Rough Starts Not New To Velasco

PITTSBURGH -- They call the Steelers' new center "Nando," which is much more thoughtful and respectful than "Bubba" ...

"Bubba?" asked David DeCastro.

DeCastro's neighbor in the locker room, Fernando Velasco, was telling a reporter about his college nickname, an old and buried nickname, a nickname Velasco did NOT want his new teammates to hear.

"Don't tell nobody," Velasco said to DeCastro.

"I like Nando better anyway," DeCastro said.

Nando is short for Fernando, but Velasco was not, he presumes, named after the great baseball pitcher of the 1980s, Fernando Valenzuela.

Velasco was born in 1985 to a Colombian father who would soon go away to prison for life for selling drugs, apparently lots of them.

And after eight years in jail, Franz Velasco was deported. Fernando and his three brothers moved in with an aunt and grandparents in Wrens, Georgia, a town of one redlight about 30 miles southwest of Augusta.

"We've upgraded," Velasco said with an easygoing smile. "I think we've got three or four redlights now. We got a McDonalds my senior year in high school. That was the biggest thing there since sliced bread."

And the McDonalds is merely connected to a gas station.

"But it was big for us," Velasco said. "It's a real small town. Everybody knows everybody, so you learn how to interact with all kinds of people. You couldn't get away with anything."

Like drugs?

Well, that wasn't even a consideration for Velasco, considering what had happened with the father he didn't know.

"That was one thing I always stayed away from, because I just knew," Velasco said. "And the blessing of it all was I know what I want in a father. It taught me what I didn't want in a father. I don't have any kids yet. I'm going to get married. I just got engaged. So for when I do have kids, it taught me I want to be there for my kids. I want to be a great father to my kids."

Velasco was a great father to his brothers. The second of four sons, Velasco is proud that one younger brother is in the Air Force, and the youngest brother, Cam Lewis, is a freshman running back at Georgia Southern.

Fernando was an all-state offensive tackle at Jefferson County High and went to the University of Georgia, where he became the Bulldogs' starting strong guard as a junior and then the team captain and center for quarterback Matt Stafford as a senior.

During Velasco's stay in Athens, he won back-to-back Iron Man Awards and stamped himself as a hard-working overachiever who had strength and powerful hands, but who needed better footwork and mobility to get drafted.

So he signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and took up residency under O-line coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player. When Munchak became head coach three years later, he hired another Hall of Famer, Bruce Matthews, to coach the line.

"I've been blessed," Velasco said. "Coach Munchak always talked about learning the game within the game, learning how to use your hands, or learning what a defensive lineman thinks, the game inside the big game going on. He tried to teach me to not only understand my job, but what the guards, tackles, even the running back are thinking and doing."

After spending five years in the pipeline, the fifth as the starting center, the Titans signed Velasco to a $2.023 million second-round tender. It was clearly a sign of respect, but five months later they cut him. In their zeal to improve their line, the Titans brought in too many new players, and Velasco was the odd man out.

His agent told him he was talking to teams that didn't want to sign the vested vet until the second week of the season, when Velasco's contract would not be guaranteed. So when Maurkice Pouncey went down in the first week, Velasco signed with the team that had the opening. Velasco filled it. He stepped right into that hub of communication and hasn't missed a snap since starting that second game. By all accounts, he's played well.

"I think he's done a great job," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Not only did he come in in a last-minute type situation -- it was hard enough to do that -- but he was filling in for an All-Pro, maybe the best center in the game. I think he's done a tremendous job. Knock on wood we've had no problem with center-quarterback exchanges. His calls have been good. He's played well. So I think the job he's done was phenomenal."

"It wasn't a credit to me at all," said Velasco. "It was a credit to all the guys around me, especially Ben. He helped me out a lot as far as my communication, pointing out the mike, pointing out all the linebackers. Ben was phenomenal with that, and his cadence. He really, really helped me with that. All the guys around me made me feel comfortable. David is obviously a smart guy. Ramon (Foster) has been in the system forever. So it was just a matter of me listening to those guys and going out there and playing ball."

Fernando also got the chance to play in front of his father for the first time. Franz Velasco lives in Sweden and came to London to watch his son play for the Steelers.

"It was a blessing," Fernando said. "It was a long process for me to forgive him, but once I finally forgave him we've grown our relationship. And I made a vow every year -- since he can't come to the states -- that I go outside of the states to see him. Last year me and my older brother and a couple buddies met him in Canada. This year I met him in Jamaica."

Is the son acting as father in these instances?

"No. The incarceration was big for him," Velasco said. "He's turned his life around now. He's a God-fearing man now. He's put his troubled past behind him and he's on the right track, so that's good to see."

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