Two weeks ago, Yale University wide receiver Joey Felton hopped a waist-high fence around the Oakdale High School practice field and laced up for a training session that should have taken place more than 300 miles away on the Bulldogs’ New Haven, Connecticut, campus.
But because of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the former Linganore football player is back home, forced to work out in his garage and find throwing partners to stay in shape.
Felton had a summer job lined up on campus to help run summer academic camps and alumni reunions.
That fell by the wayside when COVID-19 swept across the country earlier this year.
Like many high-level college athletes, Felton, who has a muscular frame and medium-length brown hair that requires an elastic band to stay out of his eyes, has been forced into an unconventional and ever-evolving training regimen.
When it became clear that there would be a fall season, but with area gyms closed due to Governor Larry Hogan’s executive order to shut down, Felton’s father, Jack, knew doing chin-ups off the deck out back would not suffice for Joey.
The two drove a rented truck to Rockville, where a friend of Jack’s offered them an Olympic weightlifting bar and a set of weights.
The one thing Felton didn’t have was a rack to hold the bar so he could do squats and bench press.
So after a trip to Lowe’s, Felton fashioned a rack out of wood posts by sinking them into two buckets of cement. The Yale University Football stickers that adorn it was his mother Jackie’s touch.
“He’s been very motivated to keep up with the Yale program,” his father said. “I’ve never once had to say to him, ‘Hey, did you lift?’
“He’s either [already] lifted or about to lift. He’s just on it.”
The closure of college campuses nationwide has created hurdles for sports programs as coaches and staff look for innovative ways to prepare for the return of sports this fall.
Felton expects to return to campus in mid-July. In the meantime, one way he stays in contact with his teammates and coaching staff is through weekly Zoom video conferencing calls.
“It’s kind of like the highlight of my day, honestly,” the 19-year-old said while stretching on the living room floor of his family’s home near New Market.
“Our coaching staff does a really good job of making them a little bit more fun.”
The calls serve as a way for coaches to check on players’ conditioning progress and allow for team-building.
During the team-wide calls, for instance, Felton said head coach Tony Reno incorporates what are called “brick talks,” where players are asked to share a highlight of their life, a low point and who their heroes are.
It was from one of these brick talks that Felton heard about challenging circumstances some of his teammates have enduring on their path to play D-I football, including a player who saw his father die in front of him.
It helped Felton put things in perspective. His own low point was when a partially torn a posterior cruciate ligament forced him to sit out the entire lacrosse season his senior year at Linganore.
Being accepted into an Ivy League school is what he cited as being the highlight of his life, something he imagined was unattainable as a kid.
“As a kid, I never really thought of myself going to an Ivy League school,” he said.
“It just kind of changed my life in a great way.”
Like many others on the team, Felton named his parents as his heroes.
While the team-wide meetings don’t offer many opportunities to speak, Felton also attends virtual meetings with his position coach and fellow receivers.
In those calls, they mostly review game film and discuss the playbook, something the sophomore receiver aims to know more comprehensively than last year when he had to contend with the stressors of moving hundreds of miles away and settling in at a new school.
“Once you know the playbook, the game just slows down a lot,” he said.
In addition to the video conferencing calls, Bulldog players also use an app called Fusionetics, a system the company touts as being able to help prevent injury and improve performance, among other things.
The app indicates what stretches an athlete should focus on to improve their game by collecting data points using a phone’s camera.
And then there’s the Facebook group for players to post videos of their workouts, from which Felton said he gets training ideas from the older, more experienced players.
The requirement to post videos — two or three per day of their diet, running, lifting or position work — is to make sure everybody sees people out there working, he said.
“[Which] kind of like makes you want to do better,” he said.
For positional workouts, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound Felton doesn’t have to look far.
In addition to being one of his throwing partners, Jack will also help his son with hand-eye coordination exercises, such as holding out two tennis balls, dropping one and letting Joey reach across with the opposite hand to grab the ball from above.
But there’s no substitute for having a quality quarterback hurling the ball at him — and for that Felton meets up with Old Dominion-bound quarterback and Middletown High School star Reese Poffenbarger.
Poffenbarger, a 2020 graduate, was with Felton on the Oakdale practice field a few weeks ago, getting in a few reps with a fellow D-I player.
The two meet once or twice a week for sessions that last about a half hour. They are just as beneficial for Poffenbarger as they are for Felton.
“I have it way better than most quarterbacks, being able to throw to a guy like [Felton,]” Poffenbarger said.
In his freshman season at Yale, Felton had two receptions for 43 yards, but found a role as the Bulldogs’ top kickoff returner, amassing 340 yards on 15 returns.
While he expects to continue his role as a returner, the speedy Felton said he has set his sights on earning a touchdown on a kickoff return and starting at wide receiver after backing up the team’s senior captain, JP Shohfi, last year.
As he works toward those goals from home, he doesn’t always have the luxury of pulling in passes from an arm as powerful as Poffenbarger’s. So Felton sometimes keeps his hands soft by catching balls in the living room. They’re thrown from the kitchen by Jack.
“We’ve broken things,” Jack said of the occasional misconnection. ”We try not to, but it has happened.”