Big brother serves as catalyst for Catalina coming to UGA

Tyler Catalina (L) poses next to his "big" brother Tony Catalina at Exceed Sports and Fitness, where he works out daily in Worcester, Mass.

WORCESTER, Mass. – This is a story about two brothers. It is supposed to be about Tyler Catalina, the rather notable graduate transfer offensive lineman out of the University of Rhode Island who arrived in Athens on Wednesday with the remainder of Georgia’s 2016 football signees. But one can’t explain Tyler Catalina without first explaining his relationship with his big brother, Tony Jr.

And by big brother, we mean older. Tony is six days shy of 18 months older than Tyler.

We certainly aren’t referencing size. Tony and Tyler Catalina represent one of those family genetic oddities nobody outside the medical community can eloquently explain. They have the same parents — Tony Sr. and Kim Catalina — and in every way they act like twins. They are emotionally close, they like the same things and even finish each others’ sentences. Sitting side-by-side, they look remarkably similar.

The Catalina boys, Tyler (L) and Tony, have been tight since birth. FAMILY PHOTO

Then you see them stand up. The 23-year-old Tyler, who has signed with the Bulldogs to much fanfare, is 6-foot-6, 325 pounds. Tony, 24, is full foot shorter and hovers around 200, which is closer to the family mold.

But this is not about what sets these brothers apart. It’s about the bond that keeps them together.

“I did my best from day one to instill in them family first,” Kim Catalina, their mother, explains of their close relationship. “There is no bigger fan of Tyler Catalina than Tony Catalina, and vice versa. Tony is a wordsmith and a football-smith. Believe it or not, he knows more about football than anybody in the family. And he has been very instrumental in everything that has happened.”

“Yeah, he’s all right I guess,” Tyler deadpans.

Getting out the word

Tony coaches quarterbacks at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, a suburb of Worcester. But it’s not necessarily his cerebral football knowledge that helped land his little brother at the University of Georgia.

No, that would be owed to Tony Catalina’s supreme belief in Tyler and the enormous power of social media.

First, it was Tony who was most often in Tyler’s ear telling him he was capable of playing a higher level of football than he was in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) at the University of Rhode Island. He breaks down videotape all the time at work and watches a lot of football on television besides. So Tony knows full well what major football talent looks like and has long contended that his brother has those attributes.

Kim Catalina is proud of both of her sons and credits Tony (R) for much of the recruiting notice Tyler received this past winter. (AJC / CHIP TOWERS)

Once Tony helped convince his brother that he had goods to play football at the highest level, Tony set out to help his brother do it. And he did that one tweet at a time.

“Actually, social media did help a lot,” said Tony, who has sent out more than 27,500 tweets from his @Tony_Catalina Twitter account. “The way social media is nowadays, you have to put things out there. People may get annoyed by my tweets and I may lose followers, but I’m always trying to do the best I can for Tyler. Honestly, if I can let one person know who Tyler is, I did what I could.

“Ultimately his talent, his tape had to do it. But I tried to give him a platform.”

Tony started following football coaches and recruiting reporters on Twitter and made sure whenever there was news regarding his brother they knew about it. He broadcasted the fact that Tyler was planning to leave Rhode Island as a graduate transfer last fall, he let it be known whenever his brother would receive another scholarship offer and, when articles started being written about Tyler Catalina, he’d link those, too.

“Oregon contacted him early on and a reporter from 247 Sports, I think it was, did an article on him,” Tony said. “As soon as that article came out, we had like three offers a half-hour later. It literally started blowing up after that.”

Said Tyler: “After the dead period ended, things just erupted. I had schools that wanted to set up visits and offer scholarships. It was crazy.”

No longer a Rhody

Of course, scholarship offers don’t come dropping out of the sky just because somebody posts something on the Internet. One has to bring some actual skills to the table for the SEC to come calling. But once Catalina’s video began circulating, coaches concluded that he did.

A real workout warrior, Catalina credits Exceed Sports and Fitness owner Sean Smith for taking his training to another level. AJC / CHIP TOWERS

Catalina was a three-year starter at Rhode Island, first at right tackle and the last two seasons at left tackle. The Rams compete in the Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA), once known as the SEC of the old I-AA division and a league that produces its share of NFL players. Just while Catalina was there, he faced the likes of Stony Brook’s Victor Ochi, who played in the East-West Shrine Game and is now with the Rams, Richmond’s Kerry Wynn, now of the Giants, and Trevor Bates of Maine and Zach Kerr of Delaware, who are now both with the Colts.

Suffice it to say, URI coach Jim Fleming didn’t want Catalina to leave.

“It went about as well as you might expect it to,” Catalina said. “He was not happy with it and he tried to keep me there. But my mind was made up.”

Going 5-30 the last three seasons didn’t exactly endear URI to Catalina. But his primary motivation for leaving was to test himself at a higher level.

“Absolutely. That’s the whole point behind the decision,” Catalina said. “Obviously the last three seasons at URI weren’t what we hoped they’d be. But I wasn’t tired of URI. This is to prepare for the biggest job interview in the world. You’ve got to play the best competition. You’ve got to have that resume.”

Catalina was left with a compressed recruiting window, essentially mid-December to early February. It was slow-going at first, which contributed to him signing a financial aid agreement with Iowa State in December. After that, Catalina’s recruiting took off.

By the end of it, Catalina entertained more than 25 major college scholarship offers. Six of those came from SEC schools — Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Missouri, Texas A&M and Arkansas.

“It’s quite an honor to get to play for and against the teams I grew up watching every day,” Tyler said of the unexpected opportunities. “Georgia has always been one of my favorites, alongside of Florida. Being able to get an offer from both of them truly was an honor.”

In the end, the Catalinas chose Georgia over Florida and Auburn. They felt the Bulldogs offered the best opportunity.

Academics delay dream

The irony of Catalina coming to Georgia as a graduate transfer is the fact that poor academics are what put him on the previous path in the first place. UGA is, after all, a tough place to get into academically and that goes double for graduate school. But Catalina was able to clear his scholastic hurdles because of his good work at Rhode Island. There he was named student-athlete of the year and a team captain his junior year.

No, it was before Catalina got to college that he ran into academic problems. He actually was an exceptional football player on some very good teams at Wachusett Regional High School, good enough to warrant recruiting interest. The Mountaineers went 13-0 and won the state championship his junior season and 11-2 and won the Class B title as a senior.

Indeed, Catalina got invited to the Boston College camp and a few others after his junior year. But despite his 6-foot-5, 280-pound frame, his transcript eventually ran off potential suitors.

“I was just into everything but schoolwork,” said Catalina, an avid hunter and golfer. “That’s my biggest regret. If I could go back and do it all over again I’d try to be an A-plus student. That’s the truth. So if there’s anybody out there that thinks high school’s a joke, it’s not. You’ve got to take it serious, especially if you want to play at the next level and get a college degree.”

Catalina’s academic shortcomings set him off on a long and winding road to extend his football career. First, it landed him at The Kent School, a prestigious prep school across the state line in Connecticut.

Catalina ended up there almost on a lark. With no tangible scholarship offers coming out of high school, it was a teammate’s grandfather who introduced him to the idea of attending prep school. “Mr. Grady,” as Tyler remembers him, had some connections at Kent and made the initial introductions.

And Tyler was quite fortunate to land at the private boarding school three and half hours away from Worcester. The school gives out only four football post-graduate scholarships per year.

“I remember him distinctly,” said Todd Marble, still athletic director at Kent but then also football coach. “We rarely have kids that big. For us, we’re looking for kids that are referred to us. Most of the kids we get are Ivy League types. We’re not generally producing Division I football players every year. Most that we get are going Division III or Ivy League.”

With Catalina anchoring the left side of the Kent line, Marble said he helped lead Kent to a championship. But this wasn’t what Catalina refers to as a joyful chapter on his journey.

Kent, Conn., was a long way from home. And in terms of the environment in which he found himself in, both academically and socially, Catalina might as well have been on another planet.

“Yeah, you know, I had a tough time at Kent just because of how strict it was,” Catalina said. “Shirt-and-tie, blazers, you had to be clean-shaven every day, bed times. I did my best, but it was tough. Coach Marble is a great man. He did a lot to help me out. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, as much as I struggled with it.”

Catalina attracted some recruiting interest at Kent. B.C., Temple, UConn, Miami of Ohio all came calling. But Catalina still didn’t have the one thing they all required — a qualifying SAT score. He took the test six times before finally achieving what he needed. By then it was early July, and at that point only Rhode Island was still waiting.

The Catalina brothers spend as much time together as they can, though they’ll live 1,000 miles apart as of next week. AJC / CHIP TOWERS

Big leap from CAA to SEC

As for Catalina’s next recruiting adventure, Georgia actually got on Catalina relatively late. Missouri was the first offer he received from the SEC and the Bulldogs didn’t get involved until after Florida had already wooed him for a while.

In fact, UGA didn’t come forth with a firm scholarship offer until National Signing Day the first week of February. Catalina didn’t visit Athens until that next weekend, but he committed right away. He canceled a visit scheduled with Auburn for Feb. 19.

But for Tyler Catalina, it was worth the wait. He has a favorite saying that he learned because it is mounted on a plaque on a wall at Exceed Sports and Fitness, the Westborough gym where Catalina has worked out every day he’s home for the last four years. It’s from Henry Ford and it reads:

“The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right. Which one are you?”

Catalina is now at Georgia because he thinks he can start at left tackle for the Bulldogs and help them contend for a national championship this season. Obviously Georgia thinks he can, too, or else it wouldn’t have recruited him so vigorously and paid him a personal visit in the middle of spring practice.

Or, as Georgia coach Kirby Smart, you don’t bring in a graduate transfer “to be fourth string.”

But it’s a huge leap for sure from the CAA to the SEC, where Catalina will be asked to block the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Robert Nkemdiche and other future NFL first-rounders. And then he’s still got to win the job. Junior Isaiah Wynn and sophomore Kendall Baker already man the position and certainly won’t just sashay to the side and say, “come on and take my job, short-timer.”

“Obviously it’s a lot of pressure,” Tyler Catalina said. “It’s not just going from FCS to Division I-A, it’s going to the SEC. I get that. But I’m extremely excited about it. I know I can do it. I know I’m going to perform at a high level. I’ve just got to get in there, learn the playbook and earn my stripes from Day One.”

Tony believes his little brother can carry this thing beyond college. A self-described football geek, Tony has studied the NFL draft for years and he’s convinced Tyler has what it takes to get to that level.

“I’m always comparing him the best of each draft class,” Tony said. “His measurables, his strength, stuff like that. I’m like, ‘Tyler, I know talent; I know what it takes; you’ve got what it takes.’ … But it’s from me, so he’s like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s my brother.’ But now we’re hearing it from other people.

“So for us it was, ‘Let’s go to the SEC and answer every question they’ve got. Let’s get on the best team possible and show them he deserves to be there, he belongs there and answer their questions.”

Perhaps Tyler Catalina will be an answer for Georgia as well.

Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.

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