By, Johnette Howard
ESPN Staff Writer
How long has Ross Ventrone been grinding to beat the odds in the NFL? Back in January 2012, before New England’s AFC Championship Game victory, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker appeared in a spoof TV report about Ventrone and said on camera what others were privately thinking about his third-year teammate. Who endures getting signed, cut, re-signed, demoted to the practice squad and brought back to the roster over and over again — including a head-spinning 22 transactions that season alone?
“You’d think he’d take the hint at some point, right? I mean, find your purpose in life or something,” Welker said with a straight face during the humorous “Mayne Event” segment on ESPN.
But Ventrone was in on the joke.
“I am still with the team, right? Right?” he deadpanned into the camera as he stood by his locker.
Even for notoriously unsentimental Pats coach Bill Belichick, the NFL’s Irascible Genius and alleged Master of the Dark Arts, more than 20 moves in a year on one player is a remarkable burst.
Four years later, Ventrone is still the NFL’s leading now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t guy. His story is so unlikely you could call him the Rudy of pro football. Or maybe he just has a high tolerance for punishment. Ray Ventrone, who played for three NFL teams from 2006 to 2014 and is now an assistant special-teams coach with the Patriots, has said they should make a movie about his kid brother’s odyssey.
Ross Ventrone, 29, has played for only two franchises in his NFL career, New England and his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, and has made only nine tackles. His position is safety, but he has been a career special-teamer. When he recently resurfaced with Pittsburgh for the second time this season, and just in time for the Steelers’ playoff opener Saturday in Cincinnati, he’d been out of the league since Oct. 31 following yet another stint on the Patriots’ practice squad.
“He’s a productive player and he’s always ready,” Steelers special-teams coach Danny Smith said. “That’s the big thing. He obviously understands his role and understands what’s expected of him. He always comes in with a lot of energy. He’s always prepared. I like those traits. That’s why we keep bringing him back.”
Ventrone’s New Year’s Day activation from the Steelers’ practice squad marked the 41st transaction of his career.
Think about that for a minute: Ventrone has had some NFL coach or executive tell him “love you” or “love you not” 41 times.
“I know everybody always puts a negative spin on it and says, ‘How do you not get frustrated?’ But I look at it as a positive thing: ‘Hey, somebody still wants me around,'” Ventrone said. “I mean, this league is so difficult. It’s the best in the world. The percentages of who makes it are so small. So I look at it like, ‘Hey, I have another shot at this. Somebody needs something that they think I can give them.’ I bring my hard hat every day.”
Besides, once you know Ventrone’s entire story, what’s remarkable isn’t how many times he has been cut. It’s more amazing he ever made it to the NFL at all.
“I was always the smallest guy, so I only played one year of high school football,” said Ventrone, who now measures in at 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds. “My freshman and sophomore year of high school, I wrestled at 103 pounds. My junior year, I wrestled at 119. Even my senior year, the first year I played football in high school, I was 5-foot-2 and still wrestling at 135 pounds. But I just loved football once I got out there. I grew up watching the Steelers, watching my brother play, so I’d been around football my whole life.”
Ventrone’s transformation from a jockey-sized prep wrestler to NFL special-teams gunner was so unlikely he continued to carry his first driver’s license around with him for years as a sort of party joke because, he said, “Nobody believes that was me.”
The details of how he made it also strain credulity: After graduating from Chartiers Valley High in suburban Pittsburgh, about a 15-minute drive from the Steelers’ home at Heinz Field, Ventrone walked on at the University of Pittsburgh in 2005. After he was redshirted as a freshman and never got into a game the following season, he sent videotape of his play in Pitt’s spring game (that was all he had) to the coaches at Villanova, his brother’s alma mater. He earned a scholarship at Villanova, where he was a three-year starter at safety and the linchpin of the team that won the 2009 FCS national title.
“And it did start to become a running joke in New England. Whenever I got released my teammates were like, ‘Oh man. Are they going to bring you back? I think you’re coming back.’ Then when I walk back in the door again everyone’s like, ‘DUDE!'”
Ventrone was hoping to get taken in the late rounds of the 2010 NFL draft.
It didn’t happen.
And again, he didn’t give up.
Ventrone was signed and cut twice as an undrafted free agent by New England before the 2010 season even started, but he eventually landed on the Patriots’ practice squad. He saw his first regular-season action in 2011 and was cut during the 2012 preseason. Over those three years, Patriots coach Bill Belichick yo-yoed Ventrone on and off the roster and practice squad 29 times, including one particularly wild week in which Ventrone hit the transaction wire four times. But at least the Pats were self-aware enough to pay Ventrone more than the practice-squad salary minimum in recognition of all the upheavals.
“They did do that, and it helped in terms of it made me realize they valued me, and kinda made it kinda nicer,” Ventrone said.
“The way it usually went was they’d call me in, and Bill and [player personnel director] Nick Caserio would talk to me. ‘We have to release you,’ this and that. ‘It’s a matter of the [roster] numbers’ and all that. And I’d say, ‘OK.’ But I was fortunate to always get those callbacks. And it did start to become a running joke in New England. Whenever I got released my teammates were like, ‘Oh man. Are they going to bring you back? I think you’re coming back.’ Then when I walk back in the door again everyone’s like, ‘DUDE!'”
Ventrone has had some starts and stops since signing with Pittsburgh in the 2013 offseason, too. He laughs and admits it’s been “insane” at times. A droll sense of humor helps him fit in and survive. He’s is a funny follow on Twitter, where he goes by the alter ego @RustyBenson35 as an homage to a former teacher and offers up tweets such as, “Benson has counted to infinity … twice” and “If you are trying to merge late in traffic Benson will always let you in. I’ve never hated on move making, I can only respect it.”
Ventrone says beneath it all, “If I didn’t have a deep-rooted passion for the game, I don’t think I’d be able to do what I’ve done. … But I love to play. I do. I love my hometown. I love the Steelers organization. I love being on a team of brothers and doing something to help the team win.”
In the end, he figures there are worse things a guy can do than have Belichick, maybe the NFL’s best head coach ever, see something in him or feel the rush of running out of the tunnel on game days for his hometown Steelers. And look: The best evidence yet that Ventrone really isn’t “crazy” — so far anyway — is some NFL team always has asked him back.
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler contributed to this story.