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Benefield: Tomales grad Anthony Feliciano sees football career stuck in red tape

Anthony Feliciano was supposed to be playing football. It’s fall, after all.

But Feliciano, 21, is at his parents’ Santa Rosa home, taking online classes toward his history degree and wondering what went wrong.

“I do feel like I was penalized,” he said. “All I was trying to do was continue my education and finish my degree a little sooner.”

In simple terms, Feliciano fell afoul of NCAA eligibility requirements, rendering him ineligible for the current football season. But how exactly that happened is far from simple.

In short, Feliciano’s enrollment at four schools in four years triggered the so-called 4-2-4-4 rule, a transfer regulation requiring athletes to sit out a year after too many program moves.

But here is the thing, Feliciano is not a shopper. He’s a student. And a good one. He is a guy who got snagged in rule and was made to pay a pretty steep price.

“He’s getting penalized for going to school,” said Feliciano’s dad, Leon, the award-winning football coach who headed the Tomales High program for years before retiring in 2014. “He’s not taking drugs, he’s not taking payouts.”

It happened like this: Feliciano graduated from Tomales in 2014. In the fall, he headed to Atchison, Kansas, where he redshirted his freshman season at NAIA school Benedictine College.

But tuition went up and his financial aid package didn’t, so he headed back to California and enrolled at Butte College in Oroville. He spent the next two years at the community college playing tight end for the Roadrunners, a team that made it to the NorCal Championship game last season.

But central to this tale is not that Feliciano is a standout athlete. Central to this tale is that Feliciano is a standout student-athlete.

In his freshman year at Benedictine, Feliciano earned a 3.0 grade point average. In two years at Butte, his GPA was 3.8 and he was on the honor roll. He earned his AA degree after the 2016 spring semester, just before his second season with the Roadrunners.

When Feliciano didn’t get a lot of interest from football programs after his sophomore season at Butte, he decided to keep his ears open but to also push on with his degree in history with the hope of someday becoming a teacher and a coach. He applied, and was accepted, at Sonoma State, Chico State and Cal Poly.

He chose Chico, a campus 15 miles down the road from his place in Oroville but a school that hasn’t had a football program since 1996. He took 15 units, including upper division classes toward his degree, and earned a 3.2 GPA. Football was on his mind, but not at the forefront.

“I thought, if a school calls, I’ll go and if not, I’m already getting my degree and I’m on my way,” he said.

And remember, Chico State doesn’t have football. Feliciano is not shopping for programs, he’s working toward his diploma.

But then a call did come. It was from Humboldt State. Turned out the Lumberjacks were short on tight ends. Would Feliciano be interested in coming aboard in the fall as a preferred walk-on?

Indeed.

Feliciano said this call came in late February or early March. In other words, too late for a scholarship and too late for the typical application process. At this late date his transcripts — with grades and classes from all three schools he’d attended — needed to be shepherded through the admissions office by school officials who would help him navigate the late-admit process.

“This was the first time I was contacted by the compliance officer — we emailed a couple of times talking about what I needed,” he said. “This was March or April.”

The compliance officer was associate athletic director Tom Trebiak. Feliciano was also in fairly regular contact with position coach Austen Jacobs who talked him through what needed to be done.

He said he emailed his transcripts, including a “classes in progress” document from Chico to Jacobs. He made an official visit. He and his family were put up in a hotel. He decided to play for the Lumberjacks.

He was accepted in April after which communication largely went from academic to football.

“From then on it was just contact with the position coach, getting an apartment up there with other players,” he said. “I went to a spring practice in April and everything was fine.”

Everything was not fine, but Feliciano didn’t know that until Aug. 2 — on the eve of the season.

But the first signal that something was amiss was when Jacobs left the school with nary a word to Feliciano.

“He literally called me one day and gave me the run down of how camp was going to go. Literally the next day or next Monday I got a call from another coach that (Jacobs) got a job offer and that he was going to be the contact,” Feliciano said.

Then, as he was packing his bags — he’d already moved some furniture into his apartment in Arcata — and the phone rang. It was head coach Rob Smith.

“Coach calls me,” he said. “He tells me, ‘You are not eligible for this season because of 4-2-4-4.’”

Feliciano had no idea what the 4-2-4-4 rule was. He does now.

“From my understanding, it’s there to deter kids from changing schools too much, and, you know, shopping,” he said. “Like going to spring ball at one school and transferring without telling anyone.”

Feliciano’s four schools in four years were red-flagged as program shopping. He was required to sit for a year.

Never mind that Chico State doesn’t even have a football team or that Feliciano was a full-time, honor roll student, not a kid shopping programs or seeking a competitive advantage. And never mind that he redshirted his freshman year at Benedictine and didn’t even compete. He’d only ever suited up for Butte. A rule is a rule.

When I reached Smith, he said that during the recruiting process, such as it was, he was unaware that Feliciano was ever a student at Chico. Trepiak said the same.

The normal course of action, Trepiak said, is for the position coach to come to him with a recruit, and the recruit’s transcripts, and get the all-clear.

That didn’t happen.

“It would have been caught immediately,” Trepiak said of Feliciano’s multiple school situation.

“The fact that I didn’t get transcripts ever, that is an issue,” he said. “Who is responsible for that, I don’t really want to point any fingers.”

So Feliciano is at a new school and without a squad and the Lumberjacks are short one tight end.

“It’s frustrating for the player, it’s frustrating for the parents, it’s frustrating for us,” Smith said. “We were excited to have him.”

By all accounts, Feliciano would have had a decent shot at an appeal with the NCAA had the flag been raised earlier.

“All it takes is five minutes and they waited five months,” Feliciano said. “We told them during my visit that I went to Chico State and Benedictine. He knew, the position coach knew. I know the position coach had to turn in those transcripts for me to visit.”

“He may not have looked at them, but he had them,” he said.

As practices began without him, Trepiak helped the family begin the appeal process.

Feliciano could have worked out with the team, something like a redshirt, while an appeal ran its course, but after a few meetings, he decided against doing that. The message he said he received from the coaching staff was that they were moving on at the tight end position without him — they had to.

Trepiak told me that if he could do anything differently in the whole situation, it would be to have encouraged Feliciano to stay the course.

“I would have strongly encouraged Anthony to get his gear and start practice as the waiver process went through,” he said.

Another football player with a similar appeal worked out through the process and is now playing, Trepiak said.

“I had (Feliciano) on the roster up to the very first game,” Trepiak said.

But Feliciano said he felt behind from the start. As a walk-on, he already had his work cut out for him. As a walk-on who missed some preseason meetings, and some practice, he felt his fate was sealed.

When Feliciano didn’t respond to NCAA follow up questions, Trepiak understood the appeal was dead and he deleted him from the roster.

The people I talked to about compliance and NCAA rules said that Division II programs typically have one person to handle not only admissions issues, but compliance for every incoming student-athlete and current athlete. It’s a lot. Trepiak has 388 rostered student athletes to monitor.

So there was understanding, if not empathy for all sides in this tale, for a non-rostered walk-on falling through the cracks.

But understanding the workload and the byzantine rules doesn’t stop your heart from breaking a little for Feliciano, a guy seemingly penalized for pursuing his degree.

Had he been told about the problem a month before camp started, instead of days, he might have felt like he could salvage the season. But as it was, he figured he was behind the eight-ball for proving he should be on the team when playing essentially as a red shirt.

“The timing was everything,” he said.

There is an avenue for proving Feliciano didn’t gain anything from his semester at Chico and should therefore be granted two more years of eligibility. But Feliciano has run out of gas. There will be no appeal. He’s moving on.

He switched his course load to online classes and found someone to take over his lease at the apartment with the other football players. He’s taking his upper division anthropology and communications classes, as well as geography and Native American studies, from his parents’ house in Santa Rosa.

It’s not where he thought he’d be, but he is able to find a silver lining. He’s started coaching at his alma mater.

“I’m already helping out at Tomales,” he said. “That is what I want to do. I thought, why not start now?”

Coaching and being out on the field every day probably takes the sting out of the whole ordeal. But not entirely.

“I started football in fourth grade. It still hasn’t really hit me,” he said. “I kind of felt it this Saturday, seeing all the guys from my Butte team playing and I’m thinking, I coulda been, or I shoulda been, on some team somewhere.”