In the Santacaterina family, football dominance was handed off from father to son fairly early.
"We were in San Diego one time for one of my sisters' soccer tournaments," said Michael Santacaterina, the Geneva senior. "We were playing beach football and he tried to reach out and tackle me. He almost clotheslined me, but his biceps tore and it rolled up to about his shoulder."
Mike Santacaterina, out of the old Holy Cross High School, was once a hard-hitting safety at Lake Forest College. One wrong move against his 10-year-old son made it no contest.
"I think after that there wasn't too much competition," said Michael, who bursts the bruiser mystique by insisting this article include "that I love my mom and dad."
"I remember going to his football games when he was like 6 years old, and he would just kick the crap out of people," said University of Illinois senior Jackie Santacaterina, one of Michael's two older sisters along with DePaul sophomore Brianna, to have played Division I soccer.
"He was playing up (in weight)," Jackie said, "and I remember him just labeling people even when he was that young. He was fun to watch."
Mike Fields, St. Charles East's first-year head coach after 10 years as an assistant at Geneva, said: "He loves to play the game and plays it the way you should - knock the you-know-what out of somebody, but then reach your hand down to pick him up. And I think that's the way he's been taught his whole life."
Team sports teach a multitude of lessons. Fair play, discipline, resiliency, trust, persistence, commitment. The list goes on.
Michael Santacaterina learned them all.
Leadership emanated from "Santa" like muddy rainwater dripping off his once-white jersey after another 5-yard run. He epitomized individual excellence as well as team concept with his other family, the 9-2 Geneva Vikings.
Other players had better numbers. Overall impact? Hard to match Santacaterina, the honorary captain of the Daily Herald Tri-Cities 2009 All-Area Football Team.
"I've been coaching football now for 22 years," said Geneva's Rob Wicinski. "I can present an argument he is if not the best, one of the best football players I've coached. He's that good."
That argument would include the fact that the 6-foot, 205-pounder was voted to the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 7A All-State team for his play as strong safety, running back and punt returner.
Running downhill out of a physical backfield that included Jay Graffagna and Connor Quinn, Santacaterina ran the ball 166 times for 802 yards, an average of 4.83 yards per carry. The tougher the yardage got the tougher he got, scoring 22 rushing touchdowns with a 23rd coming on a 57-yard reception against Batavia.
At strong safety - "basically a rover," he said - the two-year defensive starter made 34 solo tackles with 36 assists. In Geneva's playoff opener against Shepard he returned an interception 37 yards and also recovered a fumble. On the year he had 2 of each.
When this fall's horrid weather was at its worst Wicinski and his braintrust depended the most on Santacaterina. No. 20 exceeded 100 yards rushing in three straight games - 130 against Rochelle, 115 on Kaneland, 121 vs. Batavia - while accepting the most handoffs he took the entire season except for the second-round playoff game at Wheaton Warrenville South.
In that game - and Week 2 against Morgan Park, when Santacaterina's 3 touchdowns in a 31-20 victory heralded the Vikings as reloaders and not rebuilders - Geneva knew where its bread was buttered.
WW South held the Vikings ground game to 47 yards by halftime as the Tigers led 23-0. To Geneva's credit it did not abandon its game plan, and Santacaterina ran the last five plays of a 9-play touchdown drive that got the Vikings on the board.
He nearly made an interception on WW South's next 3-and-out series, had a pair of runs to help set up Charlie James' 29-yard field goal, and ran the ball three straight times before Brandon Beitzel's touchdown pass to Jack Delabar pulled Geneva within 23-16 with 8:19 left.
Geneva went on to lose 30-16 to the eventual 7A champions, but after gaining 22 yards on 4 first-half carries Santacaterina followed his line of Justin Craig, Brett Willman, Dan Carlson, Ben Humbert and Brandon Prosek for 86 total yards on 19 carries.
On the practice field, Wicinski said it was often the other way around - players followed the charismatic Santacaterina.
"A great personality, very quick-witted, easy going in the sense that he's always ready to go, a smile always prepared for his practices," said Wicinski, who coached Jackie Santacaterina - a captain of the Illini women's soccer team - in youth basketball. He was excited to see the number of "rug rats" Mike and Mary Ellen Santacaterina towed around, figuring one day he may coach them as well.
"He's also quite a leader," Wicinski said. "(Teammates) just gravitate toward him. One reason they gravitate toward him is because of his athletic ability, but another reason is because of his contagious personality. He was the key to our success this year, no doubt about it."
Geneva linebacker and co-captain Bret Shannon said "Santa" showed his meddle in practice and in games.
"Whenever we needed a big play he stepped up and made one," Shannon said. "He was definitely a good captain. All the guys looked up to him. He was always in a good mood and always was working hard."
When Shannon says "always," he means it.
"I really think he was born to play football," said his mother, Mary Ellen, who played volleyball at Mother Guerin. Her oldest son started playing as a 6-year-old in Cincinnati (the family moved back here eight years ago) and at first insisted in sleeping in his uniform, helmet included.
"He just has had a love and a passion for particularly that sport over any other - and he was always a little more aggressive, jumping and hitting in a playful kind of way. He always liked the extra physical contact that not all the other kids appreciated," Mary Ellen said.
"Where most people say, 'Don't throw balls in the house,' constantly there's a ball flying through. You just kind of get rid of the fancy glass lamp or the bowl, whatever. It's just kind of been part of my life, my husband's life and our life as we've had kids, and their cousins."
Like cousin Mike Magee, a forward for the Los Angeles Galaxy professional soccer team. It's a stretch, but there's even a slight family connection between Santacaterina and last year's Geneva superstar, Michael Ratay, who "Santa" just may follow to Grand Valley State.
As his parents and sisters have molded Michael, he in turn informs younger brother Daniel, a seventh-grader. (There's also baby sister Jenni, a fifth-grader.)
"He's my biggest mentor in my life right now, probably more so than my dad - well, it's probably tied," said Daniel, an aspiring quarterback.
One mentor to another. After Geneva suffered its first loss this season, to Rochelle at home no less, Michael was in the dumps. He received a text message from Jackie, a quote from Vince Lombardi: "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall."
"They know what to say," Michael said of his sisters, and so does his father.
"My wife and I have always said that playing sports is kind of a privilege, not a right. When you're out there I think you owe it to yourself and your teammates to do the absolute best that you can all the time," Mike said. "What we were most proud of is that Michael prepared himself for the season, committed himself to trying to be the best he could be as a player and a teammate. A lot of it is just in the decisions that he makes. It isn't a sometimes thing, it's an all-the-time thing.
"Part of being a captain and being a leader is making sure you're prepared physically and mentally. He kind of set an example for not only his teammates but his siblings in terms of what it is to prepare."
The feeling is mutual.
"He might not know it," Michael said, "but I kind of looked up to him."
Past Tri-Cities all-area captains
1998: Kyle Schrader, Kaneland
1999: George Springer, St. Charles
2000: Brian Kinane, Batavia
2001: Dave Nagel, Batavia
2002: Brent Harner, Kaneland
2003: Nate Peterson, Aurora Christian
2004: Alex Pokorny, Geneva
2005: John Brown, St. Charles East
2006: Boone Thorgesen, Kaneland
2007: Michael Ratay, Geneva
Aurora Christian, Geneva, Marmion, St. Charles East
Aurora Christian, Geneva, Kaneland, Marmion, St. Charles East, St. Charles North
St. Charles North