DEBT OF GRATITUDE

Tom Santi - a Colts rookie tight end from the University of Virginia – said he was fortunate to play with a program with a rich tradition at his position.

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Other Virginia Tight Ends Big Reason He Made it to the NFL, Santi Says

INDIANAPOLIS - He has others to thank.

That's one of the first things Tom Santi will tell you when asked about why he has advanced this far in his football career, why he was good enough for the Colts to select him in the recent NFL Draft.

Yes, he worked, and yes, he had talent.

But Santi – a tight end from the University of Virginia – said he also was fortunate to play with a program with a rich tradition at his position. Early in his career, he played behind two tight ends bound for the NFL, one of whom – Heath Miller – may have been the best tight end in school history.

Santi watched. And he learned.

And he said he picked up enough to get an NFL opunity.

"I was really fortunate, going to Virginia," Santi said during a recent interview for this story, the fifth of a nine-part series on the Colts' 2008 draft class that will run on Colts.com in the coming days.

"I got to play with Heath Miller, who's now with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Patrick Estes, who's (now an offensive tackle) with the Buffalo Bills. Those guys were not only great football players, but they really helped me a lot and brought me along as a player.

"That was very important to me in my development, not even in the games, but seeing the way those guys practiced and the way they played."

From the pair, Santi said he learned the details and the effort required to not just be good, but be good enough to separate from other good players.

"Once you get to this level, everybody has talent," Santi said. "Something I learned from those guys is they'd always be in there watching tape, but probably the biggest thing was the way they practice – not going out and ever going through the motions.

"It was always working hard and working smart, doing everything they possibly could to be ready for the game."

The attention paid to Estes and Miller produced benefits.

Santi (6-feet-5, 250 pounds), who played four seasons at Virginia, started at least three games there every season, including 10 as a junior and five as a senior. He finished his career with 97 receptions for 1,184 yards and six touchdowns, catching 36 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns this past season.

"An outstanding student, an outstanding football player in terms of football smarts – very good receiver," Polian called Santi after making him the 30th selection of the sixth round, the 196th overall. "He also has played fullback for them. He's a very versatile tight end, and at 250, he'll be the biggest tight end we have on the squad."

Santi was one of two players the Colts drafted at the position, with Jacob Tamme of Kentucky the other. The Colts selected Tamme in the fourth round.

"I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to come to Indianapolis," Santi said. "I'm a little familiar with the system. I'm looking forward to getting into it more. Just knowing what they have, and watching them the last few years, I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to play in that system."

And while Santi said the two tight ends he played behind helped him early in his career at Virginia, he said the competition he practiced against late didn't hurt, either.

That was particularly true of defensive end Chris Long, the son of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Howie Long and the No. 2 overall selection in the 2008 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams.

"Any time you can play against a high-end talent like that, you can't help but get better," Santi said. "That's one of the advantages I have being at Virginia, is I got to play against guys like that day in and day out. I think that's a big part and a good step in preparation toward the next level."

He said the same was true of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which had 33 players selected in the NFL Draft, third most of any conference behind the Pac 10 (35) and Southeastern Conference (34). Santi was a second-team All-ACC selection as a senior.

"There's never a week where you say, 'Well, we can take it easy this week,' " Santi said. "You have to be at your best whenever you step on the field."

Because of that competition, Santi said although he still has much to learn, he feels ready for the weeks and months ahead.

"I'm very confident," Santi said. "I feel like I'm well prepared coming from the program I'm coming from. The coaching staff (at Virginia) . . . obviously, a lot of those guys have NFL experience and know what it takes to play at the next level.

"At the same time, I'm coming in with no experience in the NFL, so I've got a lot to learn and I have a lot to do. I'm confident I'll go in there and do my best. I'm looking forward to it."

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