Felton's mother, a former Olympic gymnast (he was born in Germany), is now a college science teacher. His birth father works for the government in Washington, D.C., and his stepfather owns his own veterinary practice. His older brother Simon has served 18-month tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is headed back to Iraq later this year. Felton's younger brother Eamon may have the most incredible story -- home-schooled by his mom for several years, Eamon is taking pre-med courses at age 15 and plans to enter medical school within the next two years.
How did this high-achievement family shape his outlook on life? "In my family, whatever you do, just try to be the best at it," he said in a recent interview. "My sister is a veterinarian, too -- she's doing a residency in Louisville, Kentucky because she wants to specialize. Everyone in my family has worked really hard to get where they are. Nothing came easy, and everyone went through their struggles and things like that. I guess the thing I take away from it is, whatever I'm doing and wherever I'm at -- my mom always says to be the best, no matter what. I take that into football and academics and all-around life. So, I feel that's what my family has put upon me, and that's our mindset."
Football aside, he shares his family's belief in the importance of education. "Academics were always really important to my mom. I took the ACT in seventh grade and scored high enough that I could start taking classes at a local community college. I would do that through the summers in high school, and take night classes in the spring. It helped me out when I went to college -- I had a little bit of leeway; I didn't have to overload or anything like that. It actually allowed me to be done in three-and-a-half years at Furman."
Felton's political science degree is something that he plans to build on after his NFL career. "I might go to law school, get a law degree and probably stay in the sports realm. Sports have been such a big part of my life, I don't know if I could get away. Maybe get a job with an NFL team, or in the NFL office. I definitely want to keep that in my life after football."
Furman's Jerome Felton (45) runs the ball as Appalachian State's Jeremy Wiggins, left, tries for the tackle during the first half of the NCAA I-AA semifinals, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005, in Boone, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Keane)
In the here and now, there is the game that Felton has poured his life into. He first discovered football by watching his older brother play. "In little league, they have a Cutters team, which is fifth- and sixth-graders, and a Midgets team, which had seventh and eighth-graders. He played on the Midgets team, and they practiced on the same field as the Cutters, so I would get to watch them play. I was always big and pretty athletic for my size, so the Cutters coach would ask me every day to play football. I was playing soccer at the time, and my mom wouldn't let me quit. I had to finish out the season, but every day, the coach would talk to my stepdad and talk to me about playing football.
"Finally, when that soccer season was over with, in my sixth grade year, he talked my mom into letting me play, and it just went on from there. I was successful from that first year, and I've been starting ever since. I'm a competitor, probably to a fault sometimes, and football's the best sport in the world. There's no greater arena to compete, and that's what draws me to it."
After starring for Sequoyah High school in Tennessee, and considering scholarship offers from Duke and Tennessee Tech, and an offer to grayshirt for Vanderbilt (grayshirt players attend school, but do not receive scholarships and are not official members of the team), Felton got a helping hand. "Bobby Johnson used to coach at Furman -- he's the head coach at Vanderbilt now," he said. "I really wasn't interested in (grayshirting), so they got in touch with Furman's coaches and that's how that happened.
"I went to a small high school, and we were kind of hidden. I had a few different coaches in high school and we didn't know much about recruiting. I really flew under the radar a lot, and I was lucky to go to a place where I got to play early on and showcase my abilities. I definitely don't regret going to Furman, and I feel like it was the best place for me."
Indeed it was. Felton got to start right away forthe Greenvills, South Carolina school, and his freshman numbers - an amazing 10 touchdowns on 66 carries -- pointed to the fact that the college game wasn't a major adjustment. "Working out in the months leading up to my going to Furman, I felt like I was ready. I made an impact at camp and that's what allowed me to start my freshman year. There wasn't an adjustment from a physical perspective so much as it was just the realization that every play counts. That's one thing you don't realize in high school -- a game comes down to three to five plays, and that's what's usually going to decide it. You've got to be going hard on every play. It takes all eleven people being on the same page to make a play happen at that level. That was something I had to realize and adjust to a little bit."
Though he was instantly successful, Felton is aware of the small-school stigma and how it can devalue big numbers in the grand scheme of things. He made it clear that Furman's offense was more than just three yards and a cloud of dust. "Our offense, our schemes and things, we were pretty complex. We had (current Titans reserve quarterback) Ingle Martin my first two years -- he was actually really fast and athletic for his size. He was a gunslinger. We ran I-Formation, one-back, spread offenses, we ran pretty much every offense there was. We ran the option ... I feel that our offense was as complex as anyone's in the nation. Zone, Power, spread option -- everything you can think of.
"So that really helped me out. We tried to establish the run first and pass off of that, and I feel that we had a pro-style offense at Furman. Probably 60-70 percent I-Formation, and the rest one-back. A lot of people think I was in a one-back set because of my numbers, but we were an I-Formation team."
Ah, yes. The numbers. Through his college career, Felton became known as one of the most effective goal-line threats in the nation -- a real problem for opposing defenses in the red zone. In 49 games with the Paladins, Felton carried the ball 575 times for 2,652 yards and an incredible 63 touchdowns. Even more impressive was the fact that not all of those scores were two-yard bulldozer dumps. Felton rumbled for several runs of over 30 yards, and put up a career-high 60-yard run last season.
Still, this is a big back who knows where he needs to shine. "I had some long runs, but most of them came in the red zone," he said. "When we got to the red zone, that was kind of my area, and our coach allowed me to do some things down there. I can break it (long runs) -- if it's there, I can take it the distance -- but I'm definitely effective in red zone and short-yardage situations."
Those few long runs begin to reveal what may be Felton's key to NFL success -- he may be even more dangerous alternating as a big, Jerome Bettis-style tailback in the pros than he was as a fullback at the college level. He lined up as a tailback in the I-Formation for two games in 2007 -- against Elon and Western Carolina, and he amassed his career high in single-game rushing yardage against Elon with 154. He scored six touchdowns against Western Carolina in 2006 in his more traditional role, having scored four the week before against North Carolina.
Wherever he lands, Felton's very much aware that versatility is the key to success in the NFL. One-trick fullbacks used to be a dime a dozen, and now they're being phased out of the game. Felton was one of only six fullbacks invited to the 2008 Scouting Combine. And tailbacks are generally expected to do more than pound the rock, for schematic reasons and in the name of workload issues.
"Talking to scouts and different people, you hear that 'dying breed' phrase thrown around (in relation to fullbacks) a lot, and I think it's a misconception," he said. "When they say, 'dying breed', maybe they mean the traditional block-and-that's-all-you-do type of fullback. Now, to play fullback in the NFL, you do have to be versatile. You do have to catch the ball. You obviously have to be able to block -- that's number one -- but you do have to be athletic enough to run the ball in different situations.
"I do feel that I could play tailback in the NFL. There have been a lot of very successful big backs, and I feel that I have the athleticism to do that. But at the same time, I can play fullback. It pays to be versatile. The more things you can do for an NFL club, the longer your career will be and the more success you'll have. Wherever I can fit in to help a team win, that's what I'll do. Most teams have projected me as a fullback, but they see that I can carry the ball and I'm a fullback that can do a lot of different things; maybe start in a two-back set, split the tailback out wide and different things like that."
Playing in the East-West Shrine Game allowed him get a taste of the next step up. "It was fun. I really enjoyed going up there and being coached by coach (James) Saxon -- he's the Dolphins' running backs coach -- and coach (Dick) Vermeil," Felton recalled.
"Everybody's there to compete, and nobody's bad anymore, In high school, and even in college, you get some of that. But here, everybody's good. Everybody was the best player on their team. I'm a competitor, and that's what makes it fun to me. I had a good time at the East-West game. Met some good people and obviously got coached by some of the better coaches around. It's a business now -- you have to realize that everything matters and that how you carry yourself is very important. It goes a long way in what type of career you have."
The next step was the Scouting Combine, time on the RCA Dome Field, and an appointment with Arizona Cardinals strength and conditioning coach John Lott, the man so well-known for screaming in the faces of Combine bench pressers. Whatever Lott said to Felton, it must have worked -- he put up 225 pounds 30 times, tied with Auburn running back Carl Stewart for the most by a non-lineman. "That was good, but I had done 32 the week before, so I was hoping to push it a couple more and get into the 34-35 range," he said. "Once you get up there, they know you're strong and it probably doesn't matter that much."
Felton laughed when asked to recall Lott's tutelage and described the coach as an unforgettable character. "He's a motivating type of guy. It's always cool being around people like that. Before we were lifting weights, he would say, "Get your minds right!" and it was a competition. Scouts want to see if you're going to compete with each other, and that's why I think it's important to do everything at the Combine -- so people can see that you're a competitor. I had seen him on the NFL Network a few times - I wouldn't mind going to the Cardinals and having him be my strength coach. He's a good guy."
Felton was less pleased with his 40 time -- used to running in the high 4.5-low 4.6 range, he saw times outside the norm. He was told that he ran a 4.75, though NFLDraftScout.com lists his official time at 4.68. "I have my Pro Day coming up in the 15th, and I want to run again. I was a little disappointed when I heard 4.75, but that's why you have your Pro Day, so you can prove yourself again. My overall (Combine) experience was good -- I think I helped myself and that teams could see that I'm a big guy who brings some athleticism to the position and can help a team in the NFL."
The big question gong forward is whether Felton's small school experience will hold him back in the draft. New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese, his Super Bowl championship forged in part because of his ability to find and utilize those under-the-radar players, said at the Combine that the second day of the draft is where he and his personnel colleagues really earn their money. Could Jerome Felton be this year's Kevin Boss or Ahmad Bradshaw? Felton seems to believe so.
"If you look at the NFL today, some of the biggest guys come from the smaller schools, but I feel that you do have to do more to shine. It's not good enough to be a good player at this level -- you really have to stand out and bring something different to the table. So I feel that there is sort of a stigma about smaller schools, but with so many guys from those schools doing well in the NFL, that's going away a bit."
Having talked to just about
every running backs coach in the NFL and participated in personal interviews
with several teams at the Combine, Felton now prepares for the 2008 draft. He'll
watch it at home in Madisonville, Tennessee, with the family whose brilliance
and estimable success have shaped his ability to go forward and realize his
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.