COLUMBUS — He is just now living his college dream, almost eight years out of high school and half a world away from his last job.
Craig Cataline is a linebacker at Ohio State, and for a player who grew up in a scarlet-blooded house two miles from Ohio Stadium, he can’t believe quite how that sounds.
“Sometimes, I try to step back and look at it from a different angle,” he said. “It’s neat being a part of something so much bigger than myself.”
Yet Cataline is prouder still of another identity.
When he tears into the Horseshoe before more than 105,000 fans on Saturdays, he thinks about his brothers — his two older ones who served in the Army and the friends forged from his own time overseas.
“I like to be able to say that I served,” he said. “It commands a little respect.”
Before the 25-year-old Cataline walked on at Ohio State last season and became a key special teams contributor on a national championship contender, he spent four years in the Navy — including a one-year tour in the Persian Gulf guarding an oil platform off the coast of Kuwait.
“A very unique story,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s one of my — arguably my favorite — but one of my favorite players. He’s a very powerful guy on kickoff cover, a very valuable guy on our team right now, just with his demeanor, his leadership, his toughness.”
For Cataline, an all-state linebacker as a senior at Grandview Heights in 2005, it is not a path he could have envisioned.
Uncertain of his future after high school, he joined the military with the intention of later attending college on the GI Bill. His older brothers, Ryan and Eric, who spent time in Iraq, nudged him toward the Navy. But Cataline, too, soon found himself in the Middle East.
Stationed in Kuwait, he was part of the security team standing watch on a massive oil platform amid Iraqi waters, often in the middle of the night. Though the temperatures soared beyond triple digits and loneliness set in, he cherished the comradeship among his group.
“My oldest brother was infantry in the invasion [of Iraq],” Cataline said. “It wasn’t like I was kicking down doors and arresting people. But when you ship overseas, when you’re in close quarters with your friends like that, you grow attached.”
He briefly attended Embry-Riddle in Prescott, Ariz., in 2010 before returning home to attend Ohio State. A lifelong fan of the Buckeyes — “I can remember as a kid getting pretty upset when they’d lose,” Cataline said, laughing — he considered his extracurricular sporting options.
“I guess I just kind of wanted to compete in something and wasn’t ready to start playing rec league softball,” he said. “I was still healthy enough to compete.”
So he decided he’d try walk on to the football team, which as it turned out, was glad to have him. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Cataline brought grit, maturity, and an earth-moving fire in practice.
“He’s what you would imagine from a guy that served in the Navy for a while,” Meyer said last season. “Tough as nails, completely committed, and incredible discipline. He goes 100 miles an hour. I wish he was more athletic, because we’d find a way to get him on the field more.”
This year, they have. After switching from fullback to linebacker, the junior is a starter on kickoff coverage and part of the punt block rotation. He even graded a “champion” as one of the stars of the third-ranked Buckeyes’ 63-14 win over Penn State last month.
Cataline embraces his role as a leader, knowing he is not there to be developed as a linebacker. If he can help on special teams — starting linebackers “Curtis Grant and Ryan Shazier don’t need to be running down the field on kickoff and punt block,” he said — then that is where he will take names.
“I just try to go really hard,” said Cataline, a natural resources management major. “That’s really what they want in the end. I just want to contribute.”
He is living his dream, more grateful than you could ever know.
“I think about the guys that are still serving and the guys that are overseas right now, still in Afghanistan taking fire,” Cataline said. “I think about that kind of stuff. I like to think I appreciate where I am. I don’t like when people don’t appreciate this country. There are a lot way worse out there.”
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.