- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When defensive lineman Joe Vellano was going through the predraft process earlier this year, one NFL coach made a personal visit to see him at the University of Maryland.
It was Bill Belichick.
“That was a good opportunity, pretty neat,” Vellano recalled. “At that time, for me, he’s obviously a huge name. So it was exciting.”
About six months later, Vellano now projects as a central figure in Belichick’s defensive scheme. With perennial Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork lost for the season with an Achilles injury, Vellano is the projected starter in his place.
Few could have seen that coming just a few months ago, as the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Vellano was viewed by many a long shot to earn a spot on the New England Patriots' 53-man roster after going undrafted.
This is his football journey:
When he first started playing football: “I was in the third grade. We always played in the backyard, and me and my brother wanted to play. He was in fifth grade. Then my dad took us to play.”
First positions: “I played O-line and D-line, but I didn’t really get into the D-line until high school.”
Favorite teams growing up: “I really watched Maryland, more college. I wasn’t real big into the NFL. I liked the game more than a particular team.”
Top memories from attending high school at Christian Brothers Academy: “I got to play with my brother my sophomore year. He was a senior, and I thought that was always fun. Going to a smaller school, all my friends were on the team. It was me, my cousin and my brother, so all our friends were everybody’s friends. We had a big group. My senior year we won the section and made it to the state semi.”
Enrolling at the University of Maryland, where his father had been a first-team All-American: “I would have went there anyway, just following them growing up. I went to all the football camps down there. They offered me after my junior year and I committed the next day. They were the first ones to offer me.”
Favorite memories playing at Maryland as he followed in his father's footsteps as an All-American, the first father-son combo at the same school in ACC history: “I had a great time. The one game we beat Miami, on the Labor Day Monday, was an awesome game, the whole atmosphere. The year before that, we played Navy on Labor Day as well, in the Ravens’ stadium. Those were two big openers. Those were the biggest games I had a chance to play in during college.”
Benefiting from the approach of Maryland coaches: “I was kind of lucky having great coaches in my career who taught me a lot of technique and building awareness of football in general. At Maryland, under both coaching staffs I had [Ralph Friedgen and Randy Edsall], they really worked every day, all summer and everything, so I was used to working. Also, my two line coaches – Coach [Greg] Gattuso, who is there right now under Coach Edsall, and Coach [Dave] Sollazzo, who is the D-line coach at UMass now. I can’t say anything but the best about them. I liked it.”
Not being selected in April’s NFL draft: “You kind of hear stuff from people, but you never know how it’s going to go. I was hoping to be drafted, but I was prepared not to be. A lot of stuff goes into it, but I got a chance to come here and tried to make the best of it. I thought that was the biggest thing with Coach Belichick – just getting here, undrafted, you might feel like you’re just a camp body or something. But his biggest thing was, ‘I don’t care if you were undrafted, or you were drafted, or you went to a big school or small school, it’s all about what you can do now that you’re here.’ I tried to take to that. Obviously, he’s one of the best.”
Spending time with Belichick and Patriots coaches before the draft: “He was in the area, doing some workouts. Pat [Graham], our D-line coach, came down, too. There were four or five of us doing some agility [drills] and watching some film and going over some stuff for a couple others. When Coach Belichick was down our way, me and a couple guys did the same thing [with him]. It was a little different here or there, but just watching film and stuff.”
Influences growing up:“My dad [Paul] and my brother, really. My brother [also Paul] is older, so I was always trying to do what he was doing, following him. I was always playing with the older kids, trying to keep up with them. I had a lot of great high school coaches as well, and Pop Warner. I was surrounded by pretty good football people. I had a lot of support growing up. There were a lot of positive things around me, with coaches and family. They’d always come to a lot of games.”
When he thought the NFL might be realistic for him: “The biggest thing I looked at was guys I played at Maryland with, and I saw how they did it. Then they got a chance [in the NFL] as well, and you saw them playing well. A guy like Phil Costa, now with Dallas, he was one of the older guys and we always went against him. Or other guys you played against in the league. Not that you were comparing yourself, but it was more that it wasn’t that far away. Just building practice to practice, game to game, year to year, putting them together.”
What he likes about football: “You can get ahead if you know what’s going to happen to you, and if you know how they are going to attack you, you can be in the best position. Just trying to have good footwork, knowing what’s coming at you. It’s a lot of situations. It’s chess, it’s not checkers, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Summing up his football journey: “It’s been a great ride. I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work and it’s something you just have to be really consistent with. There is no substitute for hard work. You have to learn it. It’s tough. Every day you have to be good. It’s not just a one-day thing. One thing about football, you have to practice real well. You probably practice more in football than you do in any other sport, so practices carry over to games. If you’re bringing it every day in practice, it’s going to eventually show up in the games. That’s probably the biggest thing.”