Jelani Irby: Rocky’s Kind Of Player
By Anthony Lanzillo on Apr 26, 2017

By Guest Coach Anthony Lanzillo

Last week, I was answering some messages that I had received on the Linkedin website when I came upon a post from a football player. He was reaching out and asking if anyone on Linkedin might be able to help him find a team to play for. He had just finished the spring season with the Cincinnati Flex – a professional indoor arena football team – where he played wide receiver, corner and on special teams. I could see that all of the responses to his post were from agents who probably wanted to sign him up.

There was something in that post that intrigued me so I sent him a message. I told Jelani that I was not an agent, recruiter, manager or coach. Wanted him to understand that I was a mental skills coach to athletes, and had a background in public relations and marketing. I simply suggested that maybe I could help him figure out how to present and position himself to find that next gig playing football.

Well, when I started interviewing Jelani, and even after he answered my first question, I knew that there was something special about this young man. Growing up and going to high school in Washington, DC had a profound impact upon his outlook on life. “I play the game of football for everyone from my hometown of Washington, DC who didn’t make it to see 16, 17 or 18 due to the crazy amount of violence on the streets”, stated Jelani. Also, he knew who he was playing this game for. “I play the game for not only myself but for everyone whose made sacrifices in order to help me continue to pursue my dream of playing at the highest possible level.”

After high school, Jelani went to Central State University in Ohio but got hurt in training camp. Then he transferred to Dean College – a junior college in Massachusetts – and was a redshirt on the scout team while he recovered from his injury at CSU. But in the spring season, the college brought in a new offensive coordinator and this coordinator decided that he wanted his own players on the team. So, he took back the financial aid packages from many of the current players, including Jelani. He decided to contact the University of Kentucky. Jelani went to the tryouts and thought he had made the team. And yet, because of NCAA regulations, there was a question about some of his credits from Dean College and he lost his slot on the team. Jelani appealed their decision but he lost the appeal.

At that point, he decided to try out for a professional team. Jelani contacted the Kentucky Thoroughbreds with the new National Spring Football League but the team and league folded before the first game. A year later, he spoke to the Saginaw Sting, an indoor arena team with the Continental Indoor Football League, but was then informed that there was no room on the camp roster. Afterwards, he hired an agent who got him two meetings with other teams but nothing happened. And finally, last year, he got an offer to play for the Cincinnati Flex.

When I meet or speak to an athlete, there are two things that I am particularly interested in. It’s what’s inside his chest and what’s sitting on his neck. I want to know what’s inside his heart and his head. And, believe it or not, that tells me all I need to know when I decide whether or not to be his mental skills coach.

When it comes to Jelani, I see so much potential and promise. I see a football player who understands that to reach one’s mental peak you have to play with a sense of purpose, play with the right perspective and play with passion. “I play and love the game of football because in my honest opinion it’s the greatest game that we have on this planet”, stated Jelani. “What other sport requires 11 individuals to put egos, personal agendas and any other nonsense to the side?”

When I spoke to and interviewed Jelani, I kept thinking of Rocky Balboa. There’s this famous quote from one of his movies that reminded me of Jelani. “…it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward.” This is Jelani Irby. And this is why there needs to be a place for him in professional football. Simply, by his presence on the field, he will make any team play at a higher level. Not only does he have the skills, but he brings the right attitude and character. If there are any smart coaches out there, they will be checking out this young man. And if you choose not to, it’s your loss. You will have just missed out on a great opportunity to put your team in a better position to succeed.

Anthony Lanzillo is a regular contributor to the FirstDown PlayBook Community site and also has created a mental preparation tool for athletes called The Mental Tune-Up. It is a great tool and resource for getting your players to make a commitment to becoming mentally stronger and tougher. If you would like more information on this tool, drop Anthony an email at risson1954@gmail. He has designed this process for 30, 60 or 90 days. Check out his website here at