On some level, Jon Feliciano understood where he was going. He’d agreed to terms with the Giants after being cut by the Bills, joining a slew of Buffalo imports who had flocked to New Jersey, including general manager Joe Schoen, head coach Brian Daboll and offensive line coach Bobby Johnson. And he was excited to be coming to a team for which he could play center on the offensive line, a position he always felt suited him the best.
But it wasn’t until his flight landed at LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday and a car picked up Feliciano and his dad to drive them through New York City to the Giants’ facility in East Rutherford that it really dawned on him.
The tall buildings. The fast pace. The noise, the energy, the vibe.
"I was surprised at how emotional I was getting," the 6-4, 325-pound Feliciano told Newsday of that experience. "Things had been moving so fast the last week and I was anxious from being cut and trying to find a place to go, and things didn’t really click until I was in that car.
"Everything hit me and I was like ‘Damn, I’m home.’ "
Feliciano, 30, spent the first few years of his life on Long Island living in Hewlett. His parents divorced when he was only 3 and he moved to South Florida to live with his mother, Alicia, but his father, Rafael, remained here along with lots of other members of his two large extended families.
Feliciano went all the way through school in Florida, but whenever there were breaks from that in the spring, the summer or around the holidays, he would come back to New York.
"My dad was living in Inwood at the time, so I was staying there or I would go see my grandparents in Hewlett," he said. "I spent a lot of time around there."
He vividly remembers cutting through a neighbor's place with his younger brother, Christopher, to make their way to Lawrence Primary School No. 2.
"We would end up there playing basketball and handball for hours," he said.
Life wasn’t always as carefree and simple for Feliciano. He was born with a foot deformity that required braces for his first two years of life, and doctors were fairly certain he would never be able to run or play sports. His mother fought through two bouts of cancer while he was still living under her care. For a time during high school, he was homeless, relying on different friends with an open couch to take him in each night.
His father would always ask him to come back to Long Island, Feliciano said, but he was "obsessed" with the idea of playing college football for the University of Miami. He wasn’t a big-time recruit and had to practically ambush a Miami coach to hand-deliver game film in order to even land on their radar, but in his heart, Feliciano said he knew he would have a much better chance of playing for the Hurricanes if he was in nearby Davie, Florida, and not all the way up in New York.
He did play at Miami — and even graduated with a degree in human resources management — which made him seem like a Floridian through and through.
New York, though, was always a big part of him. Sometimes it even bubbles up to the surface.
It did when he played for Miami offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, a Staten Island native who eventually recruited him to the Hurricanes. And it did when he was drafted by the Raiders and his first NFL position coach was Mike Tice from Central Islip.
"I’m always around New Yorkers," he said. "It’s good. We get each other."
He certainly felt like a New Yorker when the 2019 season started. It was his first year with the Bills, so technically he was in the state, but the first two games of that season were on the road against the Giants and Jets.
"That was a dream come true," he said of those back-to-back games (and wins). "What a way to start the season. That might have been the easiest camp I ever went through just because I was so excited to get to those two games. It was my first time playing there . . . I definitely get the feels when I play in MetLife."
He’ll get that a lot more often now.
Just as he did this past week on the drive from LaGuardia.
That car ride brought it all flooding back to him — a brief journey from Queens to Jersey that seemed to parallel the much longer one from his early childhood to that moment, from the braces on his feet, the basketball courts in Inwood and the family struggles of his adolescence all the way to the NFL for seven seasons and now, finally, with his true hometown team.
He thought about his family that still lives on Long Island, his aunts and uncles and cousins who were always mildly interested in football and his career but now are very excited to have him playing for the Giants. He thought about his Uncle Danny in Arizona, the lifelong Giants fan who would show up to his University of Miami games decked out in the blue of his favorite NFL team.
"He’s stoked," Feliciano said. "Everyone else in my family is like ‘We’re all Giants fans now!’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah. Welcome. Been here for years.’ "
And he thought about the man sitting next to him in the back seat of the car. The father who always hoped his son would come back home to New York finally had gotten his wish (even though he now lives in Florida himself).
"When I was growing up, I would wake up and my dad would already be at work," Feliciano said. "He was an MTA bus driver in the city. He used to be the guy driving people around the city. And now he’s being chauffeured through the city by the New York Giants.
"That," he said, "was meaningful."
The vantage point had changed, but Feliciano was relieved to know it all still felt like home.