MADISON, Wis. — Ask any of Michael Caputo’s teammates or coaches, and the first word used to describe him is tough. It is perhaps his greatest quality on the football field for Wisconsin, where he is unafraid to stick his neck into a play and unleash a bone-rattling hit on any player who squeezes into the secondary.
Being tough has served Caputo well in his football career. Toughness allowed him to earn double-digit scholarship offers from the likes of Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and West Virginia as a blue-collar safety from Imperial, Penn.
But toughness — and a bit of stubbornness — also comes with a price. Toughness led Caputo to play through pain others would not endure.
Toughness prompted him to tell doctors to postpone surgery so he could participate in last year’s Rose Bowl despite a protruding disc in his spinal cord.
“It was pretty painful,” Caputo said. “It got to the point where it was hard to walk a little bit sometimes. At that point, I was like, ‘Yeah, I should probably get this checked out about now.'”
Toughness also helped Caputo last winter deal with the frightening possibility that his football career could be over, though fear couldn’t help but creep in, too. It happened to Caputo two weeks before his scheduled surgery on a second appointment to see his doctor.
“The doctor was either going to tell me we can get it fixed and you can play or we can get it fixed and chances aren’t so good,” Caputo said. “That was probably the scariest moment. On that drive there, I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous in my life.”
Caputo saw Dr. Thomas Zdeblick, the director of the University of Wisconsin Spine Center, and was told that yes, he could physically play football again following a 12-week recovery process from fusing two vertebrae in his neck. He was also told the rest would be up to him because some players struggled to handle the mental stress of returning to hard hitting.
The surgery took place in early February, and 12 weeks later, Caputo was back to focusing on his goal of earning playing time as a redshirt sophomore. After all, what are a couple of fused vertebrae to someone so tough that he considered playing even if his injury status hadn’t improved?
“To be honest with you, I thought about just trying it out anyway,” Caputo said. “Just to see. If I’m not going to play anymore, I want to be really injured. At one point, if I know that I can’t play, then I’ll be like, ‘OK then I’ll accept it.'”
Fortunately for Caputo, he never reached that point.
When fall camp began, the starting safety spot next to Dezmen Southward was open. Leo Musso earned repetitions with the first-team during the early portion. But Caputo starred when practices went full pads — when hitting and instincts and toughness are rewarded.
“I just kind of approached it that I would come out, just play football the way I know how to play and do everything right,” Caputo said. “Get the mental aspect down, the playbook, hit people. So I just came out and figured if that doesn’t get the job done, then I don’t know what will.”
Badgers safeties coach Bill Busch said Caputo quickly emerged as the clear-cut best safety to play alongside Southward, and his ability and confidence has only improved as he has taken over the starting role. This season, Caputo ranks second on the team with 20 total tackles.
“We ask him to do a lot of things and go all over the place,” Busch said. “His flexibility and his ability really clicked in maybe more about the second game. All of a sudden, his football intelligence, which he always had, you could tell the game really slowed down for him. He was like, ‘I got this. I understand what coach is saying. I know what’s going on. I know the situation.'”
Busch acknowledged he was prepared to go into the 2013 season without Caputo, who missed all of spring practices while recovering from surgery. But his presence has helped shore up the secondary and provided Wisconsin with another tough-nosed defender willing to do whatever coaches ask of him. Those traits will come in especially handy when No. 23 Wisconsin faces its most difficult test on Saturday at No. 4 Ohio State.
“For him to come back and to play and to be pain free and to move like he moves is impressive,” Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “And it’s a credit to him. What he brings is a great awareness in the low zones, a great physicality. He’s a good blitzer. We’re using those strengths. I think he’s going to be a playmaker in this game. He’s going to have a lot of snaps.”
Caputo said he had learned to appreciate his opportunities more now that he has felt the possibility of losing the game he loves. He thinks about those opportunities, he says, when he lays down to go to sleep. And he recognizes that, over the past nine months he has come an awfully long way.