“Play it, play it!” a small group of students shouted at the Oceanside High School alum and former NFL quarterback, who was visiting to share his success story as part of the school’s Human Relations Day on April 5.
Jay Fiedler, most known for his five-year stint with the Dolphins at the turn of the century, was about to show those packed into the OHS auditorium a video of his game-winning touchdown run against the Oakland Raiders in Week 2 of the 2001 season, when the bell rang, signaling the end of seventh period. More than half the room stayed, and as Fiedler’s younger self dove into the end zone, the room erupted.
The day, which featured a variety of speakers from all professions, was designed to motivate students to pursue their dreams through the obstacles they are sure to encounter.
“I think it was really inspirational, and it taught good life lessons from somebody who already experienced success and struggled to get there,” said sophomore Jonathan Rivera.
Fiedler, 45, was a three-sport athlete at Oceanside, involved in football, basketball and track. He earned All-Long Island honors as a quarterback — passing for more than 4,500 yards in his three years on varsity — and broke the New York state record for the pentathlon.
Although sports were an important part of his life, Fiedler said, his chief goal was to get into a good school and become an engineer.
“My goal wasn’t to go to the NFL, because to me, that wasn’t realistic,” Fiedler said. “What are the chances of someone coming out of Oceanside High School, or any high school, and making it to that level? The chances are 0.001 [percent].”
After graduating OHS in 1990, he went to Dartmouth College, a prestigious Ivy League school in New Hampshire. Though attending a school not known for having a heralded football program, he gained national attention as he set school records for touchdown passes (58), passing yards (6,684) and total offense (7,249 yards).
Suddenly, the NFL was more attainable, he recalled. Fiedler graduated Dartmouth in 1994, and though he wasn’t drafted to the NFL, he signed a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles as a third-string quarterback.
“If you think AP calculus is hard, try learning an NFL playbook,” Fiedler told the students.
He was released during his third year in Philadelphia, which he calls his first major obstacle. Out of the NFL for a couple seasons, Fiedler said people doubted he would ever make it back. But he spent time playing in Europe, and worked out with the Hofstra football team in an effort to return to the sport’s biggest stage. When he sent videos of himself to all the NFL teams, only one, the Minnesota Vikings, gave him a shot.
“The door opened just a slight bit, just opened a crack, but once I saw that opportunity for me, I was going to kick that door wide open,” Fiedler said about the tryout, which included five other quarterbacks vying for the backup spot. “I walked in with my head high because I knew that none of them had gone through what I went through. None of them worked as hard as I did to get myself ready for that one day.”
He had made it back, and earned his first NFL start a year later with the Jaguars, throwing for over 300 yards in a Week 17 win against the Bengals. He would join the Dolphins as a full-time starter the following season, which included a playoff win against Peyton Manning’s Colts. Though throwing three interceptions in the first half, Fiedler led the team from behind to a victory. Fiedler was 36-23 as a starter for Miami, and played in two games for the Jets in 2005 before being sidelined with a shoulder injury, which essentially ended his career.
The students cheered at the game’s highlight package on the big screen as Fiedler led the postseason comeback after his rough start. “That was just in one game,” Fiedler told the students, but that’s a metaphor for what’s going to happen to you throughout your lifetime.”
Also present were Fiedler’s former football coach, now Oceanside’s adviser for NCAA college-bound student athletes, and Richie Woods, his basketball coach, who said Fiedler’s best qualities are his modesty and humility. The two accepted a Dolphins jersey from Fiedler — who lauded their support of him throughout his career — to be displayed in the school’s hall of fame, which Woods runs.
“It’s symbolic that though he’s gone on with his life and done many great things, a part of him will always be here at Oceanside [High School],” Luisi said, “for us, for teachers, for students and for all the great people of Oceanside.”