Former Michigan kicker Jay Feely offers those struggling amid pandemic a leg to stand on

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Jay Feely is not one to sit idle.

The former Michigan kicker and 14-year NFL veteran, who less than two months ago led the Gilbert Christian girls’ soccer team to the 3A state title in Arizona, has managed to juggle coaching with his work as a CBS Sports analyst for NFL and college football games, while also helping raise four kids and getting in some golf to polish his near-scratch game.

Former Michigan and NFL kicker Jay Feely, here as an NFL sideline reporter for CBS, has passed on the importance of community service to his four children.

During this COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down non-essential services, Feely, at home with his family, wanted to do something for the Phoenix community, its hospital workers and first responders in the police and fire department and emergency services.

He and his son, Jace, a junior in high school, began a GoFundMe titled “Food Fighters” to raise funds to buy food from struggling restaurants that have been hit hard. Feely and Jace then make deliveries to front-line workers.

“The response from so many people in the hospitals has been amazing,” Feely told The Detroit News. “A doctor pulled me aside (last) Sunday night when I brought in meals for the whole ER staff and said, ‘It uplifted everybody’s spirits, our whole department,’ and you’re just thinking, I didn’t do anything, I’m just bringing you a meal.

“Just to know in any way you can give them a little bit joy, a little bit of happiness in the midst of all their trials and tribulations while at the same time helping a business — we bought 300 meals on Sunday from a restaurant that just opened in December. They were just getting started, and then this comes and just crushes them. My son even mentioned going to the restaurant and seeing how grateful they were just to have the business. The realization that, wow, this is financially crippling to a lot of businesses around the country, really, around the world. To see the gratefulness from the hospital workers, it really brings home everything that’s going on.”

Former Michigan kicker Jay Feely helps with the delivery of meals, which are bought from Phoenix-area restaurants and taken to front-line workers such as hospital personnel and first responders.

Feely and his oldest daughter, Lexi, delivered meals to two fire departments last Wednesday.

“We’re trying to do it smart and be safe and wear masks and gloves,” he said. “We pick up the food outside the restaurant and drop it off outside the hospital and don’t go in. I knew if I created a GoFundMe, I could get people to donate. That’s what we’re all called to do. I don’t have talent when it comes to the medical field, and I can’t sing or play an instrument, but I can do that.”

When Feely was in high school at Tampa Jesuit, he was active in community service. He and his wife have always found ways to be charitable and have exposed their four children to helping those less fortunate. The youngest daughters are in eighth and sixth grades.

“We’ve always wanted to help them engage in their community,” Feely said.

The family went to Africa on a mission trip, and they have joined Feely on a few of his eight trips to Haiti, where they’ve helped families and communities rebuild homes, schools and hospitals since the earthquake. While in Haiti, Feely was assisted for two years by a young translator, Wedner Delmonte.

“He never told us his home had gotten demolished in the earthquake, but he was coming and working with us when we were rebuilding homes for other people and not saying, ‘Oh, by the way, my home got demolished and I don’t have a house and I’m sleeping on roofs and outside,’” Feely said. “He’s an amazing soccer player and just this vibrant personality and kinda fell in love with him. Just a great kid.”

Jay Feely played at Michigan from 1995 to 1998,  including as a member of the 1997 National Championship team.

The group helped build a home for Delmonte and his family, but Feely did more. Delmonte wanted to attend college and after several years of Feely dealing with red-tape and convincing the Haitian government he was coming to the U.S. to study, they made it happen.

Feely went to Haiti to pick up Delmonte, who then moved in with the Feelys and attended Grand Canyon University. Feely found out what he would typically make for his family as the lone breadwinner — $200 a month — and sent that amount monthly to Haiti so the family could survive. Delmonte graduated with a 3.50-grade point average, has a job and is working on his MBA.

“My kids got to see that, see him live here,” Feely said. “If he had rice once a day for his meal in Haiti, that was a good day. Anytime they’d complain about anything, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, go talk to Delmonte.’ Delmonte set them straight when they’d be whining about what my wife would make for dinner.”

That Feely is now coaching doesn’t come as a surprise. His grandfather, Thomas Feely, coached basketball and baseball at St. Thomas College in Minnesota for nearly four decades. And his father, Thomas, better known as “T.J.”, coached tennis and owns the Feely Kicking School in Tampa.

Feely, who played at Michigan from 1995 to 1998 and was on the national championship team in 1997, decided to re-start the Gilbert Christian team in 2015 when his oldest child, Lexi, was a freshman and wanted to play soccer.

There were times that season he couldn’t field an entire team for game days. Five years later, the team went 18-1, including a 16-game winning streak that included the championship. He was named the Arizona Republic Coach of the Year.

Former Michigan kicker Jay Feely helped coach Gilbert Christian to the 3A state championship.

“I coach like a football coach in a lot of ways, which is a lot different,” Feely said, laughing. “My mentality is kinda like Bill Belichick where I’m going to take away what you do best, which a lot of soccer coaches don’t do. They have their philosophy and they coach their philosophy and their style, and they’re not going to change based on the opponent they play. Whereas me, if you have one great forward, I’m going to take the forward away. I’ll put two girls on her and just take her out of the game and we’ll play 9 on 10 the rest of the field. I did that a lot throughout the playoffs.”

He appreciates how emotionally engaged the players are and from his years of playing soccer and football, Feely knows that while the outcome of a game is important, it isn’t all he wants them to take from his coaching.

Before the championship game in February, instead of giving a speech, he read a letter he had received from one of his players on that first team five years ago. Feely said he got choked up while sharing that she wanted the current players to know that her favorite time in high school was playing on the soccer team and building those relationships.

“I want them to be the best they can be and I want us to compete and I want us to try and win, but at the end of the day, I want them 10 years from now to look back at high school and one of their favorites, if not their favorite thing, was their time with our team,” Feely said. “I think I’m most proud of — and it has nothing to do with winning — that in five years we’ve had no drama and our girls love each other and they support each other, and they’re great friends, and when we’re done playing, that bond is tight and they come back and support the next group of players.

“That to me is more important than anything I do as a coach, fostering that atmosphere. And I demand a lot of them, and I want them to give me everything they have, but I also want them to know that the most important thing is not the end result, it’s how we do it, and how we treat people and how we compete, and that’s been awesome.”

Twitter: @chengelis