UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — David Vitatoe still remembers the kick. It was midway through the 1998 season, a home game on the campus of John Carroll University here in this suburb to the east of Cleveland.
Vitatoe had already made four field goals against cross-city rival Baldwin Wallace, but the game would come down to his making one more. He lined up on the left hash, with about three seconds left … and he hooked it. Twenty years later the miss still haunts him.
But there’s something else he remembers as clearly as that kick. Vitatoe was moping in his dorm room after the game, undecided if he should go to a house party with the rest of his teammates later that night. He talked himself into it, but almost lost his nerve as he approached the front door. As soon he walked in, though, one of his teammates popped up off the couch, put his arm around him, and sat back down with him. Nick Caserio.
“I don’t think we even talked about the game, or football, but he broke that tension and made me feel at ease,” says Vitatoe. “He was the starting quarterback, we lost that game, and I felt terrible probably most for him. It’s his senior year, right? But he was smart enough to know probably how that felt for me.”
Vitatoe, now the school’s executive director of alumni relations, is no doubt asked more today about the John Carroll teams of the late ’90s than when he was actually playing on them. The Division III Blue Streaks, who compete in the Ohio Athletic Conference in stadiums with a capacity of a few thousand each, have produced a key contingent of a Patriots dynasty headed for its eighth Super Bowl this century. Caserio is the Patriots’ director of player personnel; offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was one of his receivers; and five other John Carroll alums are currently working in coaching or personnel for the Patriots.
Their pictures and bios are framed and grouped together in a “Patriots” section of the memorabilia room at the stadium, which is named for the school’s most famous alum. Don Shula, class of 1951, enrolled in the Jesuit university because he was thinking about becoming a priest, before he became the winningest NFL coach of all time. In the early ’90s Chris and Brian Polian came to John Carroll from a Catholic high school in the Buffalo area, where their dad, Bill, had been the Bills GM; they played with Tom Telesco and Dave Caldwell, who would later work under Bill en route to becoming general managers of the Chargers and Jaguars, respectively.
Caserio and McDaniels, both local kids who quarterbacked high school teams in northeast Ohio, created their own branch of the tree. They met while competing for the backup quarterback job at John Carroll in 1995. A fifth-year senior was the starter, but when he broke his leg in the first game of the season against Ohio Wesleyan, Caserio took over. He would graduate with 16 school records. McDaniels, looking for another way to contribute, moved to receiver.
The coach at the time, Tony DeCarlo, was a CEO-type who turned around the program by changing everything from the uniforms to the dress code for away games, in the name of creating a culture that befit Shula’s alma mater. The offensive coordinator was Joe Perella, Caserio’s former coach at University School, who ditched John Carroll’s run-first offense for a spread system with three- and four-receiver sets and used concepts like the bubble screen that were uncommon at the time in their league.
“Nick and Josh were both guys that were undersized, were told that they were undersized, and were told that a lot that’s why you weren’t going to get Division I offers,” says Christopher Wenzler, assistant athletic director and sports information director, who has been at John Carroll for 28 years. “But they knew they were football players, and that’s what they wanted to do, so they had a very similar mindset.”
Both were known as intense, focused, constant fixtures in the offices of the offensive coaches, where they would study film, look for opponents’ tendencies and watch for how their own teammates would react to things that happened (as Caserio did that night at the house party). Vitatoe had a locker near McDaniels, and while McDaniels would have been able to compare placekicking notes (he was a very reliable kicker at Canton McKinley High), he mostly pulled guys aside with messages of encouragement: We might need you today. Get ready now. Visualize what you’re doing.
“Something a coach would say, not a teammate,” says Vitatoe. “I observed him doing that with a lot of guys, and I think the coaches really valued Josh on the team for that reason. He had a lens that he saw things through, and their ego wasn’t so big that they didn’t listen. In the film room, the huddle, in the locker room, they’d draw on his vision, his expertise.”
John Carroll has a student body of around 3,500, so its presence in NFL circles is something remarkable. A decade ago the university honored 16 alumni who had made a career in professional football; the number has continued to grow. London Fletcher, who graduated in 1997, played 16 seasons as an NFL linebacker, but John Carroll alums have mainly dotted NFL coaching staffs and front offices. It’s a tradition well-known enough that a defensive back who graduated last year, Jovon Dawson, wouldn’t blink when asked in interviews about his career aspirations: to be a GM in the NFL. Through a connection with a former assistant coach at John Carroll, Dawson is now a scouting assistant with the Bears.
The pipeline from Northeast Ohio to Foxboro, Mass., began with McDaniels, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Thom, a legendary high school coach in Ohio. Josh took a job as a graduate assistant at Michigan State under Nick Saban, who had gotten to know Thom on many Ohio recruiting visits. After that year, McDaniels returned to Ohio and was working as a plastics sales representative when he got a call from another GA he’d worked with at Michigan State. Brian Daboll had been hired to a defensive quality control position in New England, and now he had an opportunity to move up, but he needed someone to take over his job. McDaniels was the guy.
A year later, McDaniels was in the same situation, so he called his old college teammate: Nick Caserio. They both quickly rose through the ranks of the notoriously rigorous Patriots organization. Caserio spent the 2007 season as receivers coach but has mainly worked on the personnel side, where he is trusted as Belichick’s right-hand man in assembling the New England roster. The compassion he showed as a teammate might not be a central part of his current job, but the asset management skills he learned as a finance major certainly would be.
“The way Belichick looks analytically at things maps well to the way a finance major would think about those decisions,” says Andy Welki, associate professor of economics at John Carroll. “They have been at the forefront all along in figuring out who is worth what. As soon as your value starts to drop off, or as soon as the price we are going to have to pay you is too great for what we think your current productivity is, we are going to sever that tie.” (Welki adds that the city of Cleveland still remembers Belichick cutting Bernie Kosar, the fan-favorite quarterback, when he was the Browns head coach in the early ’90s).
McDaniels and Caserio have brought others into the fold. When McDaniels was head coach of the Broncos, he hired to his scouting department another college teammate, Dave Ziegler, who was then an assistant coach at a high school in Arizona. Ziegler is now the Patriots’ pro personnel director. Assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski, another college teammate, was credited by Belichick last season with getting third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett ready to play when he was pushed into action during Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension. Pro scout Frank Ross didn’t play with McDaniels and Caserio, but when he was a junior receiver at John Carroll, he heard Caserio would be in town to be inducted into the athletic department’s Hall of Fame. He waited for Caserio after the ceremony just to introduce himself; he was hired by the Patriots after he graduated. Tight ends coach Nick Caley and scouting assistant D.J. Debick are also John Carroll products.
There are plenty of contributing factors as to why alums from the Division III school have beaten the odds of breaking into the NFL, whether it’s the scrappiness often shared by small-school players or the school’s mission of encouraging learning, leadership and service. More than anything else, though, it’s a line of graduates who have opened the doors for others behind them.
The John Carroll football staff uses the NFL ties as a recruiting chip; the university has also seen an uptick in applications from high schools in the New England area, Vitatoe says. (Side note: if you look down while walking around campus, you may spot Caserio’s literal mark on the campus—a stamp in a square of pavement bearing his last name. His dad owns a concrete business in nearby Moreland Hills, and a regular client is John Carroll).
On Super Bowl Sunday, McDaniels and Caserio will talk as much as they did as a quarterback-receiver duo at Don Shula Stadium 20 years ago. Caserio is one of three people up in the coaches’ booth who are on the headset with him during the game. They talk in between plays, sharing information like game situation and the personnel grouping of the defense; they talk between series, as McDaniels reviews the still photos from plays in the previous series with Tom Brady. It’s an unusual role for a personnel director, but it speaks to the fact that they have seen the game the same way since their days as college teammates.
Next Sunday will be the last time, for now. After Super Bowl 52, McDaniels is expected to be hired as the new coach of the Colts. For John Carroll, another branch in the pipeline.
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