An Ocean Away, Broncos Defensive Tackle Felt Right at Home
Even on the streets of Italy, France and Spain, Demetrin Veal was recognized by sports fans. PHOTO: RYAN McKEE / RICH CLARKSON AND ASSOCIATES
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When an Italian family invites a 6-foot-2, 288-pound, 20-something traveler from the United States into their home, they expect him to eat.
Never mind that the backpack-wielding explorer from a foreign shore is a professional athlete looking to maintain his playing shape while indulging his burgeoning curiosity about the people and places beyond his home. When you're in Italy and you've got dinner dishes hot from the kitchen and a guest at your table, you're going to show him a meal that possesses both quality and quantity.
Demetrin Veal discovered this first-hand this past winter.
"They would invite me to the house, feed me and let me hang with them, even though they think I eat a whole lot more than I actually do," Veal said. "Since I'm a big guy, they think I eat a lot -- which I don't."
What he did do a lot was walk and ride. With nearly three months between the end of the regular season and the start of offseason conditioning workouts, Veal tossed some clothes, essential items and a camera into his backpack and headed for Europe.
He had no set itinerary and no hotel reservations. Just time, his walking shoes and an explorative nature.
What better way to hear about the trip than from the traveler himself?
"I just went by myself," he said. "Just decided to go. Everybody asked, 'Who are you with?' I'd say, 'I'm by myself.' They'd say, 'Well, you don't have to worry about anybody messing with you.' It was cool just to get up and take off like that, just to leave everything and enjoy other cultures.
"I just packed up a few pairs of pants, a few pairs of shoes, a hat, some shirts, some money and took off. I took a whole month off and went through France, Italy, Spain, and just got to see a little bit of each country and just had a good time.
"(At the end of each day) I'd just find a room. Whatever room where I could fit in the bed and just crash. The one place that couldn't really accomodate me was France. Most of the beds were pretty slim, so they had to put double beds in there for me."
"On the streets, people come up to me and just want to know me because I look interesting to them. A 6-2, big guy, so everyone is interested and wants to come over and say something to me.
"As soon as I opened my mouth and said I was American, they said, 'Do you play football? Are you famous in America?' I would say, 'I may be famous. You don't know.' It was real cool. Little kids would walk by me and stare at me, and then somebody would get the courage to say, 'Hey, how are you doing? Where are you from?' and things of that nature. That was pretty cool."
Then there were the Italian dinner invitations.
"The people invited me over to their homes to eat dinner with their families. They talked with me like I'd known them for years," Veal said. "They'd get together -- cousins, brothers, sisters, coming together to have that good meal. It was a nice, family environment. They welcomed me. Everybody's open and real cool.
"They asked me about life in America. They didn't get into the football (part) ... They asked me about American life in general, certain things, our vocabulary. I would say something to them and they'd ask, 'What does that mean?'"
Veal's hosts didn't just receive a grateful guest, but a cultural education -- one that was just as valuable as what Veal received in his travels.
"I'm from Compton, (Calif.), so they think of all the music videos," Veal said. "They think it's that bad. As I talk to them, and they get to know me, it's a totally different perspective of what they thought an American would be. First they see the dreadlock and all that and a big guy, and they think I'm going to be a certain way, and I was totally the opposite. It was a big shock to most of them."
It was also a little surprising that Veal was so recognized by fans overseas -- and that the American brand of football was so closely followed.
"I wanted to watch the Super Bowl in Italy. It was midnight," he said. " Surprisingly, every place I was going to go to was crowded ... It was good to see that they understand football and they like it. Even though soccer is the biggest thing over there, football is gradually catching up with them.
"I met some of the people in the Italian American Football League in Florence. There was a lot of love over there for American football. They were happy to see me. They know a whole lot about the Broncos over there."
SEEING THE WORLD
Europe wasn't Veal only winter destination. There was a jaunt to Panama, and a few days in Brazil at its famed and riotously festive Carnival -- which Veal said wasn't as crazy as the one in Trinidad and Tobago.
And Veal can aptly compare the two. After all, he also went to the island nation at the southern tip of the Caribbean.
"Theirs is a whole month," he said. "A whole month of that, you can't take it."
But Veal can take more globetrotting. Asia and Australia are on his checklist for a potential trip in the 2008 offseason. So too is a return to Italy, a place that became almost like a second home.
"You've got to experience life," he said. "I'm young. I might as well experience it."
And with a backpack on his shoulder and a smile on his face, the world is his to discover.