It has been quite a year for Fernando Velasco.
In the past 12 months, the 38-year-old former Georgia and NFL offensive lineman from little Wrens, Ga., has gotten married, earned a master’s degree, landed a new job as the Atlanta Falcons’ director of player engagement, and earlier this summer, he was named one of the University of Georgia Alumni Association’s 40 Under 40, which “celebrates young alumni leading the pack in their industries and communities.”
As if all of that wasn’t satisfying enough, Velasco, working with Camp Lighthouse, recently hosted a “Life Ready Retreat” for about 25 boys from Atlanta Mission and Young Men United from Wrens. Over a weekend in Talking Rock, in the North Georgia mountains, Velasco and others mixed in lessons on life skills and leadership alongside fun on the lake and other camp activities.
In 2010, Velasco started his foundation, Right C.H.O.I.C.E.S., which has a mission “to help children achieve their dreams and goals through sports,” Velasco said. Long before his playing days were done, he was giving back and helping kids pursue their passions. He also does some public speaking, to teams and other groups, touching on the same themes that he passes along to the kids through his foundation.
The recent retreat, he said, “was probably the highlight of the things that I’ve been able to do from a foundation standpoint. … Hopefully we can expand upon the camp in 2024. This was an all-boys camp, ages 8-13, and we talked about adding an all-girls camp.”
On Camp Lighthouse’s Instagram page, there are a series of photos from the weekend. The boys are playing Pop-A-Shot, throwing the football, playing in the lake and more. There is also one of Velasco, who was about 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds during his playing days, soaring through the air as he did a cannonball off the dock.
The life-jacket he’s wearing hides his face in the photo, but it’s not hard to imagine the huge smile he was flashing as he tried to produce the biggest splash possible.
“We had a cannonball contest,” Velasco said with a laugh, adding that he came in second. “Next year, I’ve got to work on my cannonball skills so that I can win that competition.
“We had a lot of fun with the kids, and I can’t thank Camp Lighthouse enough for what they do.”
Velasco played for the Bulldogs from 2003-07, and then played in the NFL for eight seasons. After retiring from football, Velasco joined head coach Kirby Smart‘s staff as the assistant director of player development, which meant working and learning under a 2017 UGA 40 Under 40 honoree, Jonas Jennings, who has been in charge of player development — think development of the young men as well-adjusted and well-rounded people, not just football players — since January 2016.
Velasco and Jennings both wore No. 75 during their careers, they both have big hearts and big bodies, and they both want to see everyone around them succeed in all facets of life.
“We talk every day,” Jennings said. “He actually texted me (after Velasco learned that he was in the 40 Under 40 club) and said, ‘I don’t know if you had anything to do with this, but thank you if you did.’
“I told him, ‘Welcome to the club, baby boy!'”
Velasco said he felt grateful, humbled and thankful for the recognition.
“Ultimately, it shows the man that I am now, as opposed to who I was when I entered UGA,” he said, adding that “I’m so thankful to UGA for helping develop me holistically.”
As a player, Velasco started every game for Georgia during the 2007 and ’08 seasons, playing guard as a junior and center his senior year. He signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and later played for the Steelers and Panthers, playing in 83 games over eight seasons in the NFL.
Once Velasco joined Jennings’ group in 2017, he’d found his path and his purpose. When Velasco arrived at UGA as a freshman — an “immature, wide-eyed, young man,” he said — he might not have known what he wanted to do besides make it to the NFL, but he knew the path he didn’t want to take.
“Growing up in a single-parent household, and my father was incarcerated for drugs, I always knew that I didn’t want to go that route,” he said. “I knew that God had a plan for me, and I just knew that I wanted to be successful in whatever I did. And I knew I wanted to stay around the game.”
Initially, Velasco thought he’d become a high school P.E. teacher and coach. “That was the plan going into it,” he said. But that plan, as they often do, evolved over time. Another experience, the 2013 suicide of former Georgia football player Paul Oliver, helped steer Velasco in this direction.
“I’ve got a passion for the game and just helping people, helping young guys reach their goals and their potential. I thank God that that led me to where I am now,” he said.
“I want to help guys pinpoint and figure out what they want to do when football is over, because obviously everyone thinks that they can play forever. And everyone thinks that they’re invincible. Helping guys formulate a plan, figure out their passions, figure out what they want to do, encouraging guys to finish their degrees, go back back to school.”
After a couple of years working under Jennings, when offensive line coach Sam Pittman left Georgia to be the head coach at Arkansas, Velasco got the chance to lead his own player development program with the Razorbacks. Jennings said Pittman called him and asked if there was someone on Georgia’s support staff he should hire.
“When Sam Pittman called me, I didn’t hesitate to tell him that (Velasco) was ready,” Jennings said. “Sam called me, he was like, ‘I know I can’t get you, Kirby would kill me, but is there anybody you’ve got?’ I was like, ‘Fernando is ready.'”
Velasco spent three years with Arkansas, and back in May, he earned a master’s degree from the school. Under his graduation gown, he wore a t-shirt with “KID from WRENS” on it. He’s never forgotten where he came from: the place, the people, the ups and downs that built him into the man he is today.
He’s also maintained very tight bonds with many of his teammates. In May, he and his wife, Kamille, a fellow Georgia graduate, were married. Velasco had in his wedding party Jennings and a big group of guys that he played with at Georgia.
“It’s the bonds, the relationships you create, that will last forever,” he said.
In September 2022, he left Arkansas for the job with the Falcons. Velasco’s work with the Falcons covers a lot of the same ground that his positions at Georgia and Arkansas did, namely to help the men he works with grow as people, be the best citizens and players they can be, while also helping prepare them for life after football.
“I think, ultimately, it’s helping guys understand that they’re more than a football player,” he said.
Another of this year’s 40 Under 40 honorees, country music singer and songwriter Ray Fulcher, who has written five No. 1 songs, didn’t play for the Bulldogs, but he was a manager with the football team during the 2006-07 seasons. Among the songs he’s released is “Love Ya Son, Go Dawgs,” which is about the bond between a father and son and his love of the Bulldogs.
In May, after his master’s degree graduation ceremony, Velasco shared his own father-son moment on Instagram. Velasco has an 8-year-old son, Alex, and in a post to go with a photo of them together on graduation day, Velasco offered a message:
“Hey son, I just wanted to remind you that you are capable of achieving anything you set your mind to. Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back from going for your dreams and chasing your goals. … Always remember that I am here to support you and cheer you on every step of the way. Now go out there and make your dreams a reality!!!”
Velasco didn’t know what his dream job was until he found his way to it. He’s doing what suits his abilities and fills his heart. He’s making a difference every day.
“My job is to serve our players, whatever that looks like,” he said. “I’ll never strap up a helmet or shoulder pads again, but however I can serve them and allow them to have the best career that they possibly can, that’s what I’m here for.”