Yale Athletics

Going into this year’s edition of The Game, one of the strongest parts of the Yale team is the passing attack. However, for one Bulldog wide receiver, it was not always clear whether he would be able to suit up for the Bulldogs in a game against Harvard ever again.

Bulldogs wide receiver Joey Felton ’24 made a remarkable comeback in the 2022 season after walking off the Yale football team due to his diagnosis of spondylolisthesis in August 2021. 

Early into the 2021 season, Felton reported pain in his lower back, and when attempting dynamic activities, he experienced excruciating pain down into his calf. MRI imaging confirmed that his vertebrae had slipped forward, raising particular concern for his L5-S1 vertebrae. His chiropractors Melbourne discovered a 60 to 70 percent slip, resulting in pinched nerves and a disintegrated disc.

“There was no definitive impact that caused the injury,” Felton said. “It all just happened at once.”

After months of attempted rehab, Felton reached the point of being unable to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time. He decided to take a leave of absence from Yale in the fall of 2021 to focus on his health and recovery.

In November 2021, Felton underwent remediative surgery at The John Hopkins Hospital. After remaining in the hospital for a week post-surgery, he continued to use a walker and rely heavily upon his family members to complete ordinary, mundane tasks. 

“In spring 2021, when I met with Dr. Gardner, she said that there was a good likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to play again,” Felton said. “Nobody she knew of, except maybe a few cases out there in the NFL, had this injury and came back successfully.”

Despite the pessimism of his medical team, Felton said he decided that he could not relinquish the hopes of his athletic career before at least attempting a comeback.

Before his diagnosis, Felton had shown promise in his rookie year at Yale in 2019. The speedy wideout featured primarily on kickoff returns, where he averaged an impressive 48.6 return yards a game.

He rejoined the team in spring 2022, but could not participate in practice until he was medically cleared to run in July 2022.

When retelling his journey back to the starting lineup of Yale’s offensive unit, Felton recounted his struggles against the psychological barriers of the 2022 season.

“My skills were never the problem; it was my confidence. I had been out of football for two years, out of training for two years, and I play one of the most skilled positions on the team,” Felton said.

He found himself avoiding catching the ball across the middle, worried about reinjury upon contact. 

However, he refused to allow either the physical or the mental obstacles to keep him out of the Bulldogs lineup.

“You don’t love something until you lose it and I lost football for a while,” Felton said. “Just coming back and just being able to play and being around a team, it’s special. I value that more than anything really.”

Tony Reno, head coach of the Yale football team, had much to say about his team generally and Felton’s comeback specifically. 

Reno spoke highly of the tight-knit bond he observes amongst his players, commenting on the “strong culture with an internal fire” that fuels the program.

“I’m my proudest when observing that the guys are really tight, and they’ll support each other, they’ll challenge each other, and they’ll be there for each other,” Reno said. “These are relationships that my players will have for the rest of their lives.”

Reno continued to explain that he strives to run a transformational team, geared toward producing strong leaders to spearhead the team, as opposed to a transactional team.

The “football family” remains the foundation of Reno’s team.

“Our guys understand that when you’re chasing something really high, it’s never easy; we’re inevitably going to have moments of adversity,” Reno said. “Anytime a player goes out, whether they’re a starter or not, it affects the team drastically because we need everybody for our team to perform at the highest level.”

In addition to praising his players for their hard work, dedication and drive, Reno also highlighted the diligence that allowed Felton to rejoin the Bulldog team.

In spring 2023, the coaching staff knew that there was only so much Felton could do, but inevitably the eager player strived to outperform those expectations. 

“We saw his explosiveness come back,” Reno said. “Just like that, he was out there doing things that he had done previous to the injury. He’s better and faster than he was before the injury, which speaks volumes to the resolve he’s had just to fight back.”

Felton’s contributions to the offensive team factor into the parity across the 2023 Ivy League football season, as Reno stated that this season might mark the most well-matched the eight universities have ever been.

After returning from injury, Felton has factored back into the high-flying Bulldogs offense. The senior boasts eight catches on the year for 99 yards and two touchdowns.

To conclude the 2023 season, the Yale Bulldogs will face off against the Harvard Crimson on Nov. 19 at 12:00 p.m. in the 139th historical showdown.

Brooklyn Brauner serves as a staff reporter for the City desk, covering Nonprofits and Social Services throughout New Haven, in addition to serving as the Thursday Newsletter Editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she is currently a sophomore in Grace Hopper College studying Political Science.