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Ventrone looking to take the next step

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Ray Ventrone spent the entire year on the Patriots practice squad but made quite an impression on the coaching staff – winning the award for Practice Player of the Week on a few occasions this season. Ventrone has the heart and determination Bill Belichick loves and his time in NFL Europe could go a long way in determining if the hard-hitting safety lands a roster spot next season. Below is an article that appeared in Patriots Football Weekly this past November entitled "Everybody Loves Raymond." The story tells of Ventrone's journey to the NFL and his goals for the future.

Everybody Loves RaymondTom Casale, Patriots Football Weekly

Every April, hundreds of former college football players wait nervously, hoping to hear their name called in the NFL Draft. For some players, they know they're going to be drafted; it's just a matter of when and by what team. For others – like Ray Ventrone - they sit and wait, uncertain if their dreams of playing in the NFL will become a reality.

With one selection left in the 2004 draft and the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on the clock, Ventrone had yet to be drafted. The Patriots were deciding between two players: Ventrone and a tight end out of William Penn, Andy Stokes.

Afraid another team was going to sign Stokes as a free agent, the Patriots selected the tight end. Being the last player chosen, Stokes became known as "Mr. Irrelevant," while Ventrone saw his dreams of being drafted by an NFL team come to end. He was left to ponder his future and deal with the possibility that his football career may be over.

Going into his senior season at Villanova University, the hard-hitting safety was projected by many to be a mid-round NFL draft pick. Then, in the fourth game of his senior season against New Hampshire, Ventrone broke his leg, ending his college career and the probability that he would be drafted.

"It was devastating," Ventrone said about the injury. "I always dreamed about playing football at the highest level and I didn't know if I could once I got hurt."

Ventrone was hoping a team would still take a shot on him despite his injury but he knew the odds were long.

"I thought there was an outside chance that a team might take a gamble on me," he said. " But I knew the chances weren't likely. Once I got injured it was tough because I knew there was a good possibility I wouldn't be drafted like I would have if I didn't get hurt. I think it's every college football player's dream to be drafted. That's a great honor."

Luckily for Ventrone, he had done enough to impress pro scouts before his injury. Shortly after the draft, his phone rang. The call would change Ventrone's life. It was someone from the New England Patriots telling the former Division I-AA star they wanted to sign him as a free agent and bring him to camp. Ventrone's dream of playing in the NFL was still alive.

"Once I got the call from the Patriots, I knew this was the place I wanted to be," Ventrone said. "It was tough not being drafted but in the end, I would rather have come here than go to any other team. This is the best organization in football and my best opportunity to earn a spot and help a team out."

Ventrone worked extremely hard to come back from his injury and prepare himself to play at the next level. He's thankful all his hard work paid off and the Patriots gave him a chance to prove himself.

"I worked really hard to come back and the Patriots gave me an opportunity," he said. "I'm very fortunate to be where I'm at right now."

From the beginning
Ventrone's football career began at a young age. He started playing peewee football when he was 8-years-old and has loved the sport ever since. Ventrone knew way back then he wanted to be a professional football player.

"The first time I stepped on the field, I loved it," he said. "Ever since that day, it's been my dream to play in the NFL. Now I'm living out a dream I've had pretty much all my life."

After dominating the peewee football scene, Ventrone moved on to become a high school football star. He attended Chartiers Valley High School in Pittsburgh, where he was named All-Conference three times and selected second team All-State as a senior. According to Ventrone, he was a jack-of-all-trades while at Chartiers Valley.

"In high school, I pretty much played every position on the field other than line," he said. "I played tailback, receiver, quarterback for a couple of games, safety, a little linebacker, I punted and held for field goals."

Despite his versatility, no Division I program offered Ventrone a scholarship coming out of high school. He received five offers from Division I-AA schools but two of them wanted him to play running back. Deciding he would rather dish out the punishment than receive it, Ventrone made up his mind to attend Villanova and play safety.

"I chose Villanova because they have a great football program and I wanted to play defense," Ventrone said. "I played a lot of different positions but safety was always my favorite. I think that is the position that fits my playing style the best."

Making his markVentrone's decision to attend Villanova turned out to be a wise one. It only took the intense safety a short time to become a defensive leader for the Wildcats and a thorn in the side of their opponents.

Andy Talley was Ventrone's coach at Villanova and according to him, every team they faced knew the name Ray Ventrone because of his physical style of play.

"Without question, the hardest hitter to ever play for us," Talley said of Ventrone. "He was probably the most feared player in our league. Other teams always had to ask, 'where is Ray Ventrone?' because he was just so incredibly physical. If you didn't know where he was, he usually made you pay for it."

Ventrone not only made his opponents pay, he sometimes brought that same intensity to the practice field and made his teammates pay as well. He was so fierce that his college coaches often held him out of scrimmages because they didn't want their own offensive players getting hurt.

When asked if the story was true, Ventrone answered with a smile, "Yeah, I knocked a couple of guys out of practices. Our coaches would sometimes put a red jersey on me so I wouldn't hit other guys but yeah, that story is true."

Ventrone finished his college career playing 35 games and recording 251 tackles, 19 tackles for losses, two sacks, 11 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He was named to the All-Atlantic 10 Conference first team in 2003 and was a three-time selection to the Atlantic 10 All-Academic Team, something Ventrone is very proud of.

"It's a great honor," he said. "I graduated with a degree in finance and there is life after football so I will be prepared once my career ends. For me, going to Villanova meant getting a good education as well as playing for a great football program."

Ventrone entered his senior season as a defensive captain and when he broke his leg it not only affected him, it affected the entire Wildcats team.

"When he went down with a broken leg it totally wrecked our season," Talley said. "We were never the same defense after he went out. He was our leader and we just couldn't replace his leadership and what he meant to this team on and off the field."

Ready and waitingVentrone has been on the Patriots practice squad all season but hasn't been active for any games. As a member of the practice squad, he practices with the team, helping them prepare for that week's upcoming opponent. Coaches put Ventrone at different positions so he can emulate the opposition's offensive and defensive players.

"I've played a lot of positions on the practice squad," Ventrone said. "Some weeks I play safety. Some weeks I play corner and sometimes I play running back. I feel like they can count on me to give the guys a good look no matter where I'm at."

While he isn't active on gameday and doesn't get to travel with the team for road games, Ventrone says all the players have gone out of their way to make him feel like he's a part of the Patriots organization.

"I definitely feel like I'm part of the team," he said. "All these guys have been cool and they've welcomed me with open arms. Everyone treats me like I'm on the roster. I do every single thing these guys do except play in games."

Playing in a game is something Ventrone may get a chance to do in the near future. Nine games into the season, the Patriots have lost six defensive backs for the season because of injuries. Ventrone is aware of the situation and prepares himself every week as if he's going to be on the field come Sunday.

"I prepare for every game as if I'm going to be called up (off the practice squad) on Saturday," he said. "You never know what's going to happen. I'm always ready. If they ever need me, I'll be ready to go."

Ventrone's weekly preparation has caught the attention of head coach Bill Belichick. At one of his press conferences, Belichick praised the rookie for his intensity and work ethic.

"Ray brings it every day," Belichick said. "He has a great attitude and he works hard. He's probably been the best practice player of the week a couple of times. He can do a lot of different things in terms of helping our team prepare – cover kicks, play defense, fill in on the offensive side of the ball – stuff like that. He's a fun guy to coach. He works hard. He'll do anything you ask him to do and do it to the best of his ability."

When told about his coaches glowing remarks regarding his play on the practice field, Ventrone replied, "It really makes me feel good because a lot of times guys on the practice squad don't get recognition but I think they do it right here by rewarding guys for their hard work. I don't know how other teams treat their practice squad players but here I feel like I'm on the roster. That's a testament to the coaches and the players they have here."

The next stepThere is no question Ventrone has the attitude and desire to succeed at the pro level. The biggest obstacle standing in his way is the rookie's lack of size. At 5'10, 200 pounds, Ventrone doesn't fit the profile of a prototypical NFL safety.

"I would say I try to overcome my lack of size by playing with as much intensity as I can," Ventrone said. "I'm still trying to get used to some techniques. I'm adjusting to different things and I feel like I'm making a lot of progress by being on the practice squad and learning from the other guys. I have always been the same size and so far, I've always produced on the field."

Ventrone's college coach feels once his former star gets an opportunity to play in the NFL, the questions about his size will go away.

"He's a football player," Talley said. "He has all the tools. He's extremely smart and he plays with great enthusiasm. He's a 200-pounder who hits like he's 240 pounds. He can do a lot of things for an NFL team. Once they put him in the game - at the very least - he will change the face of special teams by flying all over the place and making plays. He just needs a chance to show what he can do. Once he gets on the field, his size won't be an issue."

Special teams are probably where Ventrone will make an impact early in his NFL career. If he makes the active roster in 2006, his primary role at first will likely be as a contributor on kick coverage. Ventrone still hopes to be a starting NFL safety some day but his immediate goal is to get on the field and help the team in any way he can.

"I hope to be playing safety in the NFL eventually," Ventrone said. "That's what I'm shooting for at some point but I think every player's goal is to get on the field and contribute. Whether it's on special teams or playing safety. Wherever they can use me. Wherever I can help the team. That's where I want to be."

The Tom Bradys and Tedy Bruschis of the world get a lot of the accolades when the team wins and deservingly so. However, successful teams also need players like Ray Ventrone who are willing to go out everyday and do whatever is asked of them. It's that kind of desire and determination that could help Ventrone go from practice squad standout to starting NFL safety and with the way he plays the game; it won't be long before everybody loves Raymond in New England.

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