FOXBOROUGH — During a visit to Patriots training camp, as Tom Brady was engulfed by dozens of media members and other players were filing slowly back into Gillette Stadium after another long practice, Paul Vellano Sr. noticed his son still at the back of a field, getting some one-on-one time with Vince Wilfork.
Joe Vellano was an undrafted rookie from Maryland, another young guy working to earn a spot on the Patriots’ roster, like dozens of other players the veteran Wilfork had seen over his 10 years. But Wilfork spent more than 20 minutes with Vellano working on technique, and even as the two walked off the field, Paul could see Wilfork’s hands moving, still explaining something to his young teammate.
Paul was struck by the scene, seeing Wilfork reaching back and extending a hand to Joe, and took it as a hopeful sign that his son might have a chance of sticking with New England.
That scene played out less than two months ago.
Not only did Joe Vellano earn a roster spot with the Patriots, he was on the field from the first game of the season, and now finds himself thrust into the spotlight as one of the players charged with filling the sizable on-field void left from Wilfork’s season-ending Achilles’ injury in Atlanta.
The enormity of the task is not lost on Joe, whom his father still calls Joey.
“He said to me, ‘I’m stepping in for a 10-year All-Pro guy, not just a great player, a great person, the community loves him . . . My God, I have to step in for him,’ ” Paul Sr. said on Thursday.
Joe, whose respect for Wilfork was evident as he talked to reporters this week, will respond with more of the same hard work and preparation that has gotten him to this point.
He grew up going to football games at the University of Maryland, where his father was a team captain and All-American. Though Paul loved the sport and the lessons it taught him, both in winning and losing, he did not push football on his sons, Paul Jr. and Joe, but they were drawn to it nonetheless.
Paul Sr. recalls the boys leaving pieces of paper around the house filled with X’s and O’s as they drew up plays; the father remembers hearing about when Joe was in his early days at Maryland, and hopped a fence in the middle of the night to work alone on the field, attacking the sled and doing drills, trying whatever he could to improve and get coach Ralph Friedgen’s attention. (Paul Jr. played at Rhode Island and in Italy for the Parma Panthers.)
Despite becoming an All-American with the Terrapins and playing at all spots on the defensive line, including nose tackle, Joe received little pre-draft fanfare, though he did take part in the East-West Shrine game.
He wasn’t among the names called on draft weekend, despite his family’s hopes that a positive on-campus workout with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and other members of the New England staff would lead to them using one of their late-round picks on him.
“Oh boy,” Paul Sr. sighed when asked about Joe going undrafted. “When the Senior Bowl invites, combine invites didn’t come, he got distraught — ‘I didn’t even get a shot,’ he said.”
Joe spent the winter in Florida, training with other players, getting ready for his Pro Day and the draft. He was disappointed not to be drafted, but “he kept his head up,” Paul Sr. said. “I give him a lot of credit for not letting that get under his skin. He does work hard, he does prepare himself.”
Of course the Patriots did pick Vellano, eventually, as a free agent.
Though listed at 6 feet 2 inches, 300 pounds, Joe is closer to 6 feet, a little undersized compared with most NFL defensive tackles. He has overcome that by dedicating himself to film work, looking for any edge he can, to know what to expect from the player he’s lined up opposite, to predict what might be coming.
“If you know what play you’re going to get, it takes the thinking out of it and you can play to that block; if you know what’s coming at you, it makes it a lot easier,” Joe said. “You have to be a technician in there, you have to have your awareness up higher, hear calls, stuff like that. It’s a lot to go through and it takes a long time to get good at.”
Belichick had positive words about Vellano this week, noting the extra effort he puts in.
“Joe is a hard-working kid. He has good instincts, he kind of has a nose for the ball and a good feel for what’s going on,” Belichick said.
“He had an opportunity to get some playing time as we went through preseason and he took advantage of those opportunities, made a few plays, had some production, and it probably led to a little bit more opportunity.
“I think that there are a lot of things that he’s improved in, in terms of technique and recognition and reaction. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s definitely making progress.
“He’s usually the first one on and the last one off the field, or close to it. He puts in a lot of extra time, tries to get better at the things he needs to work on, and that’s helped him.”
Though making the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie and earning 25-30 snaps a game are evidence that his work is paying off, Vellano got more tangible proof on Sunday, when he sacked the Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for a 13-yard loss in the third quarter.
The laid-back Albany, N.Y., area native didn’t have a celebration ready for the big moment, which caught him some ribbing from teammates in the film room a day later.
At home, however, Paul Sr., his mom Joanie, and Paul Jr. were celebrating for him.
“I saw him do the swim move and I said, ‘Oh my God, he’s got him, he’s got him!’ ” Paul Sr. said. “We were high-fiving. It was real exciting to watch that, to see him make a big play and see them replay it [on the broadcast].”
Joe had a connection to Boston long before he signed with the Patriots: His great-grandparents lived on Margaret Street in the North End when they immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, before moving to Albany, where the family business was founded. Vellano Corp. is still going strong today, supplying industrial piping for underground water, sewer, and drainage systems.
When Joe calls home, he asks his father about how things are going with the company, though Paul Sr. would much rather talk about what’s going on in his son’s routine.
“He’s unpretentious, he likes his movies — the ‘Godfather’ movies, the ‘Rocky’ movies, him and his brother are always watching those, always quoting from them. And ‘Seinfeld’ quotes.
“He enjoys family and he loves the opportunities when he’s able to come home and spend time at Lake George with the family and his friends. He likes simple things.”
Joe spent a couple of weeks on Lake George, a beautiful lake at the base of the Adirondack Mountains and just 40 minutes from his house, before training camp began, at his favorite spot, Sandy Bay, boating and swimming and throwing the football in knee-deep water with his brother and friends.
Not many days after he returned to Foxborough for his first training camp, he found himself being tutored by Wilfork, long after the day’s practice had ended, working one-on-one with the man he now must help replace.