HOUSTON — Joe Vellano couldn’t contain his excitement when he called his father, Paul, on Jan. 17.
Five days before the Atlanta Falcons played in the NFC Championship, the practice-squad defensive tackle had earned a spot on the team’s active roster.
“He was just gnawing at the bit to get activated again,” Paul Vellano told Capital News Service.
The Falcons beat the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, thanks to a stifling defensive effort in which Vellano contributed a tackle.
That positioned the former Maryland All-American for his second Super Bowl trip in three seasons, coming Sunday against the New England Patriots, the team that cut Vellano before the season during what was perhaps the most overwhelming week of his life.
“I have some friends who were playing through the years, 10 years, never went to a playoff game,” said Paul Vellano, also a former Maryland All-American. “For him to get two Super Bowls with two different teams is quite a unique experience.”
Two years ago, Vellano participated in the 2015 Super Bowl festivities as the Patriots prepared for their victory against the Seattle Seahawks. He signed with New England as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and had multiple stints on the active roster and practice squad.
He was inactive in the Super Bowl win, but he’s one of the few Falcons this season with championship experience. He’s reminding teammates to treat practices as normal, prepare for a longer game and collect souvenirs.
Vellano is paying extra personal attention to the latter suggestion because he lost almost all of his 2015 memorabilia a few months ago.
After pregame warm-ups for the Patriots’ preseason finale Sept. 1, Vellano returned to the locker room to multiple phone calls.
He didn’t want to disrupt his focus, but he answered. The landlord of his duplex in Attleboro, Massachusetts, was on the other end. His house had caught fire and was totaled.
The shock didn’t stop him from playing the game — his brother and fiancé helped settle the initial details while he was busy — and he slept at a friend’s house that night.
As he worked with insurance companies, his landlord and the fire department the next day, Vellano also grappled with his destroyed possessions.
The pictures from the Super Bowl were gone. So were his jerseys. His team-autographed helmets had melted. His ring, however, was secure in a safe deposit box.
On Sept. 3, the Patriots released him on the final round of training camp cuts.
“It happened all within 48 hours,” Vellano said, “so kind of all a whirlwind.”
The upheaval continued when the Falcons signed him to their practice squad and he moved to Atlanta three days later.
Throughout the regular season, he worked on the scout team against the offensive starters, earning Practice Player of the Week honors twice. He also traveled with the team for away games, tracking plays on the sideline, preparing for an opportunity to suit up.
“Joe’s a great example of pushing each other,” Falcons offensive lineman Chris Chester said. “Trying to make you better as well as get himself better.”
Vellano’s drive caught coach Dan Quinn’s attention and prompted the playoff promotion when defensive end Adrian Clayborn injured his biceps in the divisional round.
Vellano admits the opportunity coming at his teammates’ injury was tough, but he couldn’t hide his smile Monday during Super Bowl’s opening media night at Minute Maid Park.
He had a few hats and a commemorative towel tucked under his arm as he spoke about the anticipation of competing against his former teammates after a strenuous few months.
“Getting the chance to take live bullets in the Super Bowl,” Vellano said, “is kind of what I’ve been wanting to do since I was four or five years old.”
This story is a collaboration between Capital News Service and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.