Little-known Joe Vellano goes for a second Super Bowl ring

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) His timing is impeccable.

A lot of guys slog through an entire career without coming close to a Super Bowl ring.

Joe Vellano is going for a matching set.

And who is Joe Vellano?

Maybe one of the most fortunate players in the NFL.

A 300-pound defensive lineman, Vellano wasn't drafted out of college and he's spent much of his pro career either as a backup or the totally thankless role of practice-squad player.

But there he was, in just his second season, popping up like Forrest Gump on a championship-winning team at New England.

Even got a ring to prove it.

Now, after bouncing around the last couple of years and barely playing at all, Vellano is heading to the Super Bowl again, this time with the Atlanta Falcons.

To face the Patriots, no less.

''There's a lot that goes into getting to this point in the season,'' Vellano said Wednesday before heading out to the practice field as a full-fledged member of the Falcons, a promotion he earned just over a week ago.

''But it's more about the group that you're with, the sacrifices they've put out all year and the effort, the work that this whole organization has really done. So we're ready to go and we're going to be really excited.''

Unlike his first trip to the big game, chances are he'll be in uniform for this one, having been bumped up to the active roster just before the NFC championship game .

''I remember having a conversation with him about six weeks ago, `Joe, I don't know if your time is going to come this year, but I do know that you're ready. Keep putting the work in because when the time does come, you want to stay ready,''' Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

The 28-year-old Vellano knows how blessed he is to have an opportunity at a pair of championships when so many players - many of them much more accomplished than he is - never even got their first.

But it's not as if this has been a smooth ride.

Not by a long shot.

Following a stellar career at Maryland, Vellano's name was never called in the 2013 draft, though his disappointment was softened a bit when he hooked on with the Patriots.

Not a bad landing spot.

Things were really looking up when he unexpectedly got a chance to start eight games as a rookie, stepping up after Vince Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles injury. The youngster turned in a solid performance, recording 54 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery to help New England reach the AFC championship game.

It wasn't enough to cement his place in the league.

Vellano played only five games in Year 2, got demoted to the practice squad for a while, and was inactive for New England's 28-24 win over Seattle in the Super Bowl .

Still, he could call himself a champion.

When Vellano was cut shortly before the next season, hardly anyone noticed. He didn't play at all in 2015, spending a few days on New England's practice squad and filling a similar role with Indianapolis late in the year.

He re-signed with the Patriots last January, only to get axed again at the end of the preseason.

Making matters worse, Vellano's duplex in Massachusetts was engulfed by fire just days before he was let go, destroying much of the football memorabilia he had accumulated in his career. His Super Bowl ring survived, having been kept in his native New York.

Picking up the pieces, Vellano landed a spot on Atlanta's practice squad. Week after week, he helped the Falcons get ready for their next opponent and waited patiently for his chance, putting in the same work as everyone else without the reward of actually getting to play on Sundays.

Then, early in a divisional-round victory over Seattle, Adrian Clayborn sustained a biceps injury. His season was over.

Vellano was promoted to the 53-man roster for the NFC championship game and even made a tackle in Atlanta's 44-21 rout of the Green Bay Packers.

''Fortunately for Joe, the opportunity came,'' Quinn said. ''When the injury happened to Clayborn, there was a roster spot available and there was no question where we were going to go. Joe was ready. We anticipate him playing and playing well.''

Vellano is one of only five Atlanta players who have been on a Super Bowl team.

He's got some advice for his teammates.

''Don't make it bigger than it is,'' he said. ''You want to go out there and get the win. Then it really counts.''

Spoken like a player who already has a ring.

And, now, a chance for another.

A fortunate guy, indeed.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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