COLLEGE PARK — Assistant Maryland football coach Greg Gattuso pointed across a dining-hall table at Joe Vellano and said in his best deadpan: "His dad was better."
Gattuso said it loudly enough to make certain Vellano heard.
Vellano, arguably Maryland's top returning player as the Terps open training camp today, only smiled at the coach, refusing to take the bait.
Even after Vellano's 20-tackle game against Georgia Tech last season — impressive as it was — the defensive tackle was still teased by Maryland insiders that it may not even have been the best performance by a member of his own family.
At least statistically, it wasn't the best. Joe's father, Paul, who was also a Maryland defensive lineman, said he had 23 tackles in a 1973 contest against Duke. Paul Vellano, who played alongside future NFL star Randy White, learned recently that he will be inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame this fall.
Defensive records weren't recorded as meticulously in Paul Vellano's era as they are today, so some of his achievements are preserved only anecdotally. "I add a few tackles [to my records] every year," he joked. Archived records confirm that Paul Vellano was voted MVP of the 1973 Maryland-Duke game, which was called "The Oyster Bowl."
As Joe prepares for his final Maryland season, it has become accepted banter — almost a sport of its own — for family members or others to argue, in fun, about which Vellano is leaving the larger legacy.
Paul, who co-owns a waterworks supply company near Albany, N.Y., can offer that he was the first Vellano whose name appeared in block letters alongside other Terrapins All-Americans on the facing below Byrd Stadium's upper deck. Joe's name was recently added to the row because he was named a second-team Walter Camp All-American in 2011.
Paul still calls his son "Joey." The father doesn't really claim to have been better than his son, although the elder Vellano had an outstanding career that included playing for the Florida Blazers in the long-defunct World Football League.
Paul Vellano is pictured — with a large mustache — on the front of the 1974 Maryland media guide next to coach Jerry Claiborne. He wears No. 72, the same number as Joe. Joe's older brother, Paul, who played at Rhode Island, is a player-coach with the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League and is also No. 72.
"Joey's got a lot more sophistication in the game than I did," the father said. "The game has evolved through the years, being able to break down the films the way they do. But a lot of the guys say our stances are similar. He's got a good nose for the ball and the heart to get after it."
Joe Vellano had a noteworthy season in 2011 despite Maryland's 2-10 record. He started every game and averaged 7.8 tackles, the highest by a lineman in the Football Bowl Subdivision. A preseason All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, he is on the "watch" lists for a number of national awards, including the Outland Trophy.
He is known for tenacity. In the 21-16 loss at Georgia Tech, Vellano's 20 tackles earned praise not only from Maryland coach Randy Edsall but from Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. On one play, the 6-2, 285-pound lineman chased wide receiver Stephen Hill 34 yards downfield.
"I was actually rushing the passer," Vellano said. "And I turned around and they threw it over my head. He got a couple blocks and was coming back across the field and I just ran him down."
In the stands, Joe's dad was watching with binoculars as usual. Joe's mother, Joney, and other relatives also attend almost all the games.
"I kind of focus on Joey, where he's lined up," Paul Vellano said. "It's always that first step and whether you can get upfield and get where you're supposed to be. Sometimes late in the game you get a little tired. I bug him about that — 'Hey, don't slow down!' "
According to Maryland, the Vellanos are one of just four known father-son combinations in the FBS to have both made an All-America team from the same school. Quarterbacks Archie and Eli Manning, who played for Mississippi, are also on the list.
Joe Vellano, who attended a private Albany high school, was recruited to Maryland by former coach Ralph Friedgen after attending a series of summer football camps at the university.
It probably didn't hurt Maryland's chances that Vellano was often exposed to Terps memorabilia — team photos and the like — while growing up.
Recently, Joe and his brother Paul presented their father with another keepsake from the 1970s.
The boys contacted Duke University archives and paid to receive a DVD copy of the 1973 Oyster Bowl — Paul's best game.
They presented it to their dad as a gift. Then they made fun of him.
They told him he looked "soft," Joe said.
Media Day: Today
Practice: Begins Tuesday; closed to the public