Depaola impresses Ravens Rookie safety from Cal faces numbers crunch

July 23, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Dante Depaola is a throwback, but no one knows to which era. He has a 1950s haircut, drives a 1969 Camaro and loves reggae music of the '70s.

But can Depaola play in the NFL during the 1990s?

"There are a lot of good things to like about him, and that's all I can say right now," said Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel.

"Everyone here is a good athlete, but I like to think I'm one of those who had to work their butts to get here. As long as I'm given the opportunity, I think the coaches will notice," said the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Depaola, a rookie free-agent strong safety from Cal who is trying to make the Ravens' squad.

It is hard not to notice Depaola. He is the one wearing No. 22 and finishing near first in a lot of drills. He has a kamikaze style and a relentless work ethic, which is why he leaves every practice every day with a bandage of some kind on his face (yesterday it was cotton around his nose to stop it from bleeding) and a sweat-soaked crew cut.

And then there is the obvious. He is the only white defensive back on the team.

"I think it was Bennie Thompson who said on the first day, 'OK, we'll take the token white boy with us,' " said Depaola, laughing. "I let them know right away that I wasn't white, I was Italian.

"Actually, guys like Bennie keep you loose," Depaola added. "It's just good-natured fun, but I've heard that before from opposing teams in college. I like that because then they go back to the huddle and try to throw on you. That just gives me the opportunity to make a play."

It's tough talk, but Depaola is a confident person. It starts with the hair. Earl Morrall had a crew cut in the '60s. Johnny Unitas had one, too. But Unitas changed with the times.

Not Depaola. Crew cuts make him fast. Honestly.

"Once I get the flat top, I feel fast, man," said Depaola. "I guess I like the aerodynamics of this haircut. I used to have hair down to my shoulders, but once I get a flat top, I'm in my zone. Before I came to camp, I made sure I went to my barber to get the crew cut. I was pumped. I knew I was ready."

Depaola left the Camaro back in his hometown of Monte Rio, Calif., where he drag races. There is a quarter-mile track in Berkeley, and Depaola can be found there often during the off-season.

"Drag racing is a great outlet for me," said Depaola. "I've always been into fixing up cars. Drag racing is similar to football and the speed of the game. The speed is what appeals to me. On a football field, I want to be going 120 miles per hour."

Well, 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash is a better barometer of Depaola's speed. That's not bad, but Depaola came into the Ravens' camp with little hype.

He started only 17 career games at Cal and finished with 183 total tackles, most coming last season, when Depaola had 90, second best on the team.

But most NFL players start before their senior years and Depaola almost didn't get invited to an NFL camp.

"I was an alternate for almost all the bowl games, but that didn't do me any good," said Depaola. "Prior to the draft, the Jets called and said if I didn't get drafted, they would pick me up. Two hours after the draft, they called me and said they had signed someone else.

"No one called me on Monday, so I thought everybody was still concerned about the draft. No one called Tuesday, so I thought they were still concerned about the draft. No one called Wednesday or Thursday, and I started wondering what was going on here."

The Ravens finally made the call, but Depaola could become a victim of numbers. Starting safeties Eric Turner and Stevon Moore may be the best tandem in the league. Safety Bennie Thompson is a special-teams ace and Vashone Adams was Turner's top replacement a season ago.

According to Newsome, the team usually keeps four safeties.

"I realize this is a numbers game and I have to prove that I'm either a solid backup or a special-teamer," said Depaola. "But I like challenges. That's what I love about this game, it's full of opportunities."

Depaola has made favorable impressions. "This kid is strong and smart," said Turner, the Ravens' All-Pro safety. "He knows defenses and how to position himself. I've been watching his different techniques, and he does well."

Said Alvin Reynolds, the secondary coach: "He has a lot of heart and desire, he's competing and that's all I can ask."

But will that be enough?

"I haven't given that a thought. I can't think about being released," said Depaola. "My only plans are to make the team."

Ravens camp

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Practices: Run through Aug. 15. All are free and open to the public. Times are from 9 a.m. to 11: 30 a.m. and 2: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Directions from Baltimore: Take I-695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 north to Route 97 north. Turn left on exit ramp onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Go about 1 mile and turn left on Monroe Street. Turn right at Winters Alley. Parking lot is on left.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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