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Feliciano has found his way home

He had no home. Scratch that. Technically, he had a home, but it was condemned. So he bounced around here and there, staying with his best friend or his girlfriend. On days he felt too proud to ask for another favor, he went back to the condemned house, with no water or power. He just needed a place to fall asleep.

All those nights he had nothing, Jon Feliciano thought about football. He thought about the University of Miami, the only place he ever wanted to go to college. Somehow, he thought, I have to get there. Football will get me there.

Never mind that Miami had never shown any interest in him, even though he went to high school in Davie, Florida, 40 minutes north of the campus. If Feliciano wanted to change his fate, he would have to do it himself.

So he and his high school football coach, Rashad West, arrived at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the 2008 Miami spring game with a plan.

A junior offensive lineman at the time, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Feliciano put together a highlight tape to hand-deliver to the coach recruiting his area, Tommie Robinson. Feliciano and West initially wanted to sneak down to the field when the game ended, but there were too many people to make it far. Feliciano was crushed.

West, familiar with the stadium layout, knew where the Miami buses would be parked. He drove Feliciano to the back of the stadium, where they waited for the team to emerge. When Robinson came out, Feliciano gave him the tape.

"You pass the eyeball test," Robinson told him. "I'll watch your highlight tape, and we'll see how it goes."


The fact that Feliciano could run, let alone play football, should be regarded as a minor miracle. He was born breech and with a foot deformity that required braces, or "magic shoes," as his mother called them. For two years, he wore the braces. Doctors told Alicia Feliciano that her son would never play sports. She told the doctors they would be wrong. She spent hours pulling on his legs, willing them to work, massaging his feet until her hands hurt.

Her youngest son, Christopher, had even more health problems. He was born deaf and requiring a feeding tube and heart monitors. Her marriage deteriorated, and she got divorced when her three sons were still young. She wanted to move far away, so she left her family and home in New York with $300 in her pocket and a car worth $200 and headed to Florida.

She never had a steady job but made ends meet, always making sure her children were clean and fed. When she worked nights, Jon would take care of his little brother, cooking him dinner or helping with homework. His older brother was not always around, so it was up to Jon to be the man of the house.

When Jon was in eighth grade, Alicia developed breast cancer. She kept her diagnosis a secret because she did not want her sons to worry. She went to treatments alone and would come home with a smile, tuck her kids into bed and then scream in pain through the night. When Jon asked what was wrong, she claimed she was watching a scary movie.

When she lost her hair, Jon asked why she wore a wig. She told him her hairdresser was at fault. But after a few months, Alicia finally broke down.

"She told me, 'I've had breast cancer the last few months, but I'm OK,'" Jon said. "I was like, 'Thanks, Mom. I would have liked to know that a few months ago. I could have helped you.' She just didn't want me to worry about her."

Jon wanted to quit school to take care of her. His mother was outraged.

"Never say that again," she told him.


Jon always loved football, but he could not afford to play in the local Optimist league. Even if he had the money, he had no way to get there. Instead, he grew up idolizing Ray Lewis and Sean Taylor and dreamed about playing tight end for the Canes.

The summer before his freshman year of high school, a friend asked him to go check out football practice. They rode their bikes over to the field. The coaches took one look at Jon and told him, "You're going to play football."

He began to excel on the field and on the basketball court -- his first love -- but at home his mother was struggling to pay the bills. Sometimes the water and electricity would be turned off. She had a generator for food and one light. They would sometimes sleep at a cousin's house or in their car.

Jon was too proud to tell his coaches what was happening at home; his mother was too proud to ask anybody for help. She wanted to provide for her children, but she no longer could when Jon was a junior and their house was condemned.

She took Jon to lunch and delivered the news.

"I was really upset about it, but I didn't want to let my mother or younger brother know how much it was bothering me," Jon said. "My mom was very upset, crying. She would always say, 'I don't want to be a bad mother,' and I'd tell her, 'Mom, you're not a bad mother. It's not your fault.' I didn't want to put more pressure on my mother with me being upset or letting her know I was upset. I tried to stay strong for my family."

She wanted him to move back to New York with her and Christopher. Jon thought it would be best if he stayed in Florida and kept playing football, hoping to get a scholarship. Alicia reluctantly agreed.

"Promise me you'll go to school and become somebody," she told him.

He promised.

When she left, Jon spent as much time at school as possible, arriving first thing in the morning and staying until the last person left.

"I would just focus on school and playing football and playing basketball. Those things kept me away from everything. But there were times I didn't know what house I'd be able to stay at," he said. "It was challenging looking back at it, but I really just try to think about the positives. If I can get through this, I don't think there will be anything in my life harder to get through."

Jon freely admits he gets his pride from his mother. Pride kept him from giving West or his basketball coach, Steve Todd, any indication that something was wrong at home. He wanted to try to manage on his own.

"He never let on how bad it may have been," West said. "There are some things I'm finding out now that you had a clue about but you didn't know to what extreme."


Shortly after Feliciano delivered his highlight tape to Robinson, Miami called and invited him on an unofficial visit.

Feliciano and his mother, in town from New York at the time, went down to Coral Gables. Everything was how he envisioned, from the coaching staff to the facilities to the campus and community. They left, not knowing what to expect as they drove to a friend's house.

Then the phone rang. It was Miami offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.

"Jon, we want to offer you a scholarship to the University of Miami," he said.

"OK," Feliciano said. "I'm going to commit right now."

"Are you sure?" Stoutland asked. "Do you want to talk to your mom about it?"

Feliciano turned to his mother.

"Mom," he said. "I'm committing to Miami."

She cried.

"Since he was 6 years old, all he ever said was, 'I want to go to that team, Mom!'" she recalled. "He doesn't even remember being in braces, but I always said to him, 'You're going to do it, Jon!' And he did it."

Shortly after, Alicia moved back to Florida with her parents, who bought a house for them to live in. A year later, Jon arrived at Miami, but he started doubting whether he belonged. The plan was to redshirt, so he played on the scout team every day, facing stronger guys like Sean Spence, Colin McCarthy and Marcus Forston -- all in the NFL now.

Then Randy Shannon and his staff were fired. Al Golden came in with a new offensive line coach. Feliciano had no idea what to expect. After the first spring, he went in for his exit interview with Golden.

"Jon, you have four more years. Do you know how good a player you're going to be?" Golden said.

Feliciano looked at him and thought, "Do you see what I see?"

Golden saw much more. "He's tough, he's durable, and he's versatile, and that's a great combination to have," Golden said. "You could see early on that he was a very humble kid from a humble background, lunch-pail ethic, and [he was] grateful for the opportunity to be here."

Feliciano worked harder than he ever had that summer and used Christopher as inspiration. He had no reason to be down, not when he was playing the game his brother never could.

When fall camp opened, Feliciano competed for a starting job. He made his first career start at left guard, as a redshirt freshman, against Ohio State in 2011.

Feliciano has started 38 games since then while facing even more difficulty at home. Alicia was diagnosed with cancer again several years ago and had her uterus removed. She asked the coaches not to tell Jon, but they thought he already knew.

Jon wanted to go back home to help her, but Alicia refused, adamant that he finish college.

"I've been through a lot," she told him. "What I deserve is for you to stay in school."

In May, Feliciano became the first person in his family to graduate from college. His father, who has maintains a presence in Jon's life, flew down from New York for the ceremony, attending with his brothers, grandparents and, of course, Alicia, grateful to be alive to see Jon walk across the stage.

"Of all the kids who had a reason to go the other way, he is one of them," said West, his high school football coach. "But he didn't. We always say it's a great story. It could be made into a movie."

Jon and Alicia struggle to reveal all the details of their past, but it has shaped them both.

"It just taught me to be strong," Jon says. "No matter what you're going through, you'll get through it if you keep a positive attitude and work hard. Everything will be all right."

Turns out everything is more than all right. Feliciano has a football career, a college degree and a future. He has his family.

He has a home.