Quick, name the hardest-working player on the New England Patriots.
There's a strong chance — a Herculean chance — Ray Ventrone wasn't the first, second or even 20th name that drifted through your head. Not that there's really anything wrong with that. Ventrone, a jack of all trades who earns nearly all of his playing time on special teams, has flown under the radar in Foxborough.
While Ventrone hasn't stolen the spotlight from the outside world, he's a regular superstar in the eyes of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
"Ray is fast, and he's tough," Belichick said. "Nobody works harder than Ray. He is a smart football player. He puts his heart and soul into it every time he steps onto the field. It doesn't matter whether it's a regular-season or postseason game, or whether it's a walk-through practice. He has that same intensity and the same level of competitiveness on every single play. You've got to love that about Ray. He is a tough kid. He has good speed, good quickness, he's strong for his size. He's not a real tall guy, but he's well put together. He's got good power and plays very aggressively. That stuff will carry [him] a long way."
Clearly, Ventrone has done more than a few things to catch Belichick's eye. After all, Ventrone is entering his fifth season with the Patriots. To put his staying power in perspective, only 14 players on the current roster arrived in New England prior to 2005, when the Pats signed Ventrone as an undrafted free agent from Villanova.
His tenure hasn't exactly been flawless, though. Ventrone was released after the 2006 season and then signed with the New York Jets, who eventually cut him in September 2007. The Patriots then signed him again and he has been in New England ever since.
"My goal is always to know my job and to be able to perform at a high level," Ventrone said. "Hopefully, I'll make whatever it will be — practice squad, the roster, regardless. At that point in time, I'll just play to the best of my ability. I try not to really think about those other things and let everything just play out. Fortunately, I've been able to stay here basically my whole career."
Ventrone is listed as a defensive back, but he has spent some time during training camp working out as a wide receiver — a Troy Brown in reverse. It's just another testament to his versatility, as the 26-year-old said he has played every position in his football career except offensive and defensive line. Even with that, Ventrone has simulated Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney while working on the Patriots scout team.
"They expect guys to be able to play more than one position," Ventrone said of the Patriots. "Fortunately with me, I'm able to do that. I think it helps me out as a player just to be more well-rounded. I think it helps my chances.
"The more you can do, the better, especially on this team. You try to be as versatile as you can and make yourself valuable, not just in the kicking game, but being able to understand the offense and defense. Wherever they ask me to play, I just try to do it the best I can."
Ventrone said his favorite role is covering kicks on special teams, where he has made the most significant play of his career, planting New York Giants returner Domenik Hixon during a fourth-quarter kickoff in Super Bowl XLII. The bone-crushing hit also marked Ventrone's first career tackle.
He is the latest in a long list of players who suit Belichick's style — someone with versatility who plays with passion and is an asset on special teams. And even if he doesn't share the popularity as players such as quarterback Tom Brady or linebacker Tedy Bruschi, Ventrone is nearly a lock to make the team.
"I'm a kind of guy who is going to come in and do everything he is told and work as hard as I can every day," Ventrone said. "If that's a Belichick kind of guy, then yeah. I think everybody that is on this team is a Belichick kind of guy because I don't feel that this organization would bring someone in that wasn't."
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