Pete ‘Sledgehammer’ Catan earned his nickname as a defensive end, but today, he’s more likely to build something up than tear it down
What do legendary NFL quarterbacks Steve Young, Dan Marino and Warren Moon have in common? They have all been schooled by Woodstock High School’s building trades teacher Pete Catan.
Not in the traditional sense of course, but as opponents to Catan, the determined and tactical defensive end who entertained fans with dozens of quarterback sacks during his college and professional football career in the mid-1970s to 1980s, earning the name “Sledgehammer” along the way.
A three-time All-American and NCAA D-II National Champion at Eastern Illinois University, Catan made his jump to a decorated pro career with the help of agent Jack Wirth of Huntley. He played three seasons with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, two seasons with the United States Football League’s Houston Gamblers and two years in the National Football League with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers.
“He was outstanding,” said Wirth. “He had all the intangibles like effort and attitude. Those are things you can’t teach and you can’t coach.”
According to Gambler archives, Catan’s 17 1/2 quarterback sacks in 1984 ranked second in the USFL; that same year he was named to the All-USFL first team. The performance stood up to the reputation for impressive stats he built at EIU and in the CFL. At Eastern, Catan led the team as captain, earning AP honorable mention All-American (1978) and first team All-American honors (1979 and 1980).
The Panthers won the national title in 1978 and stormed back for the runner-up spot in 1980, when Catan was honored as a Kodak All-American. The team’s record during that time was 30-9. Several of his EIU records still stand: tied for first for six sacks in a game (21 per season and 47 per career), first for 19 tackles for loss in a season and first for 45 tackles for loss in a career. He was inducted into the EIU Hall of Fame in 1991.
During three seasons with Winnipeg, Catan logged 121 career tackles in 31 games, including 38 quarterback sacks. He was a CFL Western All-Star and defensive MVP for the Blue Bombers. He twice earned league Player of the Week honors.
In the USFL Catan fully capitalized on his speed, which only came to him through tremendous “pain, hardship and effort.”
“I studied body mechanics and trained myself to emulate the superior athletes and where they’d be on the field,” said Catan. “When I watched film of my opponents, I would find small things ... and take advantage of his inaccuracies. I would avoid the things he was very good at.”
“My big thing was speed and exploding off the ball. I was already moving when the ball moved.”
The strategy worked and Catan’s confidence and ability grew with as he rattled his opponents’ nerves. His brother, Chris Catan, said he remembers witnessing Catan in action at EIU and is still amazed by the example Catan set for his teammates.
“He never thought about it,” said Chris Catan, who had asked Catan if he ever set goals to accomplish so much. “He’d say, ‘I knew my job. If I did my job well, those other things would come. If I could get to the quarterback or force a fumble a couple of times a game, you figure by the end of the season it would add up.”
“His job was to put pressure on the ball. He didn’t worry about the statistics. He said, ‘What am I going to do this game?’” added Chris Catan. “Those are the things that helped him get 20 sacks a year.”
“I have always had an internal focus to be the best I could be at whatever I am doing,” said Catan. “In sports, my motivation didn’t come from my parents, coaches or peers, it came from within myself. I was competing against myself and not the opponent, which helped me to excel under pressure.
“I always worked on my weaknesses which improved my overall performance on the field. Therefore, my performance was never about the accolades, it was always about improving.”
Improvement is something Catan stresses to WHS building trades students who build a house during a two year period in preparation to enter the construction industry as skilled laborers.
“I help them understand the word no means no, and that’s not a bad thing,” said Catan. “It’s not a bad thing to not be able to play your Xbox all day or have a cell phone. It builds character.
“The kudos is when they come back from training, have started their own lives and see the importance of hard work. Life isn’t fair. It sure isn’t easy, but if you put your nose to the grindstone and have faith in the Lord, things will work.”
Woodstock firefighter and 2008 WHS grad Brandon Teresi understands the lessons Catan was speaking of. After two fulfilling years in Catan’s class, Teresi was ready to enter the carpentry business. The economy soured about the time he graduated, though, leaving him to look for an alternative. While he has switched gears considerably for his current job and now looks forward to obtaining his EMT license, the lessons he learned in Catan’s classroom remain a fixture in his outlook on life.
“He’s one of those teachers I’ll never forget,” said Teresi. “He told us about when he was young he worked for a municipality and he was let go because he was working too hard. The other guys would say to him, ‘Slow down kid.’ They were older guys who had their own pace. He was the opposite. He always said, ‘If you don’t want to work hard, then this isn’t the job for you.’ It shows you what you can do.”
Chris Catan, a parent and coach, has observed how important it is for teens to learn the importance of hard work. He said he recognizes the positive arena sports can provide in teaching that lesson and is glad his brother’s involvement with students can provide that, be it through the classroom or the example he sets benching more than 280-pounds in the weight room. Chris Catan feels more students should take advantage of the programs high schools offer to students to gain life skills, especially when funding cuts make existing programs so precious.
“Sports saved Peter Catan,” said Chris. “Peter became a different person when he played a sport. If you can get someone to focus and have self-pride, the sky is the limit.”
“It’s unbelievable what you can do with these kids. Peter is cognizant of that. If you want something, put the effort in and he’ll be right there with you.”