Justin Caliste’s appearance has the potential to surprise people.
His 5-foot-5-inch frame shocked the Millersvile University football team on his way to three touchdowns in Gannon University’s 47-0 win over the Mauraders Saturday. But the friendly smile and easygoing personality can also serve to mask the personal misfortune Caliste has endured.
“It’s kind of like motivation for me,” Caliste said.
The freshman wide receiver recorded touchdowns on kickoff and free kick returns of 66 and 85 yards, respectively, while sandwiching in a 70-yard rushing score. This, all coming in a three-minute span in the second quarter of Saturday’s rout.
Caliste increased his season total to four touchdowns, while his 29.6 yards per return is the fifth-best punt return average in the country.
Although Caliste has quickly found a suitable home at Gannon, the opposite was the reality for him and his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Having grown up in New Orleans, Caliste said he was used to the customary hurricanes each fall, but that things were different with Katrina.
“Usually when there was a hurricane, we would leave for a few days, and come back,” he said. “But it wasn’t like that this time.”
Caliste, along with other members of his family, were a few of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Katrina in late August 2005.
Having to leave their home, Caliste and his immediate family of seven, along with aunts, uncles and cousins, evacuated to Atlanta to live with other relatives as a means for a temporary home for two weeks.
“We really didn’t have anything — we were basically homeless for those two weeks,” Caliste said.
A total of 17 people lived out of Caliste’s grandmother’s modest home, watching the news every day to see if circumstances improved.
After waiting it out, the Calistes made the long trek to California upon the urging of his uncle.
“All seven of us lived in a two bedroom house for the next few months,” Caliste said. “We had to drive from Atlanta to California, and we didn’t have any food or water or anything, but we got by.”
There, Caliste and his family ultimately settled in Antelope, Calif., where he attended Oakmont High School in neighboring Roseville.
Despite having a clean slate at Oakmont, Caliste said the whirlwind of emotions caused him to give pause when he thought of resuming his football career.
“When we left I didn’t know if I was going to play again,” he said. “When I was in elementary school, the high school that my dad went to was already looking at me to play football, so I was pretty set on that.”
On the field, however, Caliste proved he was meant to play football when he first strapped on his helmet for Oakmont coach Tim Moore.
“He was always a very dynamic player,” Moore said. “He was the most athletic player on the field in just about every game we played.”
While at Oakmont, Caliste played running back, cornerback and slot receiver in the Vikings’ offense.
In his senior season, Caliste recorded team-highs with 25 receptions for 569 yards to go along with 12 total touchdowns. He was also second on the squad with 277 yards rushing on 35 carries.
Caliste was a jack-of-all-trades in the Vikings’ offense, and Moore said his unique style of play was best demonstrated on a play in which he was willing to exchange his uniform for a touchdown.
“When he was a sophomore, he caught a screen pass, and he had to reverse field away from the defense,” he said. “When he made his cut on the sideline, a defender grabbed him by his shoulder pads and basically ripped his jersey and shoulder pads off and Justin just kept running for a touchdown.
“We didn’t have shoulder pads small enough for him,” Moore said laughing. “And we were just on the sidelines saying, ‘There’s no way he just did that.’”
Caliste’s workout numbers further validated his freakish athleticism: in high school, he measured
a 32-inch vertical, and was clocked at 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Still, despite an impressive high school career, Caliste was not highly recruited by Division I schools most likely due to his size, and instead decided to pursue options at the Division II level.
It wasn’t until film of the 150-pound speedster made its way across Gannon coach Jim Kiernan’s desk that Caliste was on the Knights’ radar.
“I get hundreds of e-mails a week from across the country, and you look at the highlight video, and if it jumps, it jumps, and we’ll have to check it out,” he said. “The thing I saw was that he could track the ball.”
“We recruited him with the intent that, as a freshman he would be the guy fielding kicks for us, but you’re still asking yourself ‘is what we saw on tape really what we’re getting?’”
Any doubts Kiernan may have had were quickly dispelled when Caliste returned the second punt of his career for an 87-yard touchdown in the Knights’ season-opening 13-10 loss to Lake Erie College.
And following his three-touchdown-in-three-minute performance against Millersville, Kiernan said he plans to give Caliste a bigger role in Gannon’s evolving offense.
“We do need him back there, but we also need him on the offense,” Kiernan said. “His touches on returns now will probably start coming down so we can use him on offense.”
Though he has made it a long way from his childhood geographically, Caliste still considers New Orleans his home, and he has brought parts of his past everywhere he’s gone.
“A lot of the families down there are from big families who live together, and they really have a strong upbringing,” Moore said. “He’s a real yes, sir, yes ma’am type of kid, and he never lost that from his upbringing even in California where things are a little bit looser.”
But the scars of Caliste’s past continue to serve as a painful reminder of all he left behind.
The morning of Gannon’s 41-13 loss to Shippensburg University on Sept. 10, Caliste woke up to the news that a childhood friend had been fatally shot.
“It’s still pretty bad down there,” Caliste said of New Orleans. “When I found out, I didn’t tell anyone and I kept it to myself for a few days, but after that, it kind of turned to reality, and it started to set in.”
During Gannon’s week of practice in preparation for Millersville, Caliste made a vow to play for the memory of his friend as well as give his hometown fans something to root for.
“People from New Orleans are always hitting me on Facebook, telling me they follow me and are rooting for me,” he said. “I’m motivated by them to perform on the field, so they have something to be proud of.”
And judging by his success on the field thus far, Caliste has given his friends and family back home a lot more to be proud of than anyone expected.
However, Caliste’s performance hasn’t at all surprised those around him on the field.
“We all knew what he was capable of because we see it every day,” freshman running back Alex Papson said. “The rest of the world was just made aware of his ability this weekend.”