Less than four months into 2021, Jon Feliciano already has 17 million reasons why it paid to never give up on 2020.
If any athlete had an excuse to shut it down last year, the Buffalo Bills right guard could easily raise his hand — but Feliciano could barely lift either of his arms last year due to a pair of debilitating injuries.
The anchor of the Bills offensive line began 2020 by undergoing underwent left rotator cuff surgery in January. With his rehab going well and his strength increasing by the week — the 6’4’’, 340-pounder was even 20 pounds lighter entering camp — all signs were pointing to having the best season of his six-year career.
Heading into camp in the best shape of his career, his worst-case scenario became a reality last August — Feliciano suffered an excruciating Grade 3 tear of his right pec during a freak bench-pressing accident. His early thoughts were that the injury was a season-ender.
“I’ve had lots of bumps and bruises with football, but nothing ever made me throw up from the pain,” Feliciano recalled. “I was telling my spotter not to touch the bar, and as I was pushing, I felt the ligament in my pec snap. It felt like slow motion, even though it happened fast.”
Two days later, Feliciano underwent surgery and was placed on Injured Reserve in September. It also meant nearly two months away from weight training.
Winning, however, is a great motivator, and with the Bills becoming the surprise team early in the NFL season, winning five of their first seven games while Feliciano was struggling to pick up a 10-pound weight during rehab. The team’s fast start — and the increasing probability of making the playoffs helped Feliciano focus even harder to get back on the field. Not fully recovered but strong enough to contribute, Feliciano made his way back to the lineup ahead of schedule in Week 8 against the Patriots.
“It definitely helped when the team started off hot,” Feliciano says. It’s like, ‘Thank God the team is winning.’ I’m here doing my work to get back on the field and they’re handling their business right now. There’s a potential for me to be in a lot more games than I originally thought.”
With Feliciano back in the lineup, the Bills won eight of their last nine regular-season games, making it to the championship game before being defeated by the Kansas City Chiefs, 38-24.
Because of his working his way into the lineup, Feliciano was awarded the team’s Ed Block Courage Award. And this past March, Feliciano re-signed with the Bills for three years, $17 million. Now totally healthy he says, his off-season goal is to strengthen his upper body back to pre-injury levels. Feliciano says this requires an off-season regimen of high reps on the bench press in order to regain his range of motion. His workouts have also included plenty of offensive line work, including lots of ladder drills for developing foot work, along with a heavy dose of heavy bag pounding.
“I still feel like I have a lot to prove,” Feliciano says. “I didn’t feel healthy at all till now. I’m still. Like until the till now I’m still doing rehab for my circumstance, you know, getting that right. Uh, so I have a lot to prove. I want to prove what kind of player I am when I’m, when I’m healthy.
In addition to explaining the mindset it took to get back on the field last year, Feliciano shares in this installment of Muscle and Fitness’ Winning Strategy series his principles that have led to his successful NFL career, an AFC East title, a new contract, and what’s in store for him after life in the NFL.
1. STOP DWELLING, START WORKING (AGAIN)
I was already rehabbing my left rotator cuff, which I had surgery on in January 2020. Because of COVID-19, all the gyms were closed, I spent a ton of money on building a great home gym in my garage. I switched my diet up, went from 340 down to 317 for camp. I felt lean and strong. Then I tear my pec. After all this, from working into the best shape of my career to having a season potentially taken away from me — and in a contract year — I cried for a moment.
The injury happened on a Wednesday, but by Friday I was already having surgery. They originally told me it about 16 weeks to recover — that would have been Week 12 — so knowing I would be able to get back on the field last season was great motivation.
It took about six weeks before I was able to pick up a dumbbell. We started with a 10 pounds on my bad pec, and 90 with the other. That went on for about two weeks. About eight weeks then I started doing like six, 50 pounds, 60 pounds. But honestly, I didn’t feel very strong the whole season.
2. WORK YOUR BRAIN AS WELL AS YOUR BRAWN
As a right guard, the offense relies on me to do a lot of things. We get the play from [Bills quarterback] Josh [Allen]. We break the huddle, and as I’m walking up to the line, I’m trying to help our center by trying to diagnose what the defense is trying to do. If it’s a run play I’m letting them know who we got, sometimes I’m making the calls in pass protection as to who the running back has.
My calls set the whole deck for the entire offense, so my job is as much mental as it is strength and agility. During the offseason and during rehab, my trainers have me try to keep my brain sharp by going through a host of drills. While I’m doing an exercise, they’ll throw out certain words or phrases that I’ll have to remember and repeat during the workout. There are also a lot of times I’m going over plays while rehabbing. I’ve done it so much for so long it’s now become second nature for me.
3. NEVER JUDGE THE BOOK BY ITS COVER
I’m 6’4” and weigh over 300 pounds. As an offensive lineman, people think we’re just fat and don’t have any athleticism. We have to be athletic, because we’re going up against the best athletes on the field — guys who are 6’6’’, 290, even 315 pounds who can run a 4.4. We have to block them on every play.
Put it this way: If you’re on defense and you get a sack every game, that’s a pretty good year. If you give up 16 sacks, you’re out of the league very soon.
Guys don’t think I can move the way I can. I’m really good at basketball — I was a basketball player first in high school — and I think that helps my athletic ability a lot. At Bills camp, we do a lot of obstacle course moves, and guys are really shocked at the way I move. We even have dodge ball games, and I can dodge the hell out of dodge ball.
4. KEEP MOVING YOUR ‘GOAL’ LINE
Right now I’m doing a lot of boxing/MMA work to help my punch in football. It’s basically the same thing — I’m “punching” a dude on every play. But being UFC heavyweight champion of the world sounds like a great time.
I started hitting the heavy bag during the last year for conditioning on an upper-body day. It’s usually five three-minute rounds — it’s the hardest conditioning I’ve been doing. After that I’m dying.
The heavyweight division in the UFC only goes up to 265 pounds. Right now, I’m walking around at around 330. For one thing, getting my weight under control will set me up for a healthier life after football. But I’m super competitive, and I fell in love with MMA. My good friend [UFC welterweight] Miguel Baeza keeps inviting me to come train with him, I just haven’t gotten off of my feet yet to do it.
5. THERE’S VALUE IN BEING VALUABLE
Being versatile not only makes you a better athlete, it makes you more valuable for a team. For the first four years of my career, I was the backup swing guy in Oakland. I had to play all three inside positions in case someone went down. So when I transitioned to Buffalo, it was just second nature for me to do it. And honestly, it’s the same routine, you’re just flipping your hips to the other side. In football, just learn to keep your flexibility — I do a lot of yoga to keep my body loose — and just practice everything on both sides. It will help.