MORGANTOWN — When Dana Holgorsen refers to Mike Calicchio as a giant of a man, he hits the nail pretty much on the head.
At 6-foot-9 and 315 pounds, that’s exactly what West Virginia’s fifth-year senior offensive tackle is. Certainly no one else on WVU’s roster can argue the point given that he towers over all of them.
And when Holgorsen also talks about how awful Calicchio was when he first arrived in Morgantown, he’ll get no argument there, either. No, he didn’t know much about the true freshman from New York back then, having been hired at the end of the 2010 season that was Calicchio’s first, but he knew enough.
He won’t even get an argument from Calicchio on that point.
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,’’ Calicchio said.
If hard work and perseverance, though, can add up to a success story, Calicchio is Exhibit A.
“He’s just such a good story,’’ Holgorsen said. “This big giant of a man was awful five years ago when he showed up. He couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. But he’s a hard worker on the field and off the field and he’s a great student. He’s one of our leaders on the entire team right now. When he talks, people listen.’’
And it’s not just because of that funky Brooklyn accent, either.
As West Virginia approaches a 2014 season that begins with a date with No. 2 Alabama a week from Saturday in Atlanta, Calicchio is as important as he’s ever been to the Mountaineers.
Heretofore he was pretty much a novelty, a guy the coaches lined up as one of the punt protectors because, well, it’s hard to get around or over a 6-9, 315-pound blocker. That’s still going to be an important part of what he does, but now Calicchio also figures to be one of the three backup offensive linemen counted on to provide depth. Stone Underwood will be the first guard off the bench, Tony Matteo the first center and Calicchio the first tackle.
Not bad for a guy with those walking/chewing problems who after just a few months gave up his hopes of playing Division I football and transferred down a level before deciding to give it another shot.
Calicchio was a recruited walk-on from Valley Forge Military Academy — former defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich was the one who found him — in 2010. He’d only played one year of high school football before that, back home in Brooklyn, and when he got to West Virginia, saw what he was up against and saw the coaching staff come apart at the seams, he fled.
“I was young and it was probably a rash decision,’’ said Calicchio, who transferred down to Division II at C.W. Post. “Everything was changing with a new coaching staff and I kind of made a quick choice to jump out of here. Everyone makes mistakes, I guess, but ultimately it led me back here and on this road.’’
He spent just one year away and made it count, starting at left tackle for the Pioneers, but soon realized he’d made a mistake.
“I think it was mostly just the atmosphere,’’ Calicchio said. “Outside of football, I just enjoyed being in class here more, I enjoyed the facilities, all of that. I’m not saying [the facilities were worse going from] D-I to D-II. It was a private school and it was actually a beautiful campus. I just felt at home here.’’
That’s odd given that Post is a whole lot closer to his Brooklyn roots than Morgantown, which Calicchio admits is ironic. “But I just felt more natural, more comfortable here,’’ he said.
He returned the same as he left, as a walk-on. He didn’t play a down that season, but he still managed to impress the still-changing coaching staff. He earned the spot on the punt team and, even more significantly, began earning respect. That’s the leadership aspect Holgorsen talks about.
“You have to understand that you can’t come in with just a big voice. You have to put in big work, too,’’ Calicchio said. “And if over time you earn the respect of everyone, things just kind of fall into place. If you always go hard and always give effort, people notice that and it kind of spreads around.’’
Calicchio has finally begun to be noticed. He not only earned that punt-team spot last season, he also earned a scholarship for the spring semester. Just before classes began this week, Holgorsen renewed the scholarship for the guy who could now more than walk and chew gum simultaneously.
“Coming into college, that was only my second year of playing football,’’ Calicchio said. “I had a lot to learn. Having a big body only makes way for potential. It doesn’t mean you are or aren’t. I had a lot to learn about everything.
“It’s definitely been a journey. But I wouldn’t change it for a thing, if only because if things hadn’t taken the course they did I wouldn’t be the man I am today.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.