The life of an offensive lineman in the NFL is tough. Obviously, there’s the physical toll of the violent clashes with huge, strong defenders for over 60 shots per game. Beyond that is the mental burden that comes from doing such a thankless task. Specifically, casual fans never notice when you are doing your job well; a lineman only gets their attention when a defender runs directly over them to reach the quarterback. It’s easy to imagine the combination of physical pain and pressure, even for a seasoned professional.
Jon Feliciano, the Buffalo Bills starting left guard, works his ass in the gym all year round to make sure his body can handle the drudgery of a 17-game season. Preparing for physicality is a simple process; finding a way to deal with mental difficulties takes a little more nuance. Feliciano reflects on advice he was given early in his life to get back in shape before facing the best athletes in the world every Sunday.
âThe way I grew up, one of my mom’s boyfriends taught me at a young age that you can’t give an F to what other people think,â says Feliciano. âI didn’t care what other people thought, I was going to do what was right. And I took that in football. As long as I know that I am giving my all for my team and doing everything that I am supposed to do, if something bad happens, it does. It’s football. They are also paid.
It was 2001 when Feliciano attended his first football game – Washington vs. Miami at the Orange Bowl – and from that point on, nothing will stop him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a Miami Hurricane. It wasn’t just any game, mind you: Washington and Miami hate each other although they’ve only faced each other three times. The Huskies were making their first visit to the Orange Bowl since breaking a 58-game winning streak at home with the Hurricanes in 1994, and it was time for revenge.
The 2001 Hurricanes were stacked and what Feliciano witnessed that day was nothing less than an epic kick as they headed for a 65-7 victory. The nine-year-old future NFL goalie learned of his fate that day.
“It was my very first football experience,” he recalls. “The atmosphere of being there in the Orange Bowl, everything changes, and then [the Hurricanes] getting out of the smokeâ¦ Getting out of the smoke was literally one of the most important things that made me work so hard. I just wanted to be a Miami Hurricane from that point on.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Feliciano cycled to the high school soccer field on one of the first days of training. When the coaches saw the ninth grade student already quite tall, they immediately found him some towels and put him on the O-line. While Feliciano was a fan of the game, he didn’t know much yet- thing about it. But one thing he did know was he absolutely didn’t want to be online.
“The only football I played [at that time] was the NCAA and Madden video games, âhe explains. âThey tried to stick me on the O line. I wanted to play tight, I wanted to be a Kellen Winslow Jr, a Greg Olsen, one of those guys. As soon as they told me I was like, ‘Uh, I think I’m fine, I think I’m going to go.
âSo they put me on the defensive line and this is my first year and I’m on JV,â he continues. “At the end of the year, they made me progress [to varsity] and I played the D line in one game and I was in a double team and I exploded at least 10 yards. The next day I was like ‘Oh shoot, maybe I should try the offensive line’, and I’ve been there ever since.
Once his position was determined, Feliciano’s path was drawn, but it would not be an easy line to weed. In his second year, the trailer he lived in with his family was doomed. As his mother and younger brother planned to join his older brother in New York City, he had a choice to make. Will he move to the northeast, far from the eyes of university recruiters? Or would he keep his eyes on the prize and find a way to stay in Miami, even if he had no place to live?
âIn my mind, I was the biggest Miami Hurricane fan and I was convinced the University of Miami wouldn’t be looking for a goalie or a tackle in New York,â he says. “So staying in Florida would be the best thing for me and luckily my parents let me stay.”
Feliciano was still months away from getting his driver’s license and he had just made the most adult decision of his life, sacrificing the stability of being with his family for his dreams. Fortunately, he had a very strong support system in place. His nights were spent bouncing between his best friend’s house, his then girlfriend’s house, and the occasional night back in the trailer that had been deemed unlivable.
âTheir families have been super nice to me, providing me with food, clothes and a place to sleep,â he says. âI would stay in the condemned house for a few days when I felt like a burden on everyone. I did this for six to eight months and then my mom got some money and we were able to fix the trailer and go back.
âTechnically, I was homeless for about six to eight months,â he continues. âThis matchâ¦ from that point on, that was it. I just identified myself as a Miami hurricane, that was all my thing. My parents knew I wasn’t leaving.
In his first year, Miami scouts still hadn’t contacted the determined lineman, so Feliciano and his coach took the initiative and approached them. As they attended the Miami Spring Game, the two made sure to put their flagship film back into the hands of one of the coaches. About a week later, all of his hard work and sacrifice paid off as he received the call he had dreamed of for years.
âAbout a week after my official visit, they called me, offered me a scholarship, and I was like, ‘Cool, I’m getting involved,’â he says. âThey were like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to talk to your parents? It’s a big decision. I walked over to the other room and was like, ‘Hey mom, I’m going to Miami.’ ”
On February 3, 2010, a week before his eighteenth birthday, Feliciano signed up to attend the University of Miami. Before the ink even dried on the LOI, he was at a tattoo parlor getting his first inked. The tattoo features a set of prayer hands – with Miami’s signature âUâ on the sleeve – with a script that says âOnly God Can Judge Meâ on his left shoulder. From there Feliciano left for the races. On a trip to New York City, he got a tattoo of a bit of a disaster, the kind of bad ink that might convince someone to never get a tattoo again. But as you should know by now, Feliciano is no let go.
After accompanying some of his fellow Miami Hurricanes to a tattoo parlor, he met Alex Campbell. As his teammates got tattoos from Campbell, Feliciano was blown away by his work. Since then, Feliciano has not been tattooed by anyone else. Campbell’s artistic versatility is found throughout Feliciano’s collection. While you might not get to see much of it on Sunday afternoon, Feliciano’s still-going leg sleeve is fantastic as it features tributes to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, “Dexter’s Laboratory” and more. Again.
âI use my body to tell my story in a certain way,â he says. âMy lower left leg is basically my childhood. Grow up, watch a bunch of cartoons, and play PokÃ©mon and Yu-Gi-Oh!
So far, Feliciano has been able to celebrate many milestones in his life with tattoos, but there is one notable absence: a Vince Lombardi Trophy. Buffalo has long been known as one of the NFL’s most star-studded franchises, but at the start of the season Feliciano was happy with his team’s chances this year.
âWe’re just going to keep working and hopefully we will achieve our main goal,â he said. “We think we have a very good team and it’s about working and earning the right to play in the playoffs.”
âCome on, that’s such a diplomatic response,â we urged, hoping to get the humble lineman to speak for a bit.
“Yuuup,” Felciano laughs. âI want to win the Super Bowl. Here is.”
If there’s one thing we know about Jon Feliciano, it’s that he’s going to get down to work to achieve his goals. Super Bowl LVI will be played on February 13, so maybe he should make an appointment with Campbell next week. You know, just in case Feliciano and the Bills set the world on fire and win it all.