Julia Catalano vividly remembers Sept. 16, 2012. It was the day she found her calling.
The Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Baltimore Ravens at Lincoln Financial Field. Julia’s parents, Christine and Joseph, had a won a sweepstakes sponsored by Snapple that gave them free tickets and allowed Julia to go on the field for the pregame coin toss.
The 12-year-old had never shown any interest in football before, had never been to a college or high school game. But that Sunday afternoon changed everything.
“I fell in love with the game,” Julia said. “Not like the theatrics or the mascot or the fireworks, the flyover. I fell in love with the X’s and the O’s.
“I saw a linebacker drop into coverage. I saw the way a receiver got off the line of scrimmage, and I realized that I loved this sport. From that moment, I walked out of that stadium, and I just devoted my life to it.”
Last week, Julia completed her senior season as a “student associate” with the Appoquinimink High School football team. She has applied to 10 colleges, all with major football programs. She has already impressed a college coach and an NFL coach with her knowledge, and her ultimate goal is to work in the NFL.
Julia Catalano is a football coach.
Her mother still remembers that Eagles-Ravens game, how her daughter became transfixed by the teams’ plays and formations. Neither Christine nor Joseph was a football fan.
“She really had never taken an interest in watching it on TV or anything,” Christine said. “But it just blossomed from there.”
A couple of months later, she asked her parents for the NFL Network as a Christmas present. Then she wanted every football book she could get her hands on.
“We tried her in sports when she was younger, and she just didn’t have an interest,” Christine said. “We just kind of let it go at that point and said she’ll find her way with what she’s going to love to do. It just came, and we were like, ‘Football?’”
Julia tried cross country, soccer, field hockey and dance. But mostly, she loved to read. She loved to learn. She loved to analyze.
“I think that’s why she took to football, analyzing the plays,” Christine said. “It was like a big piece of a puzzle she could figure out.”
Starting at Appo
The family moved from Galena, Maryland, to Middletown before Julia’s sophomore year. Before classes even started at Appoquinimink, she approached first-year football coach Brian Timpson about being part of the team.
“Before I could ask any questions, her first question was, ‘Do you run a 4-3, a 3-4, a 5-2, what kind of defensive scheme are we going to be running?’” Timpson said. “I realized she’s not your ordinary student. She understood football and wanted to be a part of it, and she’s been with us ever since.”
Julia’s role has expanded each season. As a sophomore, she filmed each game and helped with the water and other managerial duties. As a junior, she talked with the coaches more and became a statistician.
This fall, she was as close to being a coach as you can be without the official label. She dressed the same – khakis and polo shirt with the Appo logo. She watched film, charted plays, assisted in drills and even made suggestions that sometimes paid off during the game.
“Her main job for us is to draw the opponent’s defense, how they line up to our certain formations,” Timpson said. “She can give advice to players when they come off the field, talk to the quarterback about where the safeties are playing.”
During one game, when Timpson had a question, Julia quickly provided critical information.
“I asked her to tell me who was covering our tight end and how many yards off they were,” Timpson said. “She gave me the answer, and we hit a tight end pop for 18 yards. She brings value on game days. She’s an extra set of eyes.”
She had direct input with players, too. Junior running back Derek Thompson remembers some advice Julia delivered during the game against Charter of Wilmington.
“On our toss play to the left, she told me if I follow this block and then cut to the right, I’ll get open space,” Thompson said. “I did. I got caught, but I got 15 yards.”
As a three-year starter, senior quarterback Kenyon Yellowdy knows as much about the Jaguars’ playbook as anybody. He said Julia knows it just as well.
“She helps our team a lot,” Yellowdy said. “She probably knows more about football than half the people on this team, even our starters.
“She can talk forever about football. It’s like, where does she even learn this stuff?”
Her knowledge comes from constant study. During the season, she watched films of Appo’s most recent game and the Jaguars’ upcoming opponents each week. On Sundays, her television is tuned to the NFL from the pregame shows to the final play of the night game.
And don’t think she turns it off after the Super Bowl.
“Even in the offseason, it’s football 24-7,” she said. “I’m watching the [NFL draft] combine, free agency, national signing day [for college recruits].”
At first, her classmates had a hard time understanding her passion.
“The players really accepted me,” she said. “The hardest part was acceptance by my classmates. I got asked a lot of questions. Why aren’t you a cheerleader, or why do you like being a water girl? I still get asked that. A lot of people don’t understand my role on the team.”
Her mother received the same reaction in the bleachers.
“When I sit in the stands, I have mothers and fathers say, ‘Which number is your son?’” Christine said. “I say, ‘Oh no, that’s my daughter out there, with the clipboard and the blonde hair in a ponytail.”
Julia is ready for the next step in her football journey – college. She is ranked eighth in Appo’s senior class and plans to major in computer science. And if she has her way, just as much of her time will be spent around a major-college football program.
She has been already been accepted academically by Ole Miss and Tennessee and has also applied to Ohio State (whose football team is ranked No. 2 in the country), Michigan (No. 4), Florida (No. 18), Penn State (No. 10), Maryland, Minnesota, Clemson (No. 5) and Alabama (No. 1).
When it comes to choosing a destination, Julia sounds like a highly rated recruit.
“Financial aid is a priority, to come out of school without debt,” she said. “And also, whoever gives me the best football offer. A school that doesn’t put me in [just] as a manager.
“I have four years to prove myself to the NFL. My ultimate career aspiration is to be a coach in the NFL. I want to be on that sideline. I want to be with the X’s and O’s.”
Julia would be following in the footsteps of the NFL’s only female full-time assistant coach, Kathryn Smith. In January, the Buffalo Bills hired Smith, as their quality control-special teams coach. Smith spent several years working in non-coaching jobs for NFL teams.
Julia has already impressed two coaches. During a campus visit to Ole Miss last summer, Julia toured the football facilities with Ken Crain, the Rebels’ equipment manager. She didn’t know she was going to meet with head coach Hugh Freeze, but she was ready just in case.
She had studied Ole Miss game films. She knew the pros and cons of the Rebels’ 4-2-5 defense and hurry-up spread offense. And she handed Freeze a résumé.
“He just interviewed me about football,” she said. “I broke down his defense, and I broke down his offense. I talked to him about which recruits I liked.”
Freeze was impressed, and Julia was thrilled.
“It boosted my confidence the most,” she said. “It let me know that I do have a future in this if I work hard and persevere. It just made me want to study more film and become a better coach.”
She also had an unexpected, 10-minute talk with Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh at the Ravens’ training camp in August. Harbaugh said he was going to forward her résumé to his brother Jim, head coach at Michigan.
“I broke down his offense and defense,” Julia said. “Having an NFL coach tell you they’re impressed, it helped me realize I have a future in this.”
Timpson said in all of his years as an assistant coach at Glasgow and Middletown, he has never seen any nonplayer – boy or girl – as closely involved with a football team as Julia.
“She’s doing things that other students have never tried to do,” the Appo coach said. “To break down some of the barriers, she had to break down shows that she is knowledgeable. Once we gave her a chance, she’s been an asset to us.”
Christine is thankful that her daughter received that chance.
“Coach Timpson has been excellent,” Julia’s mother said. “He has given her the opportunity of a lifetime. I couldn’t be more thankful for him believing in her.”
Now, Timpson is contemplating the future without her.
“I don’t think we can replace her at all, in what she brings to the team,” he said. “Next year, without her, I guess we’ll go back to what normal high school football is supposed to be. But for the last three years, to have her with us has been great.”
Her parents have done their best to feed Julia’s football hunger, taking her to the training camps of the New England Patriots (her favorite coach is Bill Belichick), Washington Redskins and Ravens. Her younger sister, Christina, is much more interested in field hockey than football. But Julia is all in.
The Jaguars finished 5-5 this season, but she will still be watching other teams play in the Delaware high school playoffs the next three weeks. Then she will finish school at Appo and get ready for another step up the football ladder.
“I’m so thankful to be able to do something that I love,” Julia said. “There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t want to go to practice or I don’t want to go to a game. It’s what I want to do with my life. It’s football.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.