Jon Feliciano learned to love football again last season. He wants to remain a Giant and he knows he embodies the "competitive stamina" Brian Daboll seeks... even if it ruffles feathers in Buffalo.
One hour in, he’s not finished. Not yet.
Jon Feliciano has one more message for Buffalo Bills fans, especially those whose teeth remain lodged in his throat for his, uh, politically incorrect comments about the “13 seconds” debacle a year ago.
“Buffalo fans,” Feliciano says as our chat winds down. “Relax. I still love y’all. Relax. I definitely was a little sensitive about the loss. I definitely felt like y’all got what y’all deserve. This much of me did.”
He’s holding a right index finger and a thumb one centimeter apart on this Zoom call.
He’s informed that’s more than enough to agitate those irate over such an inconceivable defeat. “They didn’t like that,” he adds, “but it’s alright.” On a personal level, Feliciano had good reason to be pissed that night in Kansas City. He fought back from painful injuries only to ride the pine. No easy pill to swallow for a prideful man who was just blasting KC’s Alex Okafor in the playoffs one year ago for hovering over his quarterback. Feliciano faded from established, ass-kicking leader on this offensive line to an afterthought.
The 2021 football season was a dark time.
But 2022? He rediscovered his joy with Brian Daboll, Bobby Johnson and the New York Giants. The 6-foot-4, 325-pounder known as “Mongo” did not only save his career — he learned to love football again. On the cusp of free agency, he’d love to stay with the Giants. He sees the makings of something special with Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen. As the team’s starting center, he was (literally) the man in the middle of this rebirth. A collection of misfits and draft picks left for dead managed to go 9-7-1 and win a playoff game. NFL teams rarely ever transform from hellscape to contender on a coaching change alone. It’s not like the Giants handed out blank checks to free agents last spring.
But the career — the turbulent life — of Feliciano mirrored the team’s turnaround.
He’ll never forget living homeless in high school. That’s true stress.
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Why not be himself? Feliciano first took a 2x4 to the hornet’s nest in Western New York when he said the pizza was terrible. (He still claims the pizza “sucks,” despite a reminder that Dion Dawkins’ go-to spot is solid.) Locals were then irate when Feliciano told Ariel Helwani on a podcast that part of him thought the Bills got what they deserved because he could’ve made a difference at Arrowhead. However, it must go on the record, that Feliciano has many extremely nice things to say about the city and the team. He loves chicken wings, even squeezing his fingers together for a chef’s kiss of the lips at the memory of Bar Bill’s bleu cheese. The sign of a true local? Feliciano devoured many plates of Nine-Eleven Tavern wings. Feliciano hated selling his Buffalo house. This is where his wife gave birth to their son. His daughter was only 2 years old.
If the Bills called this March, he’d even be open to a reunion. Inside the locker room, Feliciano was beloved.
Of course, his No. 1 choice amongst all 32 teams is the Giants.
“One hundred percent,” Feliciano says. “I would love to be back. They’re my guys. It’s easy being with them. Just the joy I get playing football and I want to succeed for them, too.”
He starts with the head coach and how sincerely Daboll showed players he believed in them. The coach changed the psychology of the Giants with his actions. As a five-point underdog in Week 1 at Tennessee, he went for two with 1:06 left to win and he never let up. This was a roster that objectively lacked elite talent across the board and, yet, Daboll refused to coach like a dinosaur. He didn’t want to punt and kick and punt his way to 9-6. The entire Giants team soon played how they were coached — fearlessly. The best way to understand how a franchise in the pits became so relevant, so fast is to understand that this was a building full of individuals with something to prove. The head man could tap into real motivation. Feliciano lists off the names and the reasons. Saquon Barkley wanted to prove “he was still Saquon.”
Daniel Jones wanted to prove to the Giants that they should’ve picked up his fifth-year option.
Defensively, there was motivation galore.
Feliciano obviously had the messy Buffalo exit, and he’s sure Daboll wanted to prove he could lead a winner on his own.
Into the playoffs, Feliciano remembers telling Daboll how happy he was for him. He’ll never forget his response. “Dude, shut up,” he told Feliciano. “I’m happy for you.” That’s the type of relationship everyone has around here, and it sure helps through the grind of an NFL season. Guys genuinely want to succeed for each other. By no means is this a coach who coddles, either.
He rips players. Feliciano enjoys this side, too.
After a first-down against the Washington Commanders, Feliciano sprinted downfield to flex his biceps in the middle of a few defenders and was flagged 15 yards. All taunting penalties are certifiably insane and should be rewarded 15 yards but it’s also true that rules are rules. All players are well-educated on the NFL’s crusty bureaucracy. Daboll lost it.
“He gave me good ripping and you look back on it, I love when he gets fired up,” Feliciano says. “Obviously didn’t want the penalty, but when he rips people — and it’s not you — it’s pretty fun to watch. He's just a little, small meatball getting angry. He gets all red in the face and then two seconds later he'll be like, ‘That was a good one, right?’”
Still, when Darius Slayton suffered a crushing drop in the playoffs that gave the Minnesota Vikings a shot late, Daboll immediately went to the wide receiver to pump positivity into his mind.
Says Feliciano: “He knows when to bring you up and when to tear you down. He’s great at that balance.”
That’s why the vet calls the Giants’ turnaround a “perfect storm.” Those who endured the stench of the Joe Judge Era were sick of losing. The head coach both understood how to relate to players and brought in one of the best offensive systems in the NFL. Feliciano also loves defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. Calling him a “mad scientist” and a “mastermind,” Feliciano cites Martindale as another person who made the daily drudgery of the profession a joy. During stretching periods on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Martindale would list off a few potential pressures past Feliciano.
Then, the first walkthrough, Martindale would unleash a cyclone of confusing pressures on Feliciano, the man who needed to diagnose everything… which typically led to a chorus of expletives. “F--k you, Wink!” Mongo would scream, as four defensive backs and two linebackers all loitered near the line of scrimmage.
“And he would just be giggling and laughing,” says Feliciano. “The coaching staff that he brought over definitely had his same philosophy of football. Just having fun. If you look at our defense and our offensive schemes, they're similar in letting the players play and really having fun. And if I was a defensive player, I would love to play for Wink. Same with ‘Dabes’ and Kafka. We have a lot of fun in the building.”
They had fun. They won games. It was easy for Jon Feliciano to love football again.
Inside the offensive line room, guard Mark Glowinski was a familiar face. They played in the East-West Shrine Game together, entered the same 2015 draft class, and kept in touch through the years. He calls Andrew Thomas one of the top three tackles in the sport. And Feliciano has always been tight with position coach, Bobby Johnson. Without supplying specifics, he makes it quite clear that Johnson was happy to coach for a new team. They both felt like they could be themselves.
Feliciano has played for Johnson seven of his eight seasons, Oakland to Buffalo to New York. And beyond the X’s and O’s, Feliciano says he can go to Johnson with any concerns. Both have daughters. He finds himself asking the “OG” questions about fatherhood.
Their personalities mirror each other.
“He’s a fiery guy,” Feliciano says, “and I like to say I am too.”
Nobody has ever questioned the man’s toughness. Every team needs an enforcer willing to stand up for his quarterback like he did that night in the 2020 AFC Championship Game. In shifting over to center, Feliciano believes he also proved just how smart he is on the line. He was a quiet force behind Jones’ turnaround season, taking a major mental load off the quarterback’s plate.
Pre-snap, Feliciano diagnosed pressures and flipped protections and called out the middle linebacker.
“And that's why I think I was so rejuvenated this year,” Feliciano says, “being able to really lead the offense. Having the ball on my hand every play. I was able to bring the other lineman along with the playbook and took some of the stress off of DJ's shoulders.”
Under Daboll, the Giants’ offense operates in very modern, very 2023 terms. Feliciano points to the Super Bowl between Philly and Kansas City and how that game proved to a national audience that third down is becoming more like second down in today’s NFL with teams more willing to run on third and 7, knowing damn well they’ll go for it on fourth and 3. Such thinking changes the complete dynamics of a game. Plus, the rugby-like quarterback sneak is a game-changer.
In Buffalo, Feliciano tended to speak up to authority, to coaches… to the extreme. He admits that’s likely the reason he fell out of favor. (“I might’ve went too hard.”) Because in reality, he’s a quiet guy off the field. Most mornings, he’s grumpy and doesn’t want to speak. One question from one leader who does enjoy talking in the AM helped crystallize his purpose on the field last season. Way back in OTAs, Barkley asked teammates for their “why.”
As in: Why do you play football?
“And I was like, ‘I’m just out here for y’all,’” Feliciano says. “Offensive line-wise, I’m at the point in my career — eight years in — I haven’t made a Pro Bowl. I’m not going to make the Hall of Fame. The money’s nice. But nothing gets me going more than when I pull around and make a block and I feel Saquon right off of me and him scoring.”
If Barkley runs past him, that means he typically only has the safety to beat.
Seeing No. 26 streak downfield for a long run is where he finds happiness in this sport.
Throughout this conversation, Feliciano flashes a smile that wasn’t on his face much at all the season prior. His final season in Buffalo was a nightmare. Placed on injured reserve with a calf injury Nov. 6, he battled back. He was activated Dec. 11, yet never reclaimed his starting spot from Ryan Bates. This after Feliciano was the team’s recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for overcoming a torn rotator cuff and a torn pec in 2020.
“It was definitely challenging,” Feliciano says, “especially doing all you can to come back and then riding the bench for the last six, seven weeks and players coming up to you: ‘This sucks. We wish you were out there. Just keep going.’ It was definitely challenging not being able to help and knowing that you can. But I’ve done a lot of reflecting about it and I hold no grudges.”
Yes, he does believe he could’ve made a difference in that 42-36 loss to the Chiefs that final playoff game. Feliciano says here his anger was “95 percent” rooted in the fact that Buffalo lost in such agonizing fashion.
“And 2% was I was definitely holding a little grudge towards the people that made the decision. It’s not like I wanted us to lose. I was doing everything I could on the sideline to boost peoples’ emotions or just be there for my teammates. I mean I was coaching Bates up and doing everything I could to help the team win. But like I said, I wasn’t going to lie. A little, little 2% of me was like, ‘Man f--k y’all. This is what you get for… I could have helped.’ And that’s just the competitor in me. I don’t think you would want a player that didn't want to be out there.”
A-plus for honesty.
As Feliciano points out, ex-teammates weren’t necessarily calling for his head on a stick when this take first went viral. They knew the full story. They knew what he meant. As for who exactly benched Feliciano — Johnson? Daboll? McDermott? — he’s vague. Maybe there’s some residual bad blood, but time has mostly healed. Since becoming Public Enemy No. 1 (in a city he loves), Feliciano personally reached out to McDermott and GM Brandon Beane. Early this past season, he even sent McDermott a funny message about the announcers constantly bringing up his wrestling background. One more time, he said, and he’d break his TV.
“I definitely could have handled situations differently and I'll always cherish the time I had in Buffalo,” he says. “It’s a special city.”
That Andrew Peters-like defense of Allen was not for show. Feliciano loves Allen, and would block for him again in a heartbeat. “I’m not doing that for anybody,” he adds. “I’m not going to pay all that money for the funds for someone I don’t love.” But his heart’s still with these Giants. The experience rejuvenated him. One of Daboll’s mantras sticks with him. The coach always preaches about wanting a roster full of players who exemplify “competitive stamina.”
On to Year 9 in the NFL, he’s not forgetting how those two words define his life.
Many NFL players claim to be a “survivor,” but 99.9 percent of the time the word is metaphorical. A handy description given the nature of the profession (bashing into other humans) and its fragility (you could be cut any day and there are no fully guaranteed contracts). Then, there’s Feliciano. Born in New York, he moved to Miami with his mother when his parents divorced. For seven years, he bounced around. Things started getting strange at age 10 when Feliciano moved to Broward County. His mother broke up with her boyfriend, so he spent about a month living on the floor of one of his mother’s friend’s homes. He didn’t even go to school for a while.
They moved into a trailer, life was normal for a short while, but money was tight. Working at a nightclub, his mother didn’t make much.
And Feliciano was in 10th grade when the trailer was condemned. Mom moved to New York to live with his grandparents, an older brother went to Michigan to sell marijuana, a little brother was already back in New York with his father. Dad tried to convince Jon to move north to live with him but even though he didn’t even start playing organized football until ninth grade, Feliciano stayed in Florida. For one reason and one reason only. He was determined to become a Miami Hurricane — that was his No. 1 goal in life.
So, for about 1 ½ years, he was homeless.
Day to day, Feliciano was unsure what life would bring through high school. He credits his best friend first. Sean Cole-Rico’s family took him in that junior year of high school. Feliciano can still remember his head brushing up against the roof of their trailer. He’d need to “duck and dodge” fans. He slept on a twin mattress on Sean’s floor, and the way they looked at it? It was pretty sweet. This was a sleepover every day.
“He was like my brother,” Feliciano says. “I don’t really call him my best friend. He was definitely my brother.”
The days were busy. He was at his high school for class and sports practice until the evening. Someone at the high school might even slip him a Publix gift card to get food. Then, he showered, ate, slept, did it all over again. The very-large Feliciano took up a lot of space in this very-small home. Sean’s parents were also divorced, and didn’t have much money. So even though his girlfriend at the time helped out, too — her family provided food, clothes, a couch to sleep on — Feliciano often felt like a burden. Many nights, Feliciano would return to his condemned trailer to sleep. There was no water, no electricity. He sprawled on the wooden floor and grabbed whatever sleep he could.
“There’s nothing in the league that’s going to affect me too much,” Feliciano says. “If I give up a sack, ‘F--k it, move on.’ It could be worse.”
He’s appreciative for everything. Who knows if Feliciano’s even in the NFL without this upbringing? To this day, he drives through his old trailer park to jog memories. Because they weren’t all bad. As a kid, he’d play freeze tag in the parking lot and “manhunt.” He’s still close with many of those friends. Through the turmoil in high school, he needed to be a ‘Cane.
Once he accomplished this goal, however, he was thoroughly demolished by future NFL pass rusher Oliver Vernon and the upperclassmen in practice. Feliciano realized he needed to “readjust” his goals. He was wearing the iconic orange and forest green, but now what? Feliciano didn’t even know if he was even good enough to play here. It’d get so ugly he wanted to quit. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland — now an Eagles mastermind, as we covered— is the one who helped talk him out of it. “Stout” explained how all young linemen endure growing pains. He worked harder. He started his second game the next year. He’d be drafted by the Raiders in the fourth round of the 2015 draft.
One year later, more adversity. In February 2016, his best friend was in a grisly car accident back home. Feliciano even set up a GoFundMe to help play for medical bills that same day. In the post, he notes that Sean broke his neck in two places, was lucky to be alive and that he was 2.8 mm away from being paralyzed from the neck down, “or even worse dead.”
Unfortunately, Sean didn’t make it. he passed away due to complications at age 22.
Feliciano has been candid on his own personal struggle those precious weeks and months that followed. It was right around then that suicidal thoughts crept into his mind. When he was at a friend’s house three stories high, Feliciano couldn’t shake the thought of jumping out of a window to end it all. He had money. He reached the NFL. Why am I not happy? he wondered. Building a family of his own helped give Feliciano a new purpose in life.
One year after Sean’s death, he and his wife had a daughter and named her “Shawn.”
Looking back, the hardest times were the “family issues” with his mother and his older brother. In the past, Jon has said his older brother was physical with him. Mom? He doesn’t speak much to her today. He’s doing better with his older brother. Jon actually saw him recently and the two shared a hug. Overall, Jon is still conditioned to keep people at a distance.
“I like to read a lot of books about the mind and philosophy and stuff like that. So, I understand he was probably dealing with his own battles. My older brother lived in New York for most of the time with my Dad and me and my young brother lived with my mother. So, he probably definitely had some mommy issues of feeling abandoned.”
Today, Feliciano draws daily happiness from his own family. His daughter is 5, his son is 2. Both have birthdays coming up this May. The day before this conversation, his son peeked into his bedroom and leaped into bed to watch TV. It made his day.
“My kids’ smile,” Feliciano says, “and their happiness is what keeps me going.”
His son’s into the show “Sharkdog” on Netflix. Not the worst show, though he’s been trying to get him on Mickey Mouse. His daughter enjoys the YouTube show “Ryan’s World” that has since migrated over to Amazon Prime. Which he cannot stand. “They have a great imagination I guess,” he adds, “but it's just hard to watch.” Like all Dads in 2023, he enjoys “Bluey” and gets the songs stuck in his head all day.
He hopes to be back with the Giants and he’s been giving his friend Cole Beasley hell for choosing Buffalo instead of New York in the middle of the 2022 season. Maybe Beasley will even join him in 2023. Schoen made a point to say this week in Indianapolis that the front office has made a concerted effort to fix the offensive line. Last year, they had five healthy linemen at this point. This year, they have 14 under contract. He did say there would competition at both center and left guard.
However this shakes out, Jon Feliciano is in great spirits. His primary objective on the field is straightforward.
“Man, I want to win a Super Bowl,” he says. “That's the ultimate one. I don’t really care about the other accolades. I’ll take 'em, but that’s not really what really gets me up. I'll take a Pro Bowl, I'll take All Pro, all that. But I really just want to win a Super Bowl.”
Nobody on this planet was using Giants and Super Bowl in the same sentence one year ago.
It doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.