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‘Feisty’ Italian spirit fuels Newark native’s career in NFL


By Gabe Spadaccini

When we think of Italians, certain things come to mind: food, wine, romance, coffee, conversation, etc. Seldom do we think of professional athletes as part of everyday Italian culture, but things are a bit different for Chicago Bears tight end and Delaware native Justin Perillo. Justin’s parents grew up in Wilmington, but his family’s roots can be traced back to the Province of Avellino in southern Italy.

As I sat down with Justin at his kitchen table to talk about his ancestry and career, Italian heritage stimulated all of my senses. A pan of chicken crackled with grease next to a steaming pot of boiling water that held fresh pasta. Voices from the city drifted in through the windows, adding texture to the instrumental jazz music that played softly from a corner, and the smell of a platter full of cheeses and Italian meats lingered in the air. Without hesitation, he uncorked a bottle of wine made from Aglianico grapes and handed me a glass, to which I responded molte grazie and asked, “What is it like being one of the very few Italian-American football players currently in the NFL?”

“It’s cool because I’m in a unique situation where my heritage and lineage is a lot different than most of the people
I work with. I think the genes and traits I’ve inherited from my ancestors play a role in my football game.”

“What genes and traits would those be?” I asked.

“Well, us Italians have been known to be a little feisty,” he said with a chuckle. “But, we also tend to be hard workers and don’t quit easily. I know I’m not the most talented player, so I think that’s something that carries over into my game and helps me stand out — hard work and drive.”

There’s no doubt that Justin has an unparalleled work ethic: he was an undrafted free agent out of University of Maine’s D1 NCAA program, and has had to prove himself every week to compete at the top level through hard work.

The 26-year-old was born in Newark and went to high school at Tatnall School in Wilmington. He signed with the Green Bay Packers from 2014 to 2016, and was signed to the Chicago Bears practice squad in November.

He had a breakout game against the Detroit Lions in 2015, catching five receptions for 58 yards and scoring his first NFL touchdown.

“Hands down catching my first touchdown pass was the coolest experience. I didn’t even know what happened — I kind of blacked out after I caught the ball,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not every day you get to catch a touchdown pass,
and I can’t help but wonder how many other Italians have done the same. It makes me proud to be Italian.”

So, does the Chicago Bear have any plans for life after football?

“I’d love to go visit Italy for a little while and see where my family is from — that would be a pretty cool experience. Other than that I’m not too sure, I’m trying not to think about the future too much and just enjoy my time playing football. Maybe one day I’ll retire and become a gondolier,” he said jokingly.

Not only can Italians talk with their hands and eat or drink more than anyone, but we have also proved that the hard work, dedication and perseverance that our ancestors have instilled in us can help us accomplish great things. They help us stand out in a world where everyone wants to fit in. 

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