SAN FRANCISCO —Keep Pounding.
The phrase has become the team mantra for the Carolina Panthers, and offensive lineman Fernando Velasco thinks it also fits him perfectly, dating back to his days with the Tennessee Titans.
"I've learned how to persevere through a lot of situations over the years, and I think all of it just matures you more. I grew up so much in Tennessee, everything I've gone through,'' Velasco said. "That's why I like this mantra so much about "Keep Pounding," because that is the definition of my entire career, even dating back to college and getting redshirted and not getting drafted or being on the practice squad at the start.
"No matter what happens, good or bad, you have to keep fighting every day and that is what I have lived my life by."
Velasco spent five seasons with the Titans (2008-2012) after initially signing with the team as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia. He spent most of his first two NFL seasons on the practice squad in Tennessee, paying his dues, before playing in 48 straight games at center/guard and on special teams over the next three seasons. Velasco then spent a year with the Steelers (2013) before spending the 2014 season with the Panthers.
Velasco rejoined the Titans this past offseason, but was released during the preseason. A few weeks later, the Panthers signed him back. It's been a heck of a journey for Velasco, who went back and forth from the Titans practice squad to the 53-man roster earlier in his career, dealt with a season-ending Achilles injury in Pittsburgh, and found himself facing an uncertain future at the start of this season.
Now, he's preparing to play in Super Bowl 50.
"I have just been thanking God,'' Velasco said. "Going to Tennessee and getting released, I didn't know what was going to happen. I trusted God and he led me here to the Super Bowl. It is pretty special to me, and I am so excited to be here."
Velasco, a back-up interior lineman in Carolina, said the Panthers have found the formula for success. It's a special team, he said.
He also said there's reason for optimism in Tennessee.
It starts with quarterback Marcus Mariota, he said.
"Marcus has unbelievable ability. I think he has a really bright future in this league and I am really looking forward to watching him grow. He is an exciting player, is accurate, can run. He commands the huddle and the guys listen to him,'' Velasco said.
"He impressed me with the way he commands the huddle. He is not a real vocal guy, but he makes sure he has eye contact in the huddle and he is a smart guy. He was in charge of changing all the protections and stuff, he was really big with that. For a rookie to come and grasp that, that speaks volumes."
Velasco said he's also high on coach Mike Mularkey, who was assistant head coach/tight ends before being named interim head coach during the season, after Velasco had left. Last month, the Titans named Mularkey the team's permanent coach.
"I like coach Mularkey a lot, I really do,'' Velasco said. "He is definitely a person that demands the room, and guy respect him for what he has done and the way he carries himself. I think he is going to bring a physical brand of football to Tennessee, and I think he is the man for the job."
Velasco said he wishes his friends in Tennessee well.
He hopes his friends with the Titans will also be rooting for him on this Sunday, in the Super Bowl. A career that started back in 2008 has led him to the biggest game of his career.
"It has gone by fast,'' Velasco said with a smile. "Coming to Tennessee as a free agent, on the practice squad, and now here it is, year eight. I have to repeat myself sometimes when I say year eight because it's hard to believe. I just want to soak everything in and soak every moment in.
"At the National Anthem, that's usually a time when I sit back and reflect on what God has done for me. I'm sure I'll think about that on Sunday. God has put me in the Super Bowl, and I am thankful for it all. I am so blessed to be in this situation."