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Shark takes one step forward

Anthony ''Rocky'' Velasco graduates from Riverview today and has a plan for the future ... if he does not have another seizure.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published May 31, 2001


TAMPA -- Anthony "Rocky" Velasco will celebrate his first victory over his past today. But to get the future he wants, he will need his body's cooperation.

Velasco, 18, overcame his parents' divorce and criminal pasts and near poverty only to have his future threatened by seizures.

Today, he graduates from Riverview.

He will become the first member of his family to earn a diploma since Joe Skrzypek, the grandfather with whom he shares a hunting trailer, graduated from San Antonio (Texas) St. Gerard's in 1951.

"That's a chapter I can close now," said Velasco, who graduates with a 3.0 grade point average.

Velasco's father, Tony, who has spent the past eight years in and out of prison on robbery and drug offenses, will attend the ceremony.

He received permission to leave a work camp in Bartow, where he currently is being held. He will be accompanied by a probation officer, Velasco said.

Velasco's mother, Felicia, who also has spent time in prison for drug and traffic-related offenses, is unlikely to attend, Velasco said.

Velasco has had little contact with either of his parents since their divorce 14 years ago.

"I want to show (my father) what he gave up for cocaine," he said. "I want to tell him, 'I hope it was worth it."'

Velasco, a second-team all-state selection in football, next turns to a future that once held the promise of an athletic scholarship but has been clouded by 13 seizures in the past year.

Velasco, who suffers from a seizure disorder that affects several million Americans, hopes to enter the Army and work toward a career in law enforcement.

An Army recruiter told Velasco he scored high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to qualify for $50,000 toward college and a $20,000 enlistment bonus.

"This is probably a lifelong commitment," Velasco said.

"Twenty years, and I'll retire with a pension."

But first, Velasco must remain seizure-free for six months and get a letter from his neurologist testifying to his health.

Velasco, who takes Tegretol to control the seizures, has not had a dizzy spell in more than a month, his grandfather said.

If the seizures recur, Velasco said he will continue to work as an usher at a movie theater in Brandon and take classes at a junior college.

"It's kind of an unsure plan," he said.

"But it's a plan."

Velasco, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound tackle, developed into one of the top offensive linemen in Hillsborough County last season. He received interest from Jacksonville University and Benedictine College but chose to pursue a military career.

"With the economic situation prevailing right now, I told him, 'Unless there's a full scholarship, let's concentrate on the military. You'll get right on the payroll,"' Skrzypek said.

Skrzypek, who spent three years in the Navy, originally hoped to return to sea following his grandson's graduation.

But he said aching knees and advanced age (he is 70) have changed his plans.

He hopes to move his trailer onto a plot of land his daughter and her husband are in the process of buying in Port Charlotte.

"The worst is over," Skrzypek said.

"After (today), we've both got some breathing room."

Following up

The Times featured Rocky Velasco on April 3(Velasco's happy ending unclear), when the Riverview senior was honored as one of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' "Champions," a distinction given to high school athletes who have overcome adversity. We revisit Velasco and his grandfather on the day of his graduation.

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