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The life of an offensive lineman in the NFL is a rough one. Obviously, there is the physical toll of violently clashing with enormous and strong defenders for 60+ snaps per game. Beyond that is the mental toll that comes from performing such a thankless task. Specifically, casual fans never notice when you do your job well; a lineman only catches their attention when a defender runs straight over them to get to the quarterback. It’s easy to imagine the combination of physical pain and pressure getting to even a seasoned professional.

Jon Feliciano, the starting left guard for the Buffalo Bills, works his ass off in the gym all year round to ensure his body can handle the slog of a 17-game season. Preparing for the physicality is a straightforward process; finding a way to manage the mental hardship takes a little more nuance. Feliciano harkens back to a piece of advice given to him early in his life to get his mindset right before lining up against the best athletes in the world every Sunday.

“The way I grew up, one of my mom’s boyfriends taught me at a young age that you can’t give an F what anyone else thinks,” Feliciano says. “I couldn’t care about what others think, I was going to do what was right. And I took that into football. As long as I know I’m giving my all for my team and I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, if something bad happens, it happens. That’s football. They get paid too.”

 photos by chris allmeid

 photos by chris allmeid

It was in 2001 when Feliciano attended his first football game—Washington vs. Miami at the Orange Bowl—and from that moment nothing would deter him from his dream to become a Miami Hurricane. This wasn’t just any game, mind you: Washington and Miami hate each other despite only facing off three times. The Huskies were making their first visit to the Orange Bowl since breaking the Hurricanes’ 58-game home winning streak back 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 ass kicking as they cruised to a 65-7 victory. The nine-year-old future NFL guard learned his destiny that day.

“That was my first-ever football experience,” he recalls. “The atmosphere of being there in the Orange Bowl, everything is rocking, and then [the Hurricanes] come running out of the smoke… Coming out of the smoke was literally one of the biggest things that drove me to work so hard. I just wanted to be a Miami Hurricane from that moment on.”  

It was only a few years later when Feliciano rode his bike over to the high school football field on one of the first days of practice. When the coaches saw the already quite large ninth grader they immediately found him some pads and put him on the O-line. While Feliciano was a fan of the game, he didn’t know too much about it yet. But one thing he did know was that he absolutely did not want to be on the line.

“The only football I had played [at that time] was NCAA and Madden video games,” he explains. “They tried to stick me on the O-line. I wanted to play tight end—I wanted to be a Kellen Winslow Jr, a Greg Olsen, one of those guys. As soon as they told me that I was like, ‘Uh, I think I’m alright, I think I’m going to leave.

“So they put me on the defensive line and it’s my freshman year and I’m on JV,” he continues. “At the end of the year they moved me up [to varsity] and I played D-line in a game and I got double-teamed and blown up by at least 10 yards. The next day I was like, ‘Aw shoot, maybe I should try offensive line,’ and I’ve been there ever since.”

Once his position was figured out, Feliciano’s path was set, but it would not be an easy row to hoe. During his sophomore year the trailer he had been living in with his family was condemned. As his mother and younger brother made plans to join his older brother up in New York, he had a choice to make. Would he relocate all the way to the Northeast, far away from the eyes of college recruiters? Or would he keep his eyes on the prize and find a way to stay in Miami, even if he didn’t have a place to call home?

“In my mind, I was the biggest Miami Hurricane fan and I was convinced that the University of Miami wouldn’t be looking at a guard or tackle in New York,” he says. “So staying in Florida would be the best thing for me and, thankfully, my parents let me stay back.”

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 family for his dreams. Luckily, he had a very strong support system in place. His nights were spent bouncing around between his best friend’s house, his then-girlfriend’s house and the occasional night back in the trailer that had been deemed unlivable.

“Their families were super great to me, providing me with food, clothes and a place to sleep,” he says. “I would stay at the condemned house a couple days when I felt like a burden to everybody. I did that for six to eight months, then my mother got some money and we were able to fix the trailer and move back in.

“Technically, I was homeless for about six to eight months,” he continues. “That game… from that moment on it was everything. I just identified as a Miami Hurricane, it was my whole thing. My parents knew I wasn’t leaving.”

 photos by chris allmeid

 photos by chris allmeid

Into his junior year, Miami’s recruiters still hadn’t contacted the determined lineman, so Feliciano and his coach grabbed the initiative and approached them. While attending Miami’s spring game the two made sure to get his highlight film in the hands of one of the coaches. About a week later all of his hard work and sacrifice paid off as he got the call he’d been dreaming of for years.  

“About a week after my official visit they called me, offered me a scholarship, and I was like, ‘Cool, I commit,’” he says. “They were like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to talk to your parents? This is a big decision.’ I walked to the other room and I was like, ‘Hey mom, I’m going to Miami.’”

On February 3, 2010, a week shy of his eighteenth birthday, Feliciano signed to attend the University of Miami. Before the ink was even dry on the letter of intent he was in a tattoo shop getting inked for the first time. The tattoo is of a set of prayer hands—complete with Miami’s signature “U” on the sleeve—with script reading “Only God can judge me” on his left shoulder. From there Feliciano was off to the races. On a trip to New York he got a tattoo that was a bit of a disaster, the sort of bad ink that might convince someone to never get tattooed again. But as you should know by now, Feliciano isn’t a quitter.

After accompanying some of his fellow Miami Hurricanes to a tattoo shop, he met Alex Campbell. As his teammates got tattooed by Campbell, Feliciano was blown away by his work. From that point on Feliciano has not been tattooed by anybody else. Campbell’s artistic versatility can be seen throughout Feliciano’s collection. While you may not be able to see much of it on Sunday afternoons, Feliciano’s still-in-progress leg sleeve is fantastic as it features homages to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Dexter’s Laboratory” and more.

“I use my body to tell my story in a way,” he says. “My bottom left leg is my childhood, basically. Growing up, watching a bunch of cartoons and playing Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!”

So far Feliciano has been able to celebrate many hallmark events of his life with tattoos, but there is one noticeable absence—a Vince Lombardi trophy. Buffalo has long been known as one of the most star-crossed franchises in the NFL, but going into the season Feliciano felt good about his team’s chances this year.

“We’re going to just keep working and hopefully we’ll reach our main goal,” he says. “We believe we have a really good team and it’s all about putting the work in and earning the right to play in the playoffs.”

“Come on, that’s such a diplomatic answer,” we prodded, hoping to get the humble lineman to talk some smack.

“Yuuup,” Felciano laughs. “I want to win the Super Bowl. There you go.”

If there’s one thing we know about Jon Feliciano, it’s that he’s going to put in the work to accomplish his goals. Super Bowl LVI will be played on February 13, so maybe he should book an appointment with Campbell that next week. You know, just in case Feliciano and the Bills set the world on fire and win it all.

 photos by chris allmeid

 photos by chris allmeid