This summer I got the chance to talk to former Georgia Bulldog Fernando Velasco about a variety of subjects, including his career in Athens, his teammate Paul Oliver, and the circuitous route that's taken him from redshirting as a college junior to becoming an established NFL veteran (albeit one who at the time was still looking for a team for the 2015 season). On that afternoon I don't know that either of us knew that in a few short months Velasco would be suiting up to play in the Super Bowl. Well, maybe Fernando knew, but he had more important things to talk about. In any event, this seemed like the perfect time to share this story, which just goes to show how a single football season can change so much.
It's early June, and Fernando Velasco is driving to one of his favorite places in the whole world, Athens, Georgia. He's on his way to speak to the freshmen reporting to play at his alma mater. I have no idea how fast Velasco is driving, but i suspect he's not in a hurry. The big man from Wrens seems to have the sort of calm about him that you only get when you have faith that the Universe is going to unfold as it should.
When I speak to Velasco he's technically still a free agent, but notes that his agent had been in communication with several teams. As Velasco put it, in his own laid back tone "Oh, I'll be playing somewhere. I just don't have any idea where yet."
Velasco has every reason to believe he'll catch on with an NFL team. He's been toiling in the trenches for seven years with the Titans, Steelers, and Panthers. Just over a week later he'd find himself back with the Titans, albeit only for a couple of months before being waived again and picked up by the Panthers. He'll be a part of a team that makes a run at the rare perfect NFL season. The 2015 Carolina Panthers are a dabbing, dancing media sensation. A team made for the promotional era.
On this day though you get a sense that Velasco would rather talk about anything but contract negotiations and performance incentives and endorsements, and the relative merits of various bonus structures. "There's a lot to the business side, dealing with contracts and agents" Velasco notes, "But you take the good with the bad." Clearly for this Jefferson Countian the business side is the bad side of the game. He'd rather talk about how a man can stay in the NFL, and how he can get there in the first place.
"My first couple of years in the league" he says, "I was a swing guy who could play both guards. Now I can play both guards, and center. That's really extended my career."
He also points to his coaches at Georgia as a factor in his NFL longevity. "It really does help, coming from Georgia, playing in a pro-style offense. There's a lot of terminology carry over. Coach Richt and his staff did an excellent job teaching you how to practice. How to carry yourself. How to be a professional."
Velasco as much as anyone came into the NFL prepared for the vicissitudes of life as a pro football player. That's because he suffered setbacks before he ever left Athens. Velasco played as a true freshman backup for the 2003 SEC East champions. He then played a more central role at guard as a sophomore in 2004, starting against Vanderbilt and coming off the bench regularly. Fans and writers expected him to be a candidate to start on the 2005 Bulldog squad. Instead life, and his coaches, dealt him a twist.
"Coach Richt and Coach Callaway approached me with the idea [of redshirting] in the spring, to help me, but also to help the team", Velasco remembers. "We were going to lose a lot of seniors the following year."
To say that Velasco was enthused at the notion of redshirting as a junior would be a stretch. "It was hard. You think of freshmen being asked to redshirt." Fans will recall that the 2005 Georgia squad behind D.J. Shockley would win the SEC East once again, and then throttle a favored LSU team to win Mark Richt's second SEC Championship.
Velasco is pragmatic about that season. "At the time, it was the toughest thing I'd had to go through. But when I look back on it, it was blessing in disguise." Velasco made the most of his season out of the lineup. "It allowed me to go ahead and get my degree. To get my body ready to contribute and be a starter my next two years, and to play in the NFL. My peers chose me to be a team captain. In the end it was just a blessing."
It probably helps that Velasco did end up getting his moment to shine as a part of the Red and Black, eventually starting at guard during the 2006 season. Asked about his favorite moment from his UGA career Fernando doesn't hesitate. "Probably my last collegiate game, in the Sugar Bowl against Hawaii", he replies. "In fact, I was just over at Marcus Howard's house the other day and he has a big shrine in his basement of that game."
Does he ever invite Colt Brennan over to look at that, I ask?
Velasco chuckles heartily. "I'm sure they barbecue together and laugh about it all the time."
But that glitzy finale to his collegiate career soon gave way to the harsh reality faced by many collegians looking to transition into the pro ranks. There are a lot of players trying to make a living playing the game. More every year. Generally more than the league's teams have room for. Come NFL Draft time Velasco wasn't expected to get a lot of looks from NFL teams, though a late round pickup wasn't out of the question. Things once again didn't go according to plan, and once again it wasn't enough to stop Fernando Velasco.
He went undrafted, and began the thankless journey of an NFL free agent. As with so many other things, Fernando Velasco is able to laugh about it. "We don't call ourselves 'free agents'" he scolds me. "We like to think of ourselves as 'eighth round draft picks.'"
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed when I didn't hear my name called. But at the same time it put a chip on my shoulder. When you're a free agent, if you're lucky, you wind up with several teams to pick from. And you can put yourself in the best situation to succeed."
Velasco set about conquering the NFL with a solid plan. "You have to go into it with a relaxed mindset. Just play ball and have fun because you got nothing to lose" he discloses, matter of factly. "As a free agent nobody really expects anything from you. So just go out there, work your tail off, and show them what you can do. And remember that playing in the league is a blessing."
Fernando Velasco of course did show them what he could do, and has kept showing them. After signing with the Tennessee Titans Velasco saw sparing action during the 2008 season. He then played in all 16 games of the 2009 season, and by 2012 was the Titans regular starting center.
Velasco entered the free agent market as a proven commodity on the offensive front and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2013 season. When Maurkice Pouncey went down with a knee injury Velasco stepped in, starting 11 games, though he ultimately suffered his own ACL injury. A short stint with the Panthers in 2014 followed, and then Velasco found himself back on the market. Now he finds himself suiting up for the Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers, the favorite to win the big game. Fernando Velasco could well be on the verge of going from a man without a team to hoisting the sport's biggest trophy in a few short months. Ain't life funny?
But there's more to Fernando Velasco than his dogged determination on the field. He also stays busy off the field with his own charity, the Right C.H.O.I.C.E.S. Foundation. He's also active in the Paul Oliver Network, named for Velasco's former Bulldog teammate Paul Oliver, who tragically took his own life after struggling to deal with the shift from pro football player to everyday family man, and the physical toll the game took on his body.
Velasco has fond memories of Oliver, who has clearly influenced him. "The thing with Paul Oliver was that he was a special athlete" Velasco muses, "but also a special human being." Velasco pauses. "That was a sad situation" he declares. "Just a sad, sad situation."
"Thank God for Coach Richt" he continues, "for having an organization like the Paul Oliver Network to help guys with that transition. Whether it's leaving the NFL or after your last bowl game in college. To help guys find their way, because so many guys get lost at that point."
Velasco notes that his foundation is designed to help kids start building the life skills that he hopes will help them make good choices later in life. Velasco sees himself taking a deeper role in kids' lives after his playing days are over. "I see myself getting into player development. I want to help guys with the transitions. That move from high school to college can take a lot out of a kid. There are so many challenges. Time management. The social stuff, dealing with girls. Your parents being back home. I want to use my experience to help guys along the way."
If you're looking for Exhibit A of how hard work and perseverance pays off, it's Fernando Velasco. If the young men he mentors take on the challenges in their lives the way he has, they'll undoubtedly be successful, too. Maybe even when they least expect it. Until later . . .