Giants linebacker Austin Calitro, of Danbury, piecing together NFL career year by year

Photo of Mike Anthony

Austin Calitro was just a rookie in 2017 — but on his fourth team in sixth months — when then-Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams shared a message that stuck.

“He told us that the minute you get tired of proving yourself is the minute you get booted out of the NFL,” Calitro said. “I wake up every day knowing I have to prove myself.”

Time and again. Year after year. Calitro, a standout at Danbury High who became an undrafted free agent after a stellar career at Villanova, keeps getting jobs in the NFL by, essentially, applying for new ones every offseason and proving himself worthy in preseason camp.

Calitro, a linebacker, is with the Giants now, looking to make the 53-man roster. This is his ninth NFL team. He was with the Browns and Seahawks twice, meaning he has essentially begun anew 11 times over just six seasons. His number of career transactions — being signed and waived and traded, being promoted to active rosters or assigned to practice squads — is over 30.

“Being undrafted, there was no equity behind me,” Calitro said. “I had to create my own equity. As long as you’re willing to prove yourself and do this every day and put your body on the line, there’s always going to be a role for someone like that.”

Calitro, 28, is hoping his 48th career NFL game is Sunday, Sept. 11, when the Giants open the season at Tennessee. There are a few more weeks of camp, and two remaining preseason games, for him to earn a spot as part of the Giants’ start-over under coach Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.

“It’s been good,” Calitro said. “I wasn’t really anywhere for OTA’s, which I was fine with. But I definitely wanted to be out here competing for a job and Coach Wink and Eggs (inside linebackers coach John Egorugwu) have given me more than enough opportunities to prove myself. I’m happy with how it’s going so far. I just have to keep playing fast and physical and show I can play special teams.”

Arguably the most effective defensive player for the Giants in last week’s 23-21 victory over the Patriots, Calitro is off to a good start. He had four tackles and a quarterback hit and forced the unit’s only turnover of the game, tipping a Bailey Zappe pass to himself for an interception.

“I just wanted to show the coaches I could run the defense,” Calitro said. “They gave me the greet dot — calling the plays and stuff. Once I was out there, we didn’t really have many mental errors as a unit. That’s something I prided myself on after the game, getting all the young guys lined up. All the veterans, we were all talking. More than anything in preseason, you just want to show the coaches you can execute and can run the defense as a middle linebacker.”

Calitro’s career has gained traction in recent years. He spent time with the Jets, 49ers, Seahawks and Browns as a rookie, a season he spent mostly on the Browns practice squad. He played all 16 games with the Seahawks in 2018, making his NFL debut and being tutored along the way by veteran linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.

He continued to bounce around but played — 13 games for the Jaguars in 2019, 13 for the Broncos in 2020, five last season for the Super Bowl-bound Bengals, though he was inactive during the playoffs.

“I’m proud of that for two reasons,” Calitro said of his time with the Bengals. “One, I was there in 2020 for camp and I carved myself out a role there and I got traded to the Broncos. So I was able to see what they were building. To come back and see how much they had built on that, and to know I was a part of it at the beginning — I had built great relationships before I left, so I could come back and have it pick up where I left off, was great.

“Second is just the fact that we were able to lock in for eight weeks the way we did. It was special. I had not been part of something like that before. Everyone had one common goal. To see a group of 70 guys lock in like that for as long as we did, mentally and physically, was really cool.”

Calitro, who grew up a Giants fan, lives in Stamford and speaks to the Danbury High team once or twice a year. He was signed by the Giants July 28, a move that coincided with the release of Justin Hilliard.

“Whatever you put on film is who you are as a player but I take pride in how I carry myself as a professional as well,” said Calitro, who has 94 career tackles. “I try to be a great locker room guy and I try to be a great mentor for the young guys as well, not only in football but with things off the field. If you’re a smart guy you can pick up defenses. That’s great. But if you’re not a good locker room guy, if you’re not going to be a good guy to have around when you go on a run — like with the Bengals last year, and I didn’t play in the playoffs, but leading up to it I played my role. And up to the Super Bowl, I was just trying to be as supportive as I could, because the goal is always bigger than one individual. That has carried me throughout my career.”

Calitro studied communications and economics as an undergrad at Villanova and completed his master’s degree in city management from Villanova last year. He has becoming more heavily involved in real estate investment in recent years and would eventually like to become a developer.

He also envisions himself remaining involved in football for many years, not as a coach but as a mentor — to youth players and to younger NFL players who might not have a proper feel for how to invest or handle money.

First, of course, he’d like to play as many seasons in the NFL as he can.

“I bounced around a lot my rookie year, for sure,” Calitro said. “That, I guess, is why the journeyman title has been around. But from my second year on I’ve been able to stick on teams once I’m there. So it hasn’t been too bad. … I think every time I go out there and get an opportunity, I’m glad what I put out there. But at the same time, you do have to start thinking about the team. This time a year, it sucks when people get cut, but at the same time you’ve got to start building some type of chemistry and camaraderie because when the fourth quarter gets tough, that’s what you hang your hat on.”; @ManthonyHearst