Fernando Velasco, who just won an National Football Conference championship ring as a backup center for the Charlotte Panthers, has a message that resonates and inspires.
If he had become a drug pusher, it would have surprised no one. After all, that is what most of his friends — even family — were. If he had given no thought to education and enlightenment, he would have become a member of the most dominant and dastardly fraternity in his hometown. He could have become the “other” guy.
How does it happen that a kid, who grows up in a drug-infested environment in the projects in Wrens, Georgia, escape prevailing crime and hopelessness to fulfill an ambition to better himself?
Escaping the road to ruin began with his grandfather, James Hill, who taught Fernando that hard work and making good choices would give him opportunity, insulation from evil and the right stuff for survival.
His father was incarcerated all of Fernando’s life. His uncles, cousins and close friends dealt in drugs. Fernando wanted to be different.
Spurning that lifestyle, he gained traction that would entrench him in another world. When he was a teenager, he was like so many of his friends — fatherless.
He vowed that he would be a responsible father one day. When he became a father, he would be there for his kids.
At Georgia, he had teammates who had fathers who came to practice and then went to dinner with their sons. Fernando didn’t have that experience, and it was depressing. However, it strengthened his resolve to become a father who would give his son what he didn’t have.
While he makes his home in Suwanee, Fernando experiences exhilaration when he comes to Athens, a “beside himself” experience, which brings him to testify emotionally to his days on campus to the extent that you might see him as a shill for the Bulldogs.
“Oh man,” he says, “I can’t wait to get to Athens. So many wonderful memories. It will always be home. It is where I became a man — where I met people and learned about life. You can’t believe how proud I am of my degree and the love I have for the campus, which is where I learned the value of friendship. UGA can count on me being an active alumnus.”
After catching his breath, he continues, “Being a college football player — that was big. It changed my life, and it was all good.”
Fernando is one of three Bulldogs who played in the most recent Super Bowl. Like Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson, Fernando has his own foundation — fostering the notion that you can’t be a Bulldog and play for the Panthers without creating your own charity.
And, as you might expect, the focal point of his good works is his hometown of Wrens in Jefferson County, one of those small places in the Peach State that owes its existence to a railroad. His charity, “Right Choices” — Christ, humanity, opportunity, integrity, character, education, success provide the acronym for the title — has given 3,000 books to the schools in his hometown and to schools in his wife Tieleshia’s hometown of Williston, S. C. Because of his generosity, 75 kids from Wrens got to travel to Charlotte and see a National Football League game last fall.
Altruism defines Fernando, his generosity lights up the lives of others, and his selflessness is a reminder that he is a man who is without vanity but not without charity.
His heritage is Spanish — his father is a native of South America — and a cursory look reveals that there are many Velascos who are accomplished: Jesuit priests, painters, actors, a Viceroy, a Cardinal, an admiral and one Juan Fernando Velasco, an accomplished musician from Ecuador.
Fernando is in the headline-making business, but headlines don’t turn his head. The smile of a disadvantaged kid who is the beneficiary of Fernando’s helping hand makes his day. He gets to enjoy that experience every day.
Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.