In a September 16 article on NFL.com, writer Dan Hanzus summed up the Steelers Week 1 game versus the Titans in the title: "Maurkice Pouncey's injury left Steelers 'shell-shocked'". Hanzus' use of the term was a quote from an interview with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
I think "shell-shocked" would also be a reasonable way to describe Steeler Nation after Pouncey went down. But however the coaches and front office of the Steelers felt, they still had essentially a whole season of football to navigate without him.
They went out and signed Fernando Velasco, who, ironically enough, had been released by the Titans at the end of August in favor of the cheaper free agent pickup Rob Turner, who had been cut by St. Louis.
In another twist which makes the situation feel a bit like a Greek tragedy (the football gods are nothing if not into irony, apparently,) Rob Turner was placed on IR on October 30th after sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. Fortunately, that's not our problem.
So who is Fernando Velasco, anyhow? We know what he's done. He first walked into the Steelers facility on September 9th, the day after the Titans game, and walked onto the field as the starting center six days later. Since then he has played everything from adequately to very well indeed. Not bad for a 2008 undrafted free agent, a draft year notable for a fairly meager talent pool, one who had just been cut in favor of another UDFA (2007, Jets).
It's usual to say a player was "on the couch" when they receive the phone call from a team, but Velasco was actually in a church pew instead.. Velasco is no stranger to church pews. In 2010 he started a foundation called Right C.H.O.I.C.E.S. (The acronym stands for Christ, Humility, Opportunity, Integrity, Character, Education, Success.) The foundation sponsors a free camp for kids in his hometown of Wrens, Georgia. Over 200 kids are able to attend camp each year.
Velasco's heart for young kids stems from his own very difficult childhood. As he told Starkey, Miller, and Mueller on 93.7 The Fan:
Everybody has a story...Everyone has some obstacles along the way, but what doesn't hurt you makes you stronger...I was blessed to have a grandfather who has helped me along the way. I've seen him go to work every day until he was 80-some years old; the only thing I've seen my whole life [from him] has been hard work...That inspired me to always keep working hard, no matter what the situation is, and just trust in the Lord...You can't use excuses in this life, you just take what you get and keep going.
So what were these "obstacles?" The main one was a Colombian father who was sent to prison for big-time drug dealing when Velasco was a child. After his father served eight years of a life sentence, he was deported, and is not allowed into the US. So Velasco and his three brothers were taken in by an aunt and their grandparents. This grandfather, who was such an inspiration to Velasco, died in 1999.
Perhaps one of the greatest indications of Velasco's character is the fact that he has taken the hard road to forgiveness and established a relationship with the father he never really knew as a child. As he told Joe Starkey:
He can't come to the States, so I made a vow that I would go out of the States so that I could see him.
Velasco uses his vacations to travel to places they can meet up. It was doubtless a thrill for both that his father was able to see him play at Wembley Stadium this fall for the first time.
I've always envied, I've been jealous of guys who had a father around, because I wanted that so bad. So that's why one of my passions is trying to reach out, to help those in single-parent homes. I love talking to fatherless kids, because the Lord has blessed me to be in the position I am and showed me what kind of father I can be once I have kids.
Joe Starkey asked him about the future—as he said,"They have a pretty good center coming back next year." Velasco responded:
They have a very good center coming back. I thank Maurkice for everything he's done for me since I've been here. He's been a class-A guy. He comes to the meetings, he's always on the sidelines giving me tips...
I understand the business—this is his team, this is his offense...Honestly, for me right now, I'm just enjoying the process, enjoying my role right now being the starting center. I'm trying to get better each week. We'll see what happens in March. I know one thing—I love it here. It's exciting to me to be in a real positive place with a good group of guys around me.
In Sunday's Tribune-Review, Dejan Kovacevic said, in an article titled "These Steelers better than those Steelers":
With apologies to Dennis Green, it's possible these 2013 Steelers aren't who we thought they were.
Or even who they thought they were.
Yeah, there's been a ton of debate and dissection over how they've been able to dig out from an 0-4 hole to play an honest-to-Kosar-and-Sipe important game in Cleveland on this particular Sunday. But most of that discussion has centered on strategy and execution. They're going no-huddle more often. They're deploying six defensive backs. They're just making the plays, doing what they're supposed to do. That sort of thing.
What about personnel?
Couldn't it be the case - maybe the main case - that the players this management and coaching staff thought were their best coming out of Latrobe really weren't?
I'd say so when looking at the upgrades made at a quarter of the roster's 24 starting spots ...
VELASCO > POUNCEY
It's been heresy to knock Maurkice Pouncey since the first drill of his first camp, but he was graded by Pro Football Focus as no higher than the NFL's 12th-best center in 2012, and, more to the point, he's been brittle.
Whether he can do the job isn't the issue. It's getting it done.
Fernando Velasco has done it. He has been solid from his first snap despite coming in cold as a free agent after Pouncey was lost for the season in the opener. Velasco provided immediate stability, he's only gotten stronger, and the Steelers are the better for it.
I don't know what the future holds for Fernando Velasco, any more than Dejan Kovacevic does. But I would guess that whatever it holds, Velasco will navigate it with grace, with gratitude, and with a heart to give back out of the blessings he's received. And in whatever capacity, I sincerely hope his future will be in Pittsburgh for at least a few more years.