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SEFFNER — Forget pedestals. In these parts, the Feely name is placed on a tee. For two decades, a quartet of Feely boys cut a soccer-style swath through Jesuit High lore, measuring its pride in touchbacks instead of touchdowns.
The oldest, Jay, has set various records for five NFL franchises and still kicks for the Cardinals. John dabbled in kicking, but helped guide Jesuit’s soccer team to a couple of state titles. Ryan was a two-time All-American at Jacksonville University. Tyler currently kicks for Columbia.
In one sense, that esteemed heritage does Nick — the youngest — injustice. Presumptions accompany his name. Based on his bloodlines, some assume he’s a lock from 40 yards in. To know the Nick Feely story is to know such a typecast is unfair.
His older siblings, now those guys were automatic. Nick has to settle for another adjective.
“I’m talking to you now and getting chill bumps,” said former Jesuit JV coach Ray Cibischino, who was there to try to comfort Nick on the worst afternoon of his life. “I’m very proud of him, I’m very happy for him.”
Of the five living Feely boys (another is deceased), none have endured a more excruciating journey to varsity stardom than Nicholas David, Armwood’s 16-year-old junior kicker/punter. Part of that journey, in fact, was via wheelchair.
Two autumns ago, Nick was vying for a starting safety job on Jesuit’s JV team. Through national evaluation camps, he had established himself as one of the country’s top ninth-grade kickers, but he wanted to be on the field even more.
On Sept. 2, 2009, he was going one-on-one with a bigger kid in a tackling drill when he felt his left leg give way beneath him.
“I tried staying up on my right foot only,” Nick recalled, “but then after I was on the ground I looked down and it was twisted 90 degrees to the left.”
According to his dad, Nick broke his left tibia and fibula, his ankle, every bone in his foot and his big toe. For all intents, his plant foot had been destroyed. Cibischino said “you could’ve turned that foot on a swivel.”
“We heard just a complete shattering,” Cibischino said. “It was a crunch, if you will, of a whole bunch of odds and ends. He went down and turned pale white.”
Ensuing surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital took roughly 15 hours. According to Tom Feely, Dr. Anthony Infante of the Florida Orthopaedic Institute inserted a couple of large plates to hold his son’s bones in place, as well as 18 or so screws.
The next several months, Nick was virtually immobilized. He was named the Tiger JV’s honorary captain for its showdown with Tampa Catholic, but had to be pushed in a wheelchair to midfield for the coin toss. Pain was a perpetual companion, mainly because Nick abhorred his meds.
“Nick was tough as hell,” Tom Feely said.
But if resilience was an ally, reality was a nuisance. Unless he could kick off crutches, Nick’s chances of ever slipping on pads again seemed remote. Here he was, a kicker, and the only boot in his life was a noun. A full year passed without Nick applying his foot to a ball.
Initially, his rehab commenced on a golf course. Tom would hit a ball, Nick would walk to its landing spot, or as far as he could. When walking became easy, they graduated to tennis, with Tom hitting a little farther each day, making Nick lunge and stretch a bit more.
“Then we graduated to volleyball,” Tom said.
“So we spent about two weeks playing nothing but volleyball. We spent the whole summer doing nothing but sports. By the end of the summer, he got the muscle back in the leg and the pain started going away. It was a miracle.”
By the first day of Armwood’s practice this past August, Nick was healthy enough to kick a couple of 50-yard field goals. In a healthier economy, he may have been Jesuit’s fifth Feely kicker, but the recession — his parents are public school teachers — forced a move.
Instead, he stands at the precipice of the state championship game. Despite two long missed field goals last week, when the flu left him nearly dehydrated, Nick is 4-for-7 on field goals, with three of 45 yards or more. His 36 touchbacks are among the most in Florida.
He also averages a shade below 40 yards a punt. “Nick has got great form and he has great skill in a sport he’s passionate about,” said Tom, who still runs a local kicking school. “And he’s got good size. He’s going to be bigger than anybody (in the family).”
With a mettle to match his frame.
That’s an automatic.