A Seat in the Bleachers: Vellano lets play do talking
Joe Vellano rifled past Atlanta Falcons center Peter Konz and dropped quarterback Matt Ryan for a 13-yard loss.
Cue the celebratory pro wrestling-caliber histrionics, perhaps some flexing and posing.
The next play beckoned, so Vellano simply trotted away.
Two Sundays ago, Vellano dove on a fumble caused by Rob Ninkovich. He held the ball up, took two steps toward the sideline and dumped it on the ground like he was taking out the trash.
At the least, “I probably should’ve kept the ball,” he said with a grin last Friday.
Vellano isn’t wired that way, though.
Not many months removed from being undrafted and wondering where his football career was headed, if anywhere, Vellano has been a starting defensive tackle for the New England Patriots for the last five weeks.
In a few days, he’ll be on “Monday Night Football.”
As happens on a weekly basis in the NFL, an unheralded player like Vellano was thrust into the spotlight because of another player’s misfortune, in this case a season-ending Achilles’ tear to the right ankle of five-time All-Pro Vince Wilfork against the Falcons on Sept. 29.
Call it good fortune, if you will, but the former Christian Brothers Academy and Maryland star also made his own good fortune just by being as prepared for these moments as he could be. And once he found himself in this position, he has maintained a single-minded sense of purpose and duty to play an important role for the first-place Patriots.
Other players can lean on otherworldly talent; Vellano’s gifts are more subtle and reflected in the fact that he lets his play do the talking.
“There’s so much going on that all you’re thinking about is what’s the next play,” he said during a visit to the Gazette last Friday. “There’s no time to think about it. Those guys were getting on me because I didn’t have a good sack dance. I was like, I don’t know, I’ve got to keep going. I’m not big on all that kind of stuff.”
Much of that attitude comes from his father, Paul, who starred at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons and went on to precede his son as an All-American at Maryland.
Paul said he wasn’t surprised when Joe declined to celebrate after the sack, for which he was ribbed by teammates during the day-after film session.
“We were taught to get up and go on to the next thing,” Paul Vellano said. “It’s fun, you make a big play, make a sack, to get up jumping and jiving. Sure, be happy, clap your hands. But for him, he has a little quieter demeanor. He’s not boisterous. That’s done. Next.”
Because the Patriots had a bye last weekend, Vellano spent a few days at his parents’ house in Rexford. He watched CBA beat Shaker in the Class AA Super Bowl, then flew to Maryland for the Terrapins’ 20-3 loss to Syracuse.
Other pitstops included Bella Napoli in Latham for cannolis and coffee, and the Centre Street Pub on Union Street for MNF.
He’s generously listed at 6-foot-2 and has been affectonately nicknamed “Meatball” by his teammates, which ain’t exactly “Megatron,” but it’s the kind of thing Vellano typically shrugs off, and is “better than being ignored,” Paul Vellano said. “He’s fitting in.”
Joe Vellano has enough on his plate just trying to get ready for the next game that he said he doesn’t have time to pay attention to the off-the-field stories coming out of his league, most notably the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin Saga Du Jour.
He deflected questions about it and said that rookie hazing is a non-issue on his team.
“You carry shoulder pads off and do some little things here and there, but it’s nothing,” said Vellano, who faced Incognito and Martin in the last game Martin played for the Dolphins, on Oct. 27. “That’s one thing, is we have a really great team. There’s really a leadership presence there.
“I’m not really big on following that sort of stuff. I’m just trying to do my job the best I can.”
Joe Vellano was deeply disappointed when he wasn’t drafted, but the Patriots, the only team that showed real interest prior to the draft, came calling a few days later.
Pre-draft, head coach Bill Belichick had gone so far as to fly to Maryland, where Vellano was working out, to go through some drills and watch film with him.
Happy just to make the practice squad, Vellano made the 53-man roster, started a preseason game against Detroit and played about 25 snaps a game at the beginning of the regular season, until Wilfork got hurt.
“My family was just fired up that I got a chance to go to rookie minicamp and get a chance to build on that,” Joe Vellano said.
“That one month was a bit of a whirlwind,” Paul Vellano said. “Everything happened so fast.”
It hasn’t slowed down.
On the contrary, “the less games you have, the more they count, is what they say,” Joe Vellano said. “You’ve got to get hot now.”
That doesn’t mean he’s looking ahead to the playoffs.
Instead, Vellano, known for getting to practice early and staying late, is firmly rooted in what his assignment is on any given day.
What he lacks in height he makes up for in preparation and constantly fine-tuning technique. He’s also powerfully built and can get under a blocker and straighten him up, his father said.
Joe plays the same position that Paul did, so he has an extra scout who can pick up on the minutiae that can make the difference between disrupting the gap or getting buried by the center.
“Joey was always kind of the team engineer, a little bit,” Paul said. “He’ll tell guys to shuffle over. He knows the game and knows tendencies and really is a technician. You’ll see him moving around a little bit. He was doing that back in Pop Warner.”
“You have to be very consistent, is the biggest thing, and don’t let the length of the season slow you down,” Joe Vellano said. “Near future, you’re playing for today. It really has to be day-to-day because so many things change. You can’t plan like that.”