Gannon’s Caliste continues to defy odds

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Gannon University football standout Justin Caliste has been defying odds and working through hardships since his time in Louisiana playing sports.

Standing just 5-foot-5 and weighing 150 pounds, Caliste has a chance to play professional football despite not fitting the prototypical mold.  He has a workout scheduled for April 26 at California University of Pennsylvania or Georgia State to showcase his skills in front of scouts and coaches.

Caliste grew up on the rough side of New Orleans, in one of the worst neighborhoods called the Ninth Ward but throughout his life he has always had to beat the odds.

In 2005 Caliste and his family got warnings about a hurricane that would pass by their neighborhood.

He and his family thought nothing of it; they went to Atlanta for a few days as the storm approached.

A few days went by and they had seen on TV that the whole city was under water; their house was gone and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

He and his family were devastated. “We lost everything – I mean we literally had to start from scratch,” he said. “There were a lot of people who died in the storm, and we thought at least we have our lives.”

After Katrina he and his family moved to Atlanta with his grandfather.

“We were basically homeless,” Caliste said. “We had nothing.”

Caliste and his family had stood strong and decided to start a new life in California with his brother’s mom.

Caliste and his family moved into a small home with little space. “I mean we were thankful at least we had somewhere to stay and had a roof over our heads,” he said. “That’s all that mattered at the time, was having a place to stay.”

Making the change from hard-nose New Orleans to the laid back state of California, Caliste would go through a change not many people go through as a kid.

“It was something I had to get used to,” he said. “I’d never been to California so it was definitely going to be different being from New Orleans. It’s a different culture.”

Caliste would then attend Oakmont High School in California, where he would begin a new start at everything and get ready to play football to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“Going in as a freshman you don’t know what to expect but I was always a competitor and was ready to prove myself and show people what I had to offer,” said Caliste.

Caliste would then make an impact his junior year followed by a great senior year, pleasing his coaches and earning the respect of his teammates and earning all-conference honors.

Brandon Peacock, one of Caliste’s high school teammates, recalled the type of player he was.

“He was a tough guy with a ton of heart – he just always made big plays,” Peacock said. “He would even have teams try to throw to his side when he played defense but he would always give it his best and was always ready to prove himself to make the plays.”

Proving himself to his coaches and teammates was one thing but Caliste ran into other troubles when getting recruited.

“I think everyone’s dream is to play Division I football – nobody wakes up and says ‘I want to play Division II football,’” Caliste said.

Caliste had some off the field issues with grades so he wasn’t Division I football eligible. So, he and his father decided to look into Division II schools and some junior colleges from around the area.

Caliste had gotten interest from Gannon University and then went on to take a visit. “When I took my visit to Gannon University I liked it, and they showed me the most interest so I committed on the spot,” Caliste said.

Coming to Gannon, Caliste wasn’t the No. 1 recruit. In fact the coaches didn’t think he would contribute much his freshman year. So he was given only kick return/punt return duties.

“My plans for my first year was just to make plays when I got the opportunity and do the best I can do and see what happens from there,” he recalled.

Caliste quickly made his mark and established himself as a big play guy for Gannon’s football team from day one.

In his first college game ever, on his first punt return and his first touch of a football at the college level Caliste returned it for a touchdown.
He had a breakout year as a true freshman, turning heads and changing his perspective on how people looked at him as well as his coaches and teammates despite being undersized.

“I’m usually the smallest guy on the field 90 percent of the time, but at the end of the day I feel like I play as big as anyone out there,” Caliste said.

Caliste didn’t let up after his freshman year. During his sophomore year he came in with the same mentality trying to prove he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder and he earned All PSAC and All-American honors as well.

“Going into my junior year I really wanted to prove I could be on the field more as a wide receiver and returner, not just a guy that came on the field for special plays,” he said.

“I wanted to prove I can be just as productive as a wide receiver as I was a good returner.”

Junior year he proved himself yet again, earning All-PSAC honors.

Each time Caliste has tried to prove himself and overcome something he has done it – he has laid out goals and achieved them.

When having a plan Caliste is always up for the challenge of completing it.

The big test came before his senior year, in the spring of 2014, when he tore his Achilles tendon and was sidelined the whole spring.

“The doctor told me typically injuries like this take a while to heal and could take up to five to six months for a full heal,” said Caliste.

Caliste said he knew it would be hard to come back from that injury and wondered if he could be the same player. He said he spoke with coach Brad Rzyczycki about redshirting for the season because they didn’t think he would be able to get healthy in time.

August came and Caliste get some special treatment – he wore a blue jersey for fall camp, meaning that he was not “live” during drills – but he was healthy enough and was able to play in the first game of the season.

Caliste was a big part of Gannon’s offense, hauling in 74 passes for 885 yards and five touchdowns. On special teams he averaged 21 yards on 20 kickoff returns. He finished his four-year run as the school’s all-time leader in kickoff returns, kickoff return yards (2,359), kickoff return average (22.9), punt return yards (669) and punt return average (11.7).

He holds the school’s single-season records for kickoff returns, kickoff return yards, kickoff return average, punt return yardage and punt return average.

Having Caliste healthy for the season was golden.

Rzyczycki said while Caliste may not physically look big he is able to do some special things like fight through tackles and make defenders miss.

“He is pound for pound the strongest kid that we have on our team, which I don’t think people understand,” Rzyczycki said. “Caliste is a playmaker for us – if we can make space for Caliste, he can make everyone miss. He can change the momentum of a game at any time.”

Having a successful season as a senior, Caliste had his best year as a receiver with 74 receptions, 885 yards with five touchdowns, and  the Knights were able to capture the PSAC Co-championship.

But Gannon fell short of the conference championship game due to a loss against Slippery Rock in a head to head matchup.

“I think the biggest thing for me was proving we can get it done as a team and being able to win a championship ring,” he said. “It wasn’t anything individually I wanted to prove this year but win a championship.

“Looking back on what I did for this program for four years I can say I’m proud and blessed to have gotten the opportunity to play for Gannon University and to have accomplished what I have done.”

Caliste will go down in Gannon history and likely will be talked about for years to come regarding his performance and skill on the field.

Liam Nadler said the word he would use to describe Caliste on the field would be a catalyst, “meaning he is the guy that sparks the momentum for our team.”

“He’s the guy who you give the ball to when you need a big play,” said Nadler.

“Caliste was so successful not only because of his attributes he possessed as far as speed and elusiveness but also the mental attributes of knowing the offense and recognizing the defense,” Nadler said.

“He was able to make big plays because he was always in the right position.”

Nadler said playing alongside Caliste for four years was an amazing experience “Not only is he a freak athlete, he also has a personality that could fill a room,” Nadler said. “He will be my good friend for the rest of my life because of all the blood, sweat, and tears, and laughter on and off the field.”

Caliste has now signed with Jerry Briffa, a certified contract adviser and player agent, and is pleased to have NFL Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson and former NFL GM Steve Ortmayer representing him in pursuing his dream of becoming a professional football player.

“I am extremely proud and blessed to officially begin the next chapter in my life,” Caliste said.

Briffa, Dawson and Ortmayer are affiliated with an agency called Star Pass Sports, which will work to get Caliste the best opportunity to become a pro.

“Whether it be NFL or CFL, I just want a chance,” Caliste said.

Caliste said his agent has told him to focus most of his energy on his 40-yard dash time.

“He said if I run 4.47 or lower he could get me into a camp but the biggest thing is, we need a time on paper,” Caliste said.

Yet again, Caliste is faced with a big challenge to prove himself, but he said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to do just that.

“I am very excited to be able to have a chance at becoming a pro football player,” Caliste said.” I’m just going to continue working hard and hopefully everything works out in my favor in the end.”

Caliste is in the process of beating the odds yet again on his journey to the next level.

CORY JOHNSON

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