental aspects of the game more than they do anything physical: visualization and positive keys.
Catanzaro says not much has changed as he's gone from being a total unknown to being an NFL record holder. Sure, more people know his nickname (the Cat Man). But he still counts his dad as his hero, and he still reminds himself daily -- so his confidence won't waver -- that "I was born to do this."
Catanzaro's mom, dad and invariably one of his three sisters help keep him grounded. There's always some family representation at his games, sitting behind the uprights, where, Tonya jokes, only a kicker's family wants to sit.
All these years into his career, Joe Catanzaro has taken to working two Saturdays a month, so that he can shift over Monday patients and travel to his son's games. Tonya has missed just two games, in Oakland and in New York. And even though she laughs about kickers and their superstitions, she admits it: She wears the same outfit to every game. (And once, when she had a T-shirt pulled over her usual black tank top and red beads, and the Cardinals were down, a woman in the stands up above her hollered at her to get back into the lucky top.)
It's obvious, in the way Chandler Catanzaro talks, that family -- by blood and by team -- matters tremendously. He's become even closer to running back Andre Ellington than he was at Clemson, the tie between the fellow former Tigers strengthening in this Cardinals locker room on the other side of the country. He describes the help Feely offered during their competition as that from a big brother. When he picks a meaningful moment from training camp, it's veteran quarterback Carson Palmer pulling him aside after a rough stretch at practice.
"Here I am, a rookie free-agent kicker, and Carson Palmer was giving me advice for 15 minutes when I was struggling. He was telling me was about confidence, really -- and it made a difference. It made," Catanzaro says, "the transition easier."
From the outside, Catanzaro's transition has appeared seamless through the midpoint of the season. The Cardinals have a new challenge, with Palmer lost for the year to a torn ACL and Drew Stanton taking the reins in his stead. But Stanton -- perhaps like Catanzaro -- plays with the savvy and cool of a veteran, and the kicker says this team has an air about it that trumps all else.
"I think it's just heart. We have a lot of heart, and so we find a way to get it done," he says.
As for his remarkable early career, he offers a favorite football cliché -- "It's not how you start, it's how you finish" -- and humbly says he hopes he's in this league long enough for his MCAT scores to expire. And then, with the same evenness and focus the Cardinals so appreciate, he acknowledges he does, of course, have a preparation plan should that wish come true.
"Right now, I'm solidifying myself in the league. But in a couple years, if I've done that," he says, "I'll start reading those MCAT books again."