HO-HO-KUS – Now, when Jeff Feagles describes his first adult experience as a fan at an NFL game, he can smile and laugh. But on that early autumn evening inside a brand new Meadowlands Stadium, the strains of the national anthem sent him into a tailspin for which he was not prepared.
The reality of life without football hit him with the emotional equivalent of a punch to the gut. Sitting in the stands for the 2010 season opener, head hidden inside the hood of a sweatshirt, the 22-year veteran punter felt as if he’d been blind-sided by a linebacker.
“That was a mistake,” Feagles said. “Just realizing it was over for me. I fell apart. I remember telling myself, ‘from now on, I’m staying in the parking lot until the intros are over.’ As the season went on, it got better.”
Feagles was overcome despite leaving the game on his own terms, which only underscores how difficult it can be for professional athletes to become ordinary citizens once again. For Feagles, smoothing out the transition has meant finding a new career, something he’s done with a Bergen County-based business venture that combines his community roots and athletic knowledge.
As a partner in F.O.R.C.E, a performance and training center located in Ho-Ho-Kus, Feagles has found an outlet for his next professional life. And if it has taught him anything, it is how important it is to be prepared for the inevitability of this step. The intersection of greed and stubbornness otherwise known as the NFL lockout is likely going to force the transition on to plenty of unsuspecting or unprepared players. The subset of players who lose their jobs due to lack of opportunity or lack of activity can easily get lost on their way into the real world.
“That’s where people run into problems,” Feagles said. “You lose your identity in a sense. You’re used to having guys do things for you and you wake up one morning and no one’s there. You have to do it for yourself. The hardest thing for me was not having a schedule or structure, getting out of that routine where you know every day where you’re supposed to be.
“I would encourage all of the players in the NFL in the off-season to think about something on the side. That will help the transition when they’re done playing. I was able to do it relatively easily because I was able to have experiences before I retired.”
In his seven-season tenure with the Giants, the last of his stints with five different teams, Feagles traded one dreaded identity (longest-tenured active player without a Super Bowl appearance) for another (2008 Super Bowl champ). He also found a new home, trading in his Arizona roots for a permanent home in Ridgewood.
Feagles actually staved off retirement at least once prior to hanging up his cleats for good following the 2009 season, when Giants coach Tom Coughlin allowed him to commute from Arizona in 2008. But the family – Feagles’ wife, Michelle, and their four sons, C.J., Blake, Trevor and Zach – realized they missed their friends in Ridgewood. They returned, buying a house on the same block they’d lived before, and restarted their lives.
Now, Feagles is into his next career, keeping busy as a full-time fan for the various football and lacrosse exploits of his sons. C.J. is heading into his junior year at North Carolina, where he is a punter for the Tar Heels. Blake will be a senior at Ridgewood High, followed by Trevor, who will be a freshman, and Zach, heading into seventh grade. Dad is also busy at F.O.R.C.E.
“He is a fantastic asset,” said Frank Giannantonio, the gym’s founder and director of strength and conditioning. Giannantonio, an experienced athletic trainer with a master’s degree in sports medicine and exercise science, oversees the training programs, which can be tailored to any level of athlete. From pre-teens to adults, from individuals to teams, the staff at F.O.R.C.E. aims to adapt to specific needs.
“Nothing is generic,” Giannantonio said. “We evaluate everything before we begin, find out where people are physically.”
“It’s set up like the Giants, like a professional team,” Feagles said. “We have two platforms, speed and agility, and are very individualized and age specific. We work with a lot of youth sports and in the community.”
That is a part of the job Feagles both enjoys and excels at. He made so many local contacts through his own and his kids’ athletic exploits, and now he’s able to return the favor by passing on his knowledge. In 22 years in the hit-or-be-hit NFL world, Feagles never missed a game.
“I can share what I’ve done, what I learned to be able to stay on the field and help others try to incorporate that into their training,” he said.
Indeed, Feagles is busier than ever, his transition into retirement not simply moving him into his next chapter of life, but serving as an example for players in all walks of professional sports to follow.