Gorman: Practice makes perfect for Pats' Ventrone
Looking for the perfect player to simulate Troy Polamalu in practice, the New England Patriots turned this week to a Pittsburgh native who plays with the same passion and reckless disregard for his body.
Not to mention has shoulder-length hair.
"I've got the long hair going," Ross Ventrone said, with a laugh, Thursday. "It's pretty long. It's been growing for a long time. I haven't had it cut in two years. Everyone keeps saying I look like him, too."
The similarities pretty much begin and end there, as Polamalu is an All-Pro safety who's one of the best players in the NFL, and Ross Ventrone is the most improbable WPIAL-to-NFL story you'll ever hear.
Ventrone was too small to play football until his senior year at Chartiers Valley, but he walked-on at Pitt before transferring to Division I FCS Villanova. The 5-foot-8 1⁄2, 195-pound Ventrone is now on the Patriots' practice squad, something he calls "indescribable" and "unbelievable."
You would think Ventrone wakes up every morning and pinches himself to see if he's dreaming, but he's the only one who doesn't seem surprised.
"I haven't really thought about that, really, other than when people ask," Ventrone said. "But it is crazy. I think people look at me and wouldn't think I'd be able to (make the NFL), but that never bothered me. I always knew I was capable of doing something like this."
If Ventrone believed what no one else could, it's because he watched his older brother overcome similar odds. After starring at Villanova, Raymond Ventrone has been a backup safety and special-teams ace for the Patriots, New York Jets and, now, the Cleveland Browns.
Not only did Raymond inspire Ross, but he vouched for his little brother and convinced Villanova coach Andy Talley to offer Ross a scholarship based on film from Pitt practices and scrimmages.
Ross became a three-year starter at safety and one of the stars of the Wildcats' 2009 FCS national championship season.
That Ross is in the NFL surprised even Talley.
"I thought his stature would go against him because the pros are so height-, weight- and speed-oriented, and by pro standards, he didn't look on paper like he'd be big enough," Talley said. "But I think he was very well-prepared because Ray went over everything with him that he was going to face. He was a real outstanding free safety for us — very smart, very intelligent and very passionate.
"He packaged everything he needed to package to play in that league."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick had an affinity for Raymond Ventrone — who persevered despite spending one season on injured reserve and being released five times — and signed Ross to the practice squad last month after cutting him in September. Conveniently enough, Raymond has made his home in nearby Plaineville, Mass., so Ross had a place to live.
What Ross didn't get was a reunion with Raymond last week, when the Patriots visited the Browns. Ross was inactive and didn't make the trip, instead watching from home as Raymond recovered a fumbled kickoff to set up a touchdown in the Browns' 34-14 victory.
"I'm happy when my brother is successful," Ross said. "I wanted us to win that game but can't do anything about that now. I hope he makes every play. He's my role model. It was unbelievable, following in his footsteps but, at the same time, making my own path. It's indescribable, really."
Indescribable would be getting activated to the 53-man roster to play in his hometown, a remote possibility for Ventrone despite injuries to safeties Patrick Chung and Jarrad Page. Nevertheless, Ventrone prepares every week as if he will play and doesn't dwell on it when he doesn't.
"Obviously, I wish I could be out there playing," Ventrone said. "My job is to practice every day and prepare these guys to play. I feel as much a part of the team as anybody.
"Every week is kind of the same, just different teams. The Steelers• That's where I'm from, but it's no different than practicing to prepare for any other team. When my time comes, I'll be ready for it."
When Ross Ventrone gets that chance, it might be indescribable.
But it won't be unbelievable.