For the first 22 years of his life, Jason Vega spent nearly every day of his football-playing career in Massachusetts. The Brockton native was a Globe All-Scholastic in high school, then went on to play at Northeastern.
Not only had Vega stayed close to home to pursue football, he’d never spent more than a week outside of the state.
That changed after he graduated from Northeastern with a degree in criminal justice. Despite a successful career as a defensive lineman with the Huskies, Vega got little interest from NFL teams and headed to Canada.
Initially, he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. But he didn’t stay long.
“I had a groin injury that was bothering me, and the naive young athlete in me didn’t pay enough attention,” Vega said. “It got the best of me, and in some ways it was a blessing. I ended up being released, took my way home. There was . . . a little bit of depression.”
Vega returned to Northeastern, working as an academic adviser to student-athletes, and had no intention of playing football again — until being around those students made him realize that he still wanted to compete.
“My family told me: Don’t leave an ounce of regret,” said Vega. “It really struck a chord with me.”
So it was back to Canada, even farther from home this time, and colder too: Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the average temperature in December is a balmy 7.7 degrees.
The Blue Bombers’ fan base was passionate, and the team played in the Grey Cup, the CFL’s championship game, in 2011, Vega’s first season with the team. Last year, he had 40 tackles and five sacks for Winnipeg.
On the December day that CFL players were allowed to workout with NFL clubs, Vega was in Foxborough, being put through the paces by members of the Patriots staff during a session that began at 6 a.m.
“They showed the most interest,” said Vega.
A CFL executive told the Globe in January that in Vega “you see the same kind of stuff that a [Rob] Ninkovich does. He does show ability to get to the quarterback with a high motor and some pretty good technique. He’s an OK athlete, like Ninkovich, but he makes plays.”
Though he and the Patriots had agreed to terms a couple of weeks earlier, Vega’s three-year futures contract with New England wasn’t official until Feb. 15, when his contract with the Blue Bombers expired.
“I’m excited,” Vega said. “It’s been a long process. I’m really glad it’s over. I had to wait until I officially became a free agent, and it was a drag to wait that long. It took a bit of excitement out of it.”
Vega was the second CFL player New England signed this offseason; the first was Armond Armstead, also a defensive lineman, who spent 2012 with Toronto. The Patriots have started spending more time scouting that league.
Vega, 25, said he wasn’t a fervent Patriots fan growing up, more a fan of football in general. But at Northeastern, with teammates from all over who arrived with their favorite NFL team, Vega “had to have some kind of ammo” on Sundays, and New England’s success usually trumped all.
Finally getting his chance in the NFL is “kind of a shock to me,” Vega said.
And being able to play so close to home is “surprising to me but also a good thing. You start thinking that family is close, so they’ll be able to come down and see games. The negative is you’re playing in your hometown, and there can certainly be some [difficulty] to that.
“But it’s an exciting opportunity.”
After tying up loose ends in Winnipeg, Vega is in Miami now, living with fellow Brockton native and Tyronne Pruitt, the former Boston College linebacker. Pruitt is Vega’s trainer and also keeps an eye on his friend’s diet.
Vega will return next month, when the Patriots’ offseason team activities begin.