- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There have been times in the past three years when Robby Felix would get into the shower and feel slightly off balance, and his mind would race. These were phantom symptoms, but they took him back. The New York Jets offensive lineman had been standing under a stream of water, two hours after the final game of his senior year at UTEP, when he had a very real stroke.
There he was, a young man and an athlete, unable to talk, somehow extricating himself from the shower and maneuvering to where his pregnant wife, Kelly, could see him. She immediately called 911.
Kelly was five months pregnant at the time.
"I thought of our future together," she said. "Was he going to be able to hold our daughter? Change her? Talk to her, play with her? I knew I could take case of us if I needed to."
Right now, Rex Ryan is evaluating Felix as a backup to Nick Mangold now that Rob Turner is out with a broken leg. But after his stroke, Felix was seeking evaluation all over the country, trying to find answers from experts. Was it the hits he took as a collegiate lineman? Something genetic?
"No one's told me why," Felix said.
Like many people who have had strokes, Felix had to learn to walk and talk again, but because of his youth and fitness level, a process of years was condensed into months. Two days after the stroke, a physical therapist in the ICU said it was OK for Felix to move around again. So Kelly watched as her dad, a football coach, snapped a football to Robby in the hallway a few times.
There were quirky moments, the feelings of deja vu, saying things out loud when he thought he was reading to himself, being unable to block things out. As he talked about it, an airplane flew low over the Jets' practice field.
"Right now, because of the airplane, I wouldn't be able to have this conversation because my mind would be thinking about the louder noise," Felix said.
Meanwhile, Felix was still trying to prepare for the 2009 NFL draft. But teams knew about his medical history, and he wasn't signed.
"The draft went by," Felix said. "Usually free agents get signed at the end of the seventh round into that Sunday night, and I didn't get a call for three weeks. I was going to pack up and move to California to get a job. I had a wife and baby."
A lot has changed. Daughter Brooke is now 2, and Kelly is pregnant again. Felix himself is in good shape with a chance to prove himself as a backup on the Jets' offensive line. Vlad Ducasse did not play well against Houston, and Felix was sent out on the field after Turner's injury. Ryan said after the game that the Jets weren't in the market for another lineman but wanted to give Felix a chance.
"I liked the way he jumped in the game," Ryan said. "When Rob went down, Robby just jumped right in there like no big deal. You look at what he's been through in his life, it really is no big deal. You're going in to play football."
After a year on the practice squad, sitting in meetings and taking notes as though he would be playing every Sunday, Felix is in a good spot. This rookie class didn't have the benefit of organized team activities or minicamps, and Felix comes with the playbook installed.
"The rookies have a huge disadvantage," Felix said. "I was on the practice squad last year and I know the offense as well as anyone could in a year. I would sit there and take notes like I was playing a game. I'd have the same questions in my head, and Nick [Mangold] would ask them."
The starting center, Mangold was out for the first preseason game after sustaining a stinger in practice, and right guard Brandon Moore has been being brought along slowly after hip surgery in the offseason. Mangold knew it was a tough spot for Felix on Monday in Houston.
"Robby did well coming in," Mangold said. "That's tough. You're the No. 3 center, then you're the No. 2 center, then all of a sudden, you're the No. 1 center. That's a quick jump to make. He stayed calm. He did well, and I thought it was a good performance by him."
There will have to be more like that if Felix is to win a spot on the final 53-man roster, starting against the Bengals on Sunday evening.
"I kinda didn't know what they were going to do, but to show that they have confidence in me makes me feel pretty good," Felix said. "I just got to prove to them that I can be that guy to step in and fill Rob's shoes."