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Steelers' Ventrone's comic persona meshes with desire to excel

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Ross Ventrone makes a catch during a practice Wednesday, June 5, 2013, on the South Side.

More than three years ago, Ross Ventrone described the road he had traveled as “crazy.”

Things have been even crazier since then, but his latest stop has a whiff of order and familiarity. And mom's cooking.

Like many young job-seekers, the 26-year-old Ventrone is living at home, back at the old house on Hope Street while trying to convince the Steelers to hire a free-agent, 5-foot-8 safety with just a handful of NFL games on his resume and who did not play a single down last season.

His chances would appear to be slim. But this is old news to a player whose college and pro careers never were supposed to happen in the first place.

“I know what I'm able to do,” Ventrone said. “What other people think doesn't really bother me. I don't doubt myself.”

And yet, he added, “It is hard to believe it sometimes.”

An outstanding wrestler at Chartiers Valley, Ventrone skipped football until his senior year and played in four games before suffering a hamstring injury. He stood 5-foot-2 and weighed 135 pounds, but that was superseded by his love of the sport and inspiration from his older brother, Raymond.

Ventrone walked on at Pitt, bigger and stronger but still a 150-pound afterthought amid the scholarship studs. In two years he covered one kickoff. Still, he looked so good in practice and the spring game that Raymond — known to all as Bubba — an NFL safety and special teams ace and formerly a star at Villanova, sent a tape to his alma mater.

Fueled by a growth spurt, an affinity for the weight room and his brother's support and guidance, Ross wound up starting three years for the Wildcats and winning an FCS national championship as a senior in 2009.

An undrafted free agent, Ventrone landed in New England, Bubba's former team, and got cut during training camp but later made the practice squad. In 2011, he appeared in eight games, twice as many as he did in high school, playing on special teams. He missed all of last season after suffering a high-ankle sprain during camp.

“An underdog story,” said Bubba, recently signed by San Francisco after two seasons in New England and four in Cleveland. “He is the epitome of that. ... Maybe at some point somebody will make a movie about him.”

What he's got are smarts, speed and strength (he weighs a rock-solid 195 pounds), and an iron will.

“I don't know anyone I've met or seen in football, or life in general, who works as hard,” said Bubba, who ran a fake punt 35 yards to set up the Browns' only touchdown in a 24-10 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field last December.

The brothers, four years apart, resemble each other facially and follicly. Big hair spills from their helmets. Bubba is slightly bigger, the work habits identical. Tightly bonded, they are each other's biggest fans. In the middle is a sister, Dana, a former Char Valley track star who is engaged to Patriots defensive end Trevor Scott.

Bubba's approach to life is more serious. For Ross, it is more “a comedy show,” his brother said.

He is loud, slightly off-kilter, “just a funny kid,” said their father, Ray, the business manager of the Local 154 Boilermakers union. “He has a great personality.”

Verbally, father and son like to spar, although Ross seems to have the upper hand.

“I mess with the big guy,” he said. “He messes with everyone himself. I feel like I'm the only one who can give it back to him.”

Ray Ventrone said, “He tortures me.”

Before Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis a few years ago, Ventrone was a big hit at Media Day even though he was left off the roster. Wearing his jersey, he grabbed a microphone and interviewed several of his Patriots teammates, asking smooth-scalped running back Kevin Faulk if he envied his wavy, Troy Polamalu-esque hair and checking if linebacker Jerod Mayo was “hydrating properly.” Ventrone also did a decent impersonation of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler.

“It was hard to tell if he was a player or an onlooker who found his way onto the field,” The New York Times wrote.

During that regular season with the Patriots, Ventrone became moderately famous for being involved in 21 separate team transactions, a repeating cycle of releases, re-signings, practice squad assignments and promotions to the 53-man roster. The media started keeping track, leading to an ESPN bit during which Ventrone set up a one-man “Occupy Gillette” movement, complete with tent, outside the Patriots' stadium.

“I'll do almost anything to make somebody laugh,” he said. “I like to give people a different side of me.”

Actually, Ventrone gives several sides, starting with Rusty Benson, his nickname (after a teacher) and alter ego. Friends know him as “Russ” or “Bens” or “Rusty” or “Benson.” On Twitter (RustyBenson35) and other forms of social media he might at any given moment wonder aloud, “Where did this guy's head and legs go?” after spotting a mannequin dressed in athletic wear, or post a video complaining about people who violate the 12-items-or-less sign at the supermarket.

But when it comes to football, his place and future in the game, Ventrone is all business. He sticks the jokes and poems in the drawer and locks Rusty in the closet, temporarily, of course. Bubba, however, always remains close.

“To have an opportunity to follow him on the football field is such an honor,” Ventrone said. “I watched my brother (play), and I want to be like him. That drives me a lot. He's always pushed me. It's just a thing in me. I have that drive.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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