Fourteen years after first showing up at the University of Georgia as a promising offensive lineman out of Jefferson County, Fernando Velasco’s life has come full circle.
“I’m committing to the G,” Velasco announced last week when he accepted a job as player relations coordinator with his alma mater.
“This is kind of what I always saw myself doing with my life after football,” Velasco said after starting his new job in Athens on Monday. “It’s kind of like a second dream come true. As a child you always dream about playing in the NFL and thank God I was able to do that. But also since I set foot at the University of Georgia, I always knew that I wanted to play for Georgia and one day have an opportunity to work here.”
You won’t find Velasco wearing a whistle and leading young Bulldogs through two-a-days this summer. That’s not the kind of coaching that the man with a degree in Health and Physical Education wanted to pursue in his football afterlife.
As a player relations coordinator on Kirby Smart’s burgeoning support staff, it will be Velasco’s job to help direct players down the right path away from the football field. It’s a role he is perfectly suited for considering his example of making the most out of every opportunity he’s ever been presented.
“Basically what the job entails is coaching life,” Velasco said. “That’s kind of what my wife and I have always done with our foundation. I’m not doing anything X’s and O’s. Kirby has a lot smarter guys on his staff than me.
“Coming out of high school I thought I wanted to coach but once I got into it in college and playing in the NFL, I realized very quickly that coaching wasn’t the route I wanted to go into and I wanted to be in this type of role where you’re just doing life coaching and not necessarily football coaching.
“I have no intention whatsoever to coach. I have a lot of respect for the coaches, but that’s just not the field that God has called me to do. I just want to be involved in their everyday lives and make sure that if they have a personal issue and are dealing with things with family or school or on the football field, I just want to be their mentor or big brother and show them the standards to follow. Hopefully that will lead to them being successful young men.”
Young Georgia players would have a hard time finding a better role model than Velasco. When he arrived on campus from Wrens in 2003, Velasco’s commitment and drive were readily apparent. He earned the team’s Iron Man Award as both a freshman and sophomore for his relentless dedication and showing up to every practice on time. After red-shirting in 2005, he was voted the team’s most improved player in 2006 and started every game on the offensive line as a junior and senior.
Despite not getting selected in the 2008 NFL Draft, he signed as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans and spent a year and a half on the practice squad before finally getting a chance to play. His versatility as a guard and center allowed him to last nearly a decade in the NFL with five different teams. In 2015, he made it all the way to the Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers.
All of Velasco’s success, he contends, started with that commitment to Georgia.
“I set out goals and I think if you don’t set out goals you don’t have anything to follow,” he said. “At a very early age I decided I wanted to play football at the University of Georgia and that I wanted to graduate from the University of Georgia, which was probably the biggest accomplishment of my life. Not playing in the NFL or playing in the Super Bowl, but getting a degree from the University of Georgia. That’s what I want each and every young man to understand. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I’m just thankful that I had people who I could call and could help me when I fell off track and focus on what was important.”
That’s been the mission of Velasco’s Right C.h.o.i.c.e.s Foundation that gives back to the communities that helped him along the way. While he may not have been the most celebrated player on any of his teams, he always possessed a generous heart.
“It’s always a blessing to be a blessing,” Velasco once said of his foundation’s efforts to help inspire kids.
Since finally retiring after being cut at the end of the preseason by the Buffalo Bills, Velasco has concentrated on being a good husband and father to his 2-year-old son. He’s enjoyed plenty of golf and some vacation time, but he’s ready to start the next chapter of his career helping others. He’ll work with director of player development Jonas Jennings – another former Bulldog lineman whose career resume is similar to Velasco’s – to help fulfill the promises Smart makes to recruits and their families once they commit to Georgia.
“What we’re trying to do here in player development is make sure that kids graduate,” Velasco said. “Kirby’s job is to go in every home during the recruiting process and tell the parents once they’re done at the University of Georgia they will be placed somewhere and they’re well-equipped on everything that comes with dealing with life.
“It’s a big responsibility and something I don’t take lightly and I want to be the best at it. I’ll always love Georgia. What they did for this little kid from Wrens, they brought me up to Athens, Ga., and opened my eyes to a lot of different things and that’s nothing I take for granted.”