Natali New Mexico’s version of Invincible | NevadaAppeal.com

Natali New Mexico’s version of Invincible

DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Both of Vince Natali’s parents were born in Italy and were accomplished cooks.

And, Natali learned at an early age he better learn how to fix meals if he wanted to keep his stomach full of food when his parents weren’t around. Not surprisingly, the New Mexico senior has become an accomplished cook in his own right.

“I picked it up as I went along,” said Natali after a recent New Mexico football practice in preparation for Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl game against Nevada. “I can cook any kind of Italian dish. I’ve stolen a lot of girls’ hearts with my lasagna.

“I know I’d like to run a restaurant some day. Those are big hopes. I don’t know anything about doing that or what it would take right now.”

The 6-foot-2 305-pound Natali has stolen the hearts of Lobos fans with his stellar play in 2007.

Consider the following:

• He leads the Lobos with 110.5 pancake blocks. For those of you non-football types, that means he’s putting defensive linemen on their backsides, and that kind of ability earned him all-Mountain West Conference honors this season.

• Has allowed just one sack in more than 400 passing attempts by quarterback Donovan Porterie.

• Has been called for just five penalties all season, including a stretch of six games where he wasn’t flagged.

Not bad for a guy, who has only been playing center full time for the last two seasons. Natali took over for Ryan Cook, now with the Minnesota Vikings, in the 2006 season. In fact, Natali credits Cook for much of his success.

“I’m comfortable in that position,” Natali said. “I’m able to move around. I think it would be a good spot for me if I decide to try to play at the next level.”

He has a big fan in offensive line coach Jason Lenzmeier, who just started working with Natali this season.

“He’s had a tremendous season,” Lenzmeier said. “He has come a long way. He’s the quarterback of the offensive line. He played hurt. He had that issue with his shoulder, and he played through the pain. He’s in there for every rep. He never misses a play.”

In talking to Natali, you hear a guy that has gotten a lot of joy out of playing the game this year. Winning will do that to a player, and the Lobos’ 8-4 record made playing football fun again.

New Mexico went 6-7 last season, and the offense struggled under the previous offensive coordinator. Between the on-field problems and off-season shoulder surgery, Natali admitted that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to or could play again.

Natali, who graduated with a degree in Finance with a 3.89 GPA, is currently working on his MBA. He had and still has plenty of job offers once football is done.

“I tore my labrum my sophomore year, and then tweaked it again last year,” Natali said. “I kept playing. The first play of the New Mexico Bowl last year I fell right on my shoulder. It was adrenaline, and I kept playing until halftime.

“I tore two ligaments in my rotator cuff. There were doctors that told me that I should think about not playing football again, and I started thinking about it.”

Natali should have been out eight months, but he made it back in five, though he didn’t participate in any spring drills.

Natali isn’t a quitter. He had some goals that went unmet, and that irked him. He had some business to take care of.

Head coach Rocky Long brought in Dave Baldwin to run a West Coast offense. Natali could only watch in the spring, as the rest of his teammates went about learning a new scheme. He impressed the coaching staff by picking up the scheme through watching film and watching practice.

Not only did the Lobos get a healthy Natali back this year, they also got a leader, too. Natali consistently has put his teammates in the right positions to carry out their assignments. The Lobos possessed one of the most balanced offenses in the Mountain West Conference.

“The leadership role is something I’ve always done,” Natali said. “I’m outspoken. If I don’t feel something is right; not like it should be, I’ll say something. I’m sure it probably annoys some people. It’s better than not learning.”

Nobody is complaining. Lenzmeier is overjoyed that Natali stepped into that role. Lenzmeier said that not only is Natali a vocal leader, but his work ethic is something only true leaders possess.

Natali certainly has the size and athleticism that NFL scouts like, but he doesn’t know if he wants to pursue the game after Saturday.

“We’ll see if the opportunity presents itself,” Natali said. “I haven’t thought much about it. At some point, I’ll sit down with my folks and figure out what’s best.”

• Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281

THE NATALI FILE

Year in school: Senior

Position: Center

Height/weight: 6-2 305

Major: Finance