Jon Feliciano's remarkable journey to the Silver and Black

ByAndrea Canales ESPN logo
Friday, October 13, 2017

To read this story in Spanish, go here to

Jon Feliciano spent nights in a condemned mobile home. No heat, no running water, no electricity.

Now he's playing professionally as an adaptable lineman for the Oakland Raiders. His inspirational tale includes a supporting cast and support system to match or beat any sports movie.

Jon, now 25, is the lead, obviously.

His mom, Alicia, is a two-time cancer survivor.

His younger brother Chris is deaf -- and Jon's inspiration.

A daughter, Shawn Cole Feliciano, born in May to Jon and his wife Shannon, has added to Feliciano's family, which is of Puerto Rican and Sicilian ancestry.

Family doesn't stop there. Family isn't just people related by blood. Feliciano, a third-year player, wants his daughter and others to understand about the bond created when someone has another person's back whenever it's needed. To know a joke and a smile helps someone who is hurting.

He wants Shawn Cole Felciano, his daughter, to know about Sean Cole, his dear friend.

'The New Kid'

Feliciano also hopes his story, in its entirety, may help a child in a situation like the one he once found himself.

A gangly Feliciano, who had yet to fully grow into the 6-foot-4, 325-pound player he is today, moved to Davie, Florida, when he was 10, not long after his parents divorced. He played basketball, not football -- except for video games of the sport.

"He was the new kid," recalled childhood friend Josh Palmer, who, like Sean Cole and Feliciano, lived in the King's Manor Trailer Park in Davie.

Cole met Feliciano when he shared his Nintendo Gameboy with Feliciano. Along with Palmer, they formed a buddy trio, playing outdoors on the hardcourt and inside with their video games. Feliciano was already big for his age but kept growing when Cole and Palmer dubbed him "Mongo," short for "humongous," never dreaming the nickname would stick all the way to the NFL.

"When he was young, he was super-clumsy," Palmer said, but recalled Feliciano's friendliness as unchanged. "He's such a good guy."

Before his freshman year, Feliciano attended an open tryout for the Western High School football team, though he needed a friend to help him with some basics.

"When I got there, they gave me a helmet and pads," Feliciano said. "I didn't know how to put on the pads."

'He would beat me up'

His wanting to play football wasn't merely to earn popularity. Football players on television, whether professionally or in college, projected a strength, a toughness -- a charisma. Young Feliciano wanted to be stronger, so he wouldn't feel helpless.

Yes, helpless. A young man who would later play on an NFL offensive line would often feel helpless around his brother, Rafael, older than Jon by three years.

"He would beat me up," Feliciano said. "That was one of the reasons I started playing football. I wanted to work out so that I could fight back. He was violent."

Even after years passed with little to no contact with his older brother, it's not easy for Feliciano retell the circumstances.

"I've never been vocal about [it]," he said, explaining that, given his culture and upbringing, he felt an obligation to keep silent.

"I wanted to be the guy to bring my family together and not tell the dark secrets of my family."

He is no longer maintaining a cultural tradition of suppression. He wants others to know they're not alone.

"I feel like now is the time that I can help some kids who might be going through something similar."

Feliciano said he will never forget one night in particular. His brother turned 18 only a few months after Feliciano first struggled to pull on football pads. According to Jon, Feliciano's mother, Alicia, took his brother out to celebrate with friends. Both returned home intoxicated.

"I heard them yelling, screaming, arguing with each other," Feliciano said, remembering how he'd locked himself in his room. "Mom was banging on my door, trying to get me to open it, screaming, 'He hit me.' I opened the door [to let her in] and I blocked the door."

Things escalated, Feliciano recalled, as his mother called her own parents while her oldest son battered the door.

"He eventually broke the door in on me and started trying to hit her again," Feliciano said. "I was between [them], trying to break it up. My mom was yelling. I was crying."

Neighbors called the police, who came and took Feliciano's brother to jail. Police records confirm Rafael Feliciano's arrest for battery on the evening of Oct. 28, 2007.

After a sleepless night spent trying to comfort his distraught mother, Feliciano took comfort in his younger brother Chris' absence (he was in New York, with their father) for the entire ordeal. But Feliciano looks back now with regret at another aspect of the incident.

"I went to school a few days after and they pulled me into the office," Feliciano said.

Police were waiting to see him. According to Feliciano, his mother had coached him on what to say if he was questioned. Family loyalty was ingrained in him.

The moment of truth arrived.

"The cop asked me, 'Do you feel safe with your brother in the house?'" Feliciano described. "I looked at my mom and said, 'Yes.'"

Broward County Court records indicate Feliciano's brother entered a plea of "not guilty" at his arraignment. In April 2008, prosecutors declined to pursue the case. Though Feliciano remembers other incidents when his brother was physically aggressive, none escalated to the point of police involvement.

Feliciano, to this day, considers the what-ifs, in terms of growing up living free from the fear of such volatile outbursts.

"I could have stepped in and said, 'No.' I feel like if I can help a kid in any way, I can tell them, 'Even if you're a child, take a stand. If your parents can't, you can be the one.'"

All the years of hiding the truth took a toll on Feliciano's relationship with his mother. She moved to New York during his junior year of high school, while he stuck it out in Florida, hoping desperately to create a better future through football.

Alicia Feliciano and Rafael Feliciano Jr. did not respond to numerous phone calls and interview requests for this story.

'You can do this'

The hero in Feliciano's story, especially during a difficult period in his last two years of high school, was Cole. Despite his young age at the time, he was a constant source of support for Feliciano in Davie. Cole and his family took in Feliciano many nights when the power to Feliciano's trailer got turned off, leaving him to camp out in his own home. Cole continuously encouraged Feliciano, even when others questioned whether the lineman had what it would take to make it in football.

"We knew [Feliciano] would make it," Palmer said. "We told him, 'You can do this.'"

Hard work paid off when Feliciano accepted a full scholarship to the University of Miami, finally ensuring he'd the security of a place to stay. Along with starring at Miami, Feliciano became the first in his family to graduate college, completing his degree in human resources management. In 2015, he was drafted by Raiders.

Cole cheered his friend's every accomplishment.

"They were brothers," explained Feliciano's wife, Shannon. "I had to get Sean's approval to date Jon."

Cole, Feliciano and Palmer got matching tattoos: "KMO" -- for "King's Manor originals." At Feliciano's wedding, Cole was the best man and toasted the happy couple.

"Without those guys, I wouldn't have made it," Feliciano said, referring to Cole and Palmer's positive influences in difficult surroundings. "I did a good job of staying away from the bad stuff in my life, realizing that it wasn't the norm. My friends helped me to get to that point."

Cole's role in Feliciano's journey took a tragic turn last year. Upon his return to Florida after spending the offseason in California with the Felicianos, Cole crashed his vehicle into a Davie canal in a single-car accident in August.

"It was really late at night, and he possibly fell asleep at the wheel," Palmer explained. "He was headed home and he went into the guard rail."

Underwater for more than 15 minutes, Cole never regained consciousness. Feliciano visited whenever he could, but his friend steadily deteriorated while in a coma. In December, Cole, only 22, died after being taken off life support.

@seancoleworld this was always our song. Now that you're gone I will keep your legacy alive I love you buddy #bornsinner

- Jonathan Feliciano (@MongoFeliciano) April 11, 2017

Now Feliciano is left with memories, a tattoo depicting he and Cole together and a living symbol of their friendship in his daughter, Shawn Cole Feliciano.

Shannon readily agreed to the tribute. "I said, 'Absolutely, of course.'"

She and Jon decided on a slightly different spelling of their friend's first name. "I've always liked the name Shawn for a girl," Shannon said.

Watching his daughter grow is motivating for Feliciano.

"I have this little girl that I have to take care of," Feliciano said. "It definitely gives me more focus."

Feliciano's concentration last season for the Raiders was impressive, given his concern over Cole during most of the time.

"Jon is very quiet, when it comes to his emotions," Shannon explained. "It was really hard."

Shannon and his father, Rafael Sr., who has maintained a relationship with Feliciano through the years even from a distance, provide support.

"I have my wife, Sean -- although he's gone now -- Josh and my dad, and they've helped me," Feliciano said.

'It's like a dream'

The Raiders went 12-3 in 2016, their best record in 14 years, but an injury to quarterback Derek Carr in the final game of the regular season contributed to a quick exit from the playoffs.

For 2017, the Raiders have the attitude of a team on the cusp of greater things. The team has stumbled to a 2-3 start this season, but Feliciano has contributed in every game.

"My first year we were coming around the corner and last season we took our first steps to being relevant," Feliciano said. "The whole organization is really excited for this year."

Whether as a backup or a starter, Feliciano has proven himself to be a reliable member of the Raiders' offensive line, earning praise from line coach Mike Tice.

"Jon is a very smart football player," Tice said. "He has great work ethic not only on the field, but in the classroom as well. He is relentless, very tough and a versatile football player."

The Raiders' offensive line, featuring three players invited to last year's Pro Bowl (Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Donald Penn), works effectively partly because of the flexibility of the multitalented Feliciano. The starters are excellent players, but it is Feliciano who has played at center, guard and tackle when needed.

"Jon has earned the respect of both players and coaches, and he is a very important part of the depth and chemistry of the offensive line," Tice stated.

Feliciano is content to be a quality contributor to the Raiders when called upon, even if it doesn't get much attention. He has come too far to lose sight of where he started.

"When I'm out there, it's like a dream. I look around, like, 'Wow, I'm about to play on this field.'"