GREEN BAY – Tyler Lancaster had to readjust his eyes for a second the first time he saw Danny Vitale sitting in the offshoot wing of the Packers’ locker room, an area reserved for the team’s practice squad.
A cult legend at Northwestern, Vitale engraved his name all over the Wildcats’ record books during a college career in which he caught 135 passes for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns as the do-it-all “super back” in the Wildcats’ offense.
A four-year starter and vocal leader for coach Pat Fitzgerald, Vitale also had the unwavering respect of Northwestern’s locker room, leaving a lasting impression on Lancaster.
That’s what made the juxtaposition so strange for the Packers’ rookie defensive lineman when the team signed Vitale to their practice squad in late October. Sitting in his own place in the main locker room, Lancaster expressed a bit of shock to fellow Wildcats alumnus Dean Lowry.
“When (Vitale) came in, and I was active and he’s on practice squad, I actually talked to Dean and said, ‘That seems so backwards to me,’” recalled Lancaster with a laugh. “That seems so backwards that Dan Vitale is on practice (squad) and I’m active.”
Vitale didn’t mind. He fully understood his place as an NFL fullback in 2018. The reality is jobs aren’t aplenty at his position across the league. Roughly a dozen teams don’t even carry one on their 53-man roster.
The Packers were one of them until they promoted Vitale to their active roster prior to Sunday’s game against Arizona. The 6-foot-1, 239-pound fullback got an idea he’d be active against the Cardinals after talking to the coaching staff about a possible role last Tuesday.
While he played only three offensive snaps, Vitale was thrilled to get back on the field after a crazy couple of months spent working his way back to the NFL.
Drafted into the league in the sixth round by Tampa Bay in 2016, Vitale started his rookie season on the Buccaneers’ practice squad before finishing the season with Cleveland. He played in 24 games with nine starts, leading the Browns with nine coverage tackles on special teams a year ago.
However, Vitale sustained a calf injury early in training camp and didn’t play in a single preseason game. The most frustrating part for Vitale was the Browns had just started talking to him about expanding his role to mirror more of what he did at Northwestern.
Instead, he was placed on injured reserve during final cuts prior to receiving his release from the Browns on Oct. 12.
“I felt like I knew what my abilities were if I could just get a foot in the door again whether it be p-squad, active,” Vitale said. “Whatever it was, if I could get my foot back in the door, I could work my way back in and show them what I could do, not only on the field, but off the field and how I approach my work as a professional and as a leader, as well.”
Ten days later, the Packers came calling.
Vitale didn’t have much exposure to the Packers leading into the 2016 NFL Draft, but that wasn’t surprising considering the team had just used a sixth-round pick on Oklahoma’s Aaron Ripkowski during the previous draft.
As a native of Chicago, however, Vitale was aware of the history of the position in Green Bay with three former All-Pros – William Henderson, Vonta Leach and John Kuhn – all spending time in the Packers’ backfield.
Molded with a “try-hard” attitude, Vitale shapes his game after San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk, one of the new-age fullbacks who has caught 156 passes over the past five seasons.
“Dan is very versatile,” said Lowry, who played against Vitale in the Illinois 7A state championship game back in 2011. “He can line up in the slot. He can play the tight end position, but also fullback, too. He can do it on special teams, as well. He’s a guy who can do a lot of different things, which I why I think he’s a very valuable player.”
Equipped with a body-builder’s physique, Vitale picked up weightlifting when he was in seventh grade to help strengthen his body. Still only 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds when he entered high school, Vitale picked up wrestling as a freshman to get stronger and hone his technique for football.
A fan of mixed martial arts, Vitale also has used boxing, ju-jitsu and Muay Thai over the past few years to help round out his game.
There was some question when Vitale committed to Northwestern whether he’d play “super back” or linebacker, but that decision became rather obvious after he rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound running back during his senior year at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School.
Coincidentally, Vitale has several friends in the Packers’ locker room. In addition to Lowry and Lancaster, Vitale also played at Northwestern with Green Bay safety Ibraheim Campbell. He also has become well-acquainted over the past two years with running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, who are all represented by the same agency.
President/CEO Mark Murphy, the athletic director at Northwestern from 2003-07, also introduced himself to Vitale shortly after he signed.
"He's built like a gladiator," Jones said. "He stays in the gym. (Jamaal) stays dancing. Danny stays in the gym. He'll work out with the team and later on in the night he'll go to his own gym. He's a machine. He's a warrior. He's hard-working, very smart. He just wants to play the game."
Now with his own spot in the main locker room, Vitale plans to make the most of his latest opportunity with the Packers. Lancaster, who rooms with Vitale, has no doubt that his longtime teammate will.
“Dean knew and I knew he just had to wait for his shot,” Lancaster said. “Now his shot is here and I think he’s going to show a lot of people he’s worth it.”