After two years on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad and two more on the active roster as a reserve offensive lineman, Fernando Velasco finally got a chance to be a starter in the NFL in 2012.
By all accounts, this former undrafted free agent out of Georgia played well. Pro Football Focus rated him as the No. 11 center in the NFL, one spot ahead of Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey.
But, when Tennessee cut its roster to 53 players shortly before the regular season, Velasco was among the players released.
"It's the NFL. Nothing in this business surprises me," Velasco said. "You can't leave your emotions in this game because so much stuff happens. I've seen a lot of stuff, whether it's been to me or to some of my former teammates ... it's a crazy business. You can't feel bitter toward a team. You can't feel sorry for yourself. You just have to go onto the next one."
The next one for Velasco was the Steelers. After Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury in the Steelers' Week 1 loss against Tennessee, Velasco was signed and immediately became the team's starting center.
In the past four games, Velasco has solidified the interior of the line and helped the team avert a potential disaster. He is the only Steelers offensive lineman that has not allowed a sack this season and has allowed just three quarterback hurries.
"He's done an awesome job," right guard David DeCastro said. "It's been great. He's a veteran player and has been solid for us. It's tough to replace a guy like Pouncey, obviously. His record speaks for itself, but Fernando has done a real good job. He's just a solid all-around player. He's a veteran guy, savvy. He knows the game really well."
Velasco was deemed expendable by Tennessee coach Mike Munchak after the Titans signed free agent Robert Turner, who played previously with the St. Louis Rams and New York Jets. Munchak might be second-guessing his decision now. Turner is the 33rd-ranked center in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Baltimore's Gino Gradkowski is ranked lower. Velasco is ranked 25th.
"They just wanted to go in a different direction for whatever reason," Velasco said. "I respect that. I appreciate everything that organization did for me when I was there. They gave me a chance when I was a free agent coming out of college when no one else would. It was a blessing.
"I had some great coaches when I was there, two Hall of Fame guys in Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews. I learned a lot from them."
Velasco's teammates feel fortunate to have him here. Veteran guard Ramon Foster said the Steelers had "great luck on our part" to find Velasco on the waiver wire after Pouncey was injured.
"He doesn't talk as much [smack] as Pounce does," Foster said. "Other than that, you can't really compare the two. They're two totally different players. They're both good players.
"Fernando does what he does well and Pounce does what he does well.
"The most important thing was the experience that Fernando brought to it. That was the greatest thing he had. He's a vet. It's been really good so far."
Velasco credited his teammates, especially DeCastro and Foster, for making the transition to the Steelers easy for him.
For his first couple of games, they helped Velasco make the line calls. Now, he's comfortable enough with the offense that he can make those on his own.
The offensive line remains a work in progress, but Velasco has been a steadying influence in the middle.
"I feel like I landed in the perfect spot," Velasco said. "From the day I got here, everyone in the building adopted me and embraced me with two arms. It made the transition very easy.
"Football aside, as far as life, it was very refreshing to come here to a great classy organization like this. You hear about the Steelers over the years. You hear about what a great organization it is, but, until you get inside the building and meet people and see how coach [Mike Tomlin] runs everything and how family-oriented it is ... It's an awesome place to play. I'm loving every bit of it."Steelers
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published October 18, 2013 8:22 PM