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 are 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 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. "I knew the chances weren't likely. Once I got hurt, it was tough because I knew there was a good chance 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 the team out."
Ventrone worked extremely hard to come back from his injury and prepare himself to play at the next level. He is thankful that 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."
Ventrone has been on the Patriots practice squad all season but hasn't been active for any games. As a member of the practice squad, Ventrone practices with the team, helping them prepare for the upcoming week's opponent. Coaches put Ventrone at different positions so he can emulate the other team's offensive and defensive players.
"I have 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 is 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."
Ventrone may start getting playing time sooner than later. 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 is 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 preparation 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 comments 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, 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."
For the entire story on Ray Ventrone's path to the NFL, check out the next edition of Patriots Football Weekly that will be on newsstands Tuesday. To subscribe to Patriots Football Weekly, go to **www.pfwonline.com*.*
Harden joins practice squad
The Patriots signed cornerback Michael Harden to the practice squad, filling the vacancy that was created when Billy Yates was signed to the active roster last week.
Harden was originally signed by the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2004 NFL Draft. The 5-11, 190-pound cornerback was a member of the Seahawks practice squad for the entire 2004 regular season. He was signed to the active roster for the Seahawks wild card playoff game against the Rams but was placed on the inactive list and didn't play.
Harden attended college at the University of Missouri. He was released by the Seahawks in the final preseason roster cutdown on Sept. 4.
Belichick said at his Thursday press conference that the condition of Matt Light and Kevin Faulk is improving but he didn't give a timetable for when either player will return to the field. "Right now, they're doubtful," Belichick said. "My crystal ball is kind of cloudy today. I can't really predict the future."…The Patriots currently rank second in the NFL in passing offense and second to last in passing defense…The Patriots and Saints are a combined –20 in turnover differential…The Patriots have run 37 plays that have gained 20 or more yards this season. That ties them for second in the NFL with Seattle.