HOUSTON — Joe Vellano clutched three Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl hats and a few Falcons T-shirts in his left hand as he addressed a small group of reporters Monday during Super Bowl Opening Night. To understand the significance of that fistful of gear, you need to know Vellano’s story.
Vellano began training camp with the New England Patriots. An hour before New England’s preseason finale, a road game against the New York Giants, he received a call from his landlord saying his apartment in Attleboro, Mass., had gone up in flames.
“The house just caught on fire,” Vellano said Monday. “It got totaled. The whole place.”
Left with little recourse, Vellano played against the Giants, then salvaged what he could from the wreckage after returning to New England.
“At that point, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “So, I just kind of passed it along to my family, and they took care of it at that point. I was worried about the game. At that point, what am I going to do?”
Left temporarily homeless, the Rexford, N.Y., native was forced to crash on a friend’s couch. Two days after the fire, the Patriots released him in the final round of roster cuts.
It’s tough to have a lousier week than that. But the 28-year-old defensive lineman quickly found work. He latched on with the Falcons, and after spending most of the season on the practice squad, he now is preparing to take on his old team in Super Bowl LI.
“I got an opportunity to come (to Atlanta) two days after, and I’ve been down (there) since Week 1,” said Vellano, who still does not know what caused the fire. “I was just trying to learn the system — everybody does things a little differently — and just trying to adapt my game and learn the playbook and just increase my role on the team.”
Vellano was a part of the 2014 Patriots team that defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Much of the memorabilia he accumulated that week — though, thankfully, not his Super Bowl ring — was in the apartment when it caught fire.
“I lost tons of stuff. I lost a lot of Super Bowl stuff from that year, just this kind of stuff,” Vellano said, gesturing toward the stash of Super Bowl swag he was carrying with him. “So, I’ve got two of (everything) this year.”
Vellano was inactive for the win over the Seahawks two years ago, so he technically has yet to play in his first Super Bowl. In fact, he has not played a meaningful snap since the 2014 AFC Championship Game, spending the last two seasons on the Falcons’ and Indianapolis Colts’ practice squads.
But Vellano earned a promotion to Atlanta’s active roster ahead of the NFC title game earlier this month, and he hopes to return to action on the NFL’s grandest stage.
“To get a chance to take live bullets in the Super Bowl is what I’ve been trying to do since I was 4 or 5 years old,” Vellano said. “I had an opportunity to come here, and it also happened to be against the old squad.”
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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