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Villani's Been Here Before -But Now He's a Player


Joe Villani, from Wantagh, N.Y., said of participating in Jets camp, It's everything I expected.

Every day Joe Villani walks out onto the Hofstra soccer fields wearing his Jets uniform, he must get a case of, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "déjà vu all over again."

"We come down here every year," Villani said. "I first started coming to Jets training camp when Sweeney was playing."

Sweeney, Sweeney ... Sweeney Todd? Sweeney Murty?

Oh, you mean Jim Sweeney. How old is this Villani kid, anyway? Jim Sweeney, the old Pitt and Jets center, retired in 1994.

"I've been playing football since I was 5 with the Long Island Broncos," Villani said. "So every year since then."

For the record, Villani is 6'4", 300 pounds, 23 years old and a former Pitt center himself. And you could say he's a Jets camp veteran because, he says, the whole family got in the station wagon and headed from their Wantagh home on Long Island a few exits up the Wantagh State and a few lights on Hempstead Turnpike to enjoy the camps under Joe Walton, Bruce Coslet, Pete Carroll, Bill Parcells, Al Groh and Herm Edwards.

"The whole family, we all grew up Jets and Mets fans," Villani said (and remember that Berra, the great Yankees catcher, was also a World Series Mets manager). "My dad's Phil, my mom's Clara, I'm looking for them now. They were at practice today."

Villani was at practice, too, right in the middle of things. But how did he get to leap the fence, so to speak, and become a member not of Jets Nation but of the Jets' roster?

Well, it seems Villani's been doing a pretty good job of walking on for a while. After being named All-Long Island at St. Anthony's High, he first went to Bucknell, then walked on at Pitt in 2003. All he did as a Panthers senior was wind up his career with 23 consecutive starts and a Hula Bowl appearance.

No one drafted him or even offered him a contract as an undrafted free agent. But the Jets, perhaps because they noticed him while scouting first-round draft choice Darrelle Revis last season, extended an invitation for him to participate in their postdraft rookie minicamp.

Recall that Jesse Pellot-Rosa, the VCU basketball player, was the only athlete from that invitation list to get a contract offer and a training camp invite — until the Jets tracked down Villani on July 22.

"It was something else," he said. "I was in Pittsburgh in a movie theater that Sunday, and I got a call from my agent, Steve Hayes: 'We got a shot. Come on down.' "

That, for any fans still wondering about the usefulness of the minicamp invitation, is what it's all about. Besides Pellot-Rosa, two NCAA wrestling champs also got unexpected phone calls to come in and try out. None of the 20-plus names on that list looked to have a prayer of getting a callback.

But the Jets and other teams go the invitation route to assist them in creating short lists at each position in the event they need to quickly fill a roster spot. There is a question or two on the Jets' O-line. Voilá — Villani.

"I think he was at the movies when we called him," head coach Eric Mangini said, "and he jumped out of the movies, got on a plane, showed up, passed the conditioning run, and we were rolling. He's been rolling since, and really doing a good job working at both center and guard and competing at both those spots."

"I'm working on the interior line now. Wherever they need me, I'll play," said Villani, whose only other pro interest came briefly from the Falcons, who just happen to be the Jets' opponents in the preseason opener two Fridays hence.

"It's the NFL. It's everything I expected," he said of the experience of being on the other side of the fence at the Hofstra soccer fields. "I've got to come out and work every day."

Just like Jim Sweeney did in his 11 seasons in Green & White. Just like a lot of other players a lot of fans have watched on these same fields every summer ever since.

Now it's Villani's turn.

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