Navy vet a valued contributor for OSU

After U.S. military members unveiled the flag prior to the Florida A&M game, Navy veteran Craig Cataline took the field for Ohio State. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At least once it was somewhere in the ocean.

Other times it was on an oil platform in Kuwait.

Regardless of the location, it was usually in the middle of the night when Craig Cataline would grab a spare moment, find a place to settle in and get a glimpse of his beloved Ohio State football team playing back home while he was half a world away serving in the Navy.

A bad call against USC still sticks in his mind. The scenic shots of the Rose Bowl were surely worth waking up to see at around 2 a.m. But perhaps more than just the opportunity to be a fan or enjoy a distraction, what Cataline was really watching was a glimpse at his future.

"I remember waking up at odd hours," Cataline said. "I always watched the games on Saturday if I could, but I didn't really see myself playing.

"It was always something I wanted to do, but I guess it just wasn't something that was really my objective then."

Cataline had plenty of other missions to keep him busy at that point, starting with a stint as an aircraft mechanic in Nebraska and a year on a security force in Kuwait.

Now he's a seek-and-destroy member of the team he's spent his whole life watching. He has a role as a walk-on nearly eight years removed from Grandview Heights High School. He's a valued member of the Ohio State special teams and is on the short list of the coaching staff's favorite players on the team.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker has a relatively modest two tackles to his credit, but his relentless work ethic and passion and attention to detail consistently draws praise as an example for the rest of the program, which is perhaps no surprise given his military experience. But after a long layoff without putting on pads, he's also showing potential of being able to contribute a bit more often on the field. He graded out as a special teams "champion" in a recent victory over Penn State, and the No. 3 team in the country wouldn't be putting Cataline or anybody else on the field at this point if he couldn't get the job done.

"He's very, very physical. He has no fear, which is what you would expect from somebody who has served," special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. "He's a good athlete, a good player, a run-and-hit guy, which is really what you're looking for on special teams. But it's the maturity that he brings to the unit, for him to walk out there and do things the way he does them sends a message to everybody else.

"I don't think there's a single kid or coach on the team that would question the value every time Craig is out there on the field."

The path he took to get there has been longer than most. But even if the master plan wasn't exactly designed to get Cataline on the field at the Horseshoe, he executed it about as perfectly as possible since making the decision to join the Navy following an all-state season in 2005.

Cataline said he received some recruiting letters from Division I schools and had interest from several Division II and III programs interested in his athleticism out of high school, but the chance to have his tuition paid for after serving was a bigger draw for him.

Before returning home, Cataline also spent a semester wresting at Embry-Riddle in Arizona before a chance encounter at a local gym in Columbus put him in touch with an Ohio State staffer who helped set up his walk-on opportunity.

"I hadn't put the pads on in a long time," Cataline said. "I had terrible footwork. The whole body position was off just from not doing stuff for so long.

"The reason I'm playing is I still had a desire to compete, and I knew I could do it at a high level. But I really haven't looked back yet, because right now I'm just trying to get better, man. All I have to do is make more tackles."

That's a bit more straightforward than working on a jet, and maybe doesn't have quite the same stakes as keeping a watch on an oil platform in the Persian Gulf.

But that also doesn't mean his latest mission doesn't come with its own set of challenges, though a military man's approach to the tasks at hand can be pretty useful.

"It feels good to contribute, because I want to help out the team as much as possible," Cataline said. "I didn't really understand what all went into each week. It's a lot, you know, not just a game on Saturday, similar [to the Navy] in a lot of ways. You have the conform-or-get-out mentality. There's no way but the way the coaches want it, and that's the way it is in the military.

"But I didn't join the team to just wear a jersey on the sideline. My goal is to play and try to make an impact."

Just like his old one, Cataline's current uniform fits him just fine.