Written by Sean Meyers
Standing only 5-foot-8, safety Ross Ventrone may appear to be a longshot to make the Steelers 53-man roster. A quick glance at his journey to this point, however, will show it would be unwise to count out the diminutive Bridgeville native.
During his time at Chartiers Valley High School, Ventrone was a standout on the wrestling mat, and only played football during his senior year.
Despite his limited experience, he walked on with the University of Pittsburgh football team, although he did not see any game action. After two years, including a redshirt campaign, with the Panthers, Ventrone transferred to Villanova, the same college for which his older brother, Raymond, previously played.
Ross made a signficant impact in his three years with the Wildcats, and in his senior year, helped the squad capture the FCS National Championship.
Ventrone discussed how his time in college helped him compete for a spot in the National Football league.
“Pitt didn’t work out for me, (but) it was a great learning experience and obviously gave me the tools I needed to move on to Villanova,” he said. “It prepared me as best as I could’ve been to come up and get ready for what I’m doing now.”
His first year in the pros was reminiscent of his first college season, however, as Ventrone went undrafted in 2010. The New England Patriots signed Ventrone, more than a year after brother Raymond had left New England to join the Cleveland Browns, but the younger sibling never appeared in a game. The following season, Ventrone endured an unprecedented number of transactions, as he was signed, promoted from the practice squad or released by the Patriots 21 times. In the process, he played eight games, primarily on special teams, and recorded two tackles.
Although the constant uncertainty proved difficult at times, Ventrone took an optimistic outlook to the experience.
“It’s tough because you never know if you’re up or you’re down,” he revealed. “In the same sense, they liked me enough to keep me around so I looked at it as a positive. At least I still have an opportunity to make it.”
“I have this as a learning experience to get better so I can break through at some point and make a name for myself,” Ventrone continued.
While Raymond solidified his spot in the league as a marquee special teams player with the Browns, Ross continued to search for his niche. New England cut Ventrone just prior to the 2012 season opener, and he spent the entire year out of the league.
Once again, the safety showed his resiliency, as he continued to train hard, and earned a shot with the Steelers in training camp last year. An opportunity with any NFL team was a welcome sight for Ventrone, but to report to training camp with his hometown team was even more special
“I looked up to guys like Troy Polamalu my whole life. Coach (and former Steelers defensive back Carnell) Lake, I used to watch him growing up,” said the Bridgeville native. “The tradition of the Steelers is so big in my household, like it is most people from Pittsburgh. Just to have an opportunity now to be running around on the field with these guys and an opportunity to make the team is a dream come true.”
While Raymond earned a roster spot with the 49ers in 2013, Ross did not make the final cut with the black and gold last year, and again was out of a job. Although more than 3,000 miles away, Raymond was able to continue helping his younger brother on his continued quest to find a spot in the NFL.
“It’s great having him. He’s a huge asset to me to look at for information,” Ross said of his brother. “I talk to him every day. A lot of the things I’m going through, he went through early on in his career, so it’s nice to have someone like that who’s shared the experience to compare and he helps keep my head level.”
Ross secured a spot on the Steelers’ practice squad in December, and Pittsburgh signed him to a reserve/future contract, which has given him another shot to impress the coaching staff at St. Vincent College.
While Ventrone hopes his play stands out, his personality has already caught the attention of his teammates. His long, flowing hair immediately draws comparisons to Troy Polamalu. Ventrone is quick to point out that he did not mold his hairstyle after the future Hall-of-Famer. Rather, the look is a Ventrone original, he jested, as Raymond also sports a similar look.
Another unique aspect of Ventrone is his nickname and persona, Rusty Benson. Ventone explained that his brother, who was dubbed “Bubba” by his parents at a young age, had a driver’s theory teacher named Russ Benson in high school. Ross was only in sixth grade at the time, but his older brother and friends began referring to him as Rusty.
Much like Bubba has stuck with Raymond, Rusty Benson as stayed with Ross, who incorporated it into his Twitter handle, RustyBenson35.
His teammates not only refer to the safety by this moniker, but many of them even sport “Benson University” t-shirts while walking around the campus between practices.
Ultimately, Ventrone knows that what he does on the gridiron over the next few weeks will determine if he can finally capture a full-time spot with an NFL squad.
“I just need to make as many plays as possible and help the team win these games,” he said of his objectives in camp. “(I need) to show that I can help in a number of things and they can trust me to be out there.”
If Ventrone is able to once again follow in his brother’s footsteps and became a regular contributor in the league, it will be the culmination of a long and arduous journey. If he does not make the team to begin the season, however, don’t expect to see Ventrone give up.
“I love football. I love playing and there’s nothing like getting out there with the guys that you bust your butt with,” he said. “I’ll do anything to keep playing, and I’m never going to stop.”