This is me: Rock Feliho
Rock Feliho has been on one hell of a ride. His words, not ours. After arriving in France at the age of six with his parents and six siblings, Rock went on to be become one of the most well-known and much-loved handball players to have played in the EHF Champions League. Having announced his retirement, Rock reflects on his time on the court; who inspired him as a youngster and what he's learned in a memorable career.
This is Me: Rock Feliho
From the shadows into the spotlight
From the shadows into the spotlight.
That is how you could sum up my career in a few words. I have never been the best player, I have met plenty of guys with better skills than me, but I never stopped fighting.
No matter how good you were, no matter how many trophies you had won or who you had played with, I was always going to take you on. And if you were going to win, you would have beaten me first and I would not have given you anything.
Out of the seven children my mum had, I am the one who turned the worst. That’s what I love to tell her, although she doesn’t agree.
Her, Elisabeth, and Louis, my dad, gave me a good education. No matter what happens, give it your best, they said. I owe them a lot; they set the standards for me and knew where to draw the limit.
When we arrived in France from Benin, I was just six and far from thinking I would have this kind of career, especially in handball.
I started playing at 10, but it was just about having fun with my friends back then. Looking back, I was often selected among the best players in the region, but I was not paying attention.
It took me a couple more years to understand that there could be a silver lining in all of that. When you are drafted among the 50 best players of your generation, it rings a bell.
But it took years, almost a decade, for me to reach the top level. After four years in Germany, I signed for Nantes, and met someone who changed my life: Thierry Anti. Both on and off the court.
Our relationship started on what I often call a crook’s trick from him, as his project was to turn me, one of the best scorers in the Bundesliga, as an exclusive defender. The first time he told me about that, a few months after my arrival, my only reaction was, excuse the swearing, what the f*** are you talking about?
But he gave me so much confidence in my new role that I followed him. And in the end, it worked. As he usually is, Thierry was right.
Him, me, the club and the president, Gael Pelletier, often say that, for me, the stars aligned in Nantes. Those are people that don’t back down, who take on difficulties rather than avoiding them. I’m one of these guys.
And not backing down is certainly the reason why Le H is now as high in European handball. The EHF Cup? No problem. A first title? It came in due time. The EHF Champions League? It also did. Playing in front of more than 9,000 fans against Barcelona and beating them along the way? Nothing is too big for Nantes.
The EHF Champions League, that’s what got me going in the end. You might tire of playing the average games in the French league, but I never ever will of playing in the EHF Champions League. Once you’ve tasted it, it’s like a drug, you want to come back to it every time.
This XXL Hall game against Barça? The Last 16 return game against Rhein-Neckar Löwen? These are moments that will stay with me forever. Those were electric times. I remember entering the court and having shivers down my spine. Every goal, every save. The crowd was electric.
And the first EHF FINAL4, when we reached the final, that was something else. A pure adrenaline rush. What a moment. Talking about it just doesn’t do it justice. If you have not lived this moment, you cannot understand how it feels.
Living that at 35 for the first time made me see things differently. I never took anything for granted, and I know how hard I have worked to belong in the best in Europe. I know where I come from and, in the bad times, I sometimes looked back to see the journey I had made.
The role I had in Nantes was more than just a captain. Telling the young guys to keep working every day, not to think they’ve made it to the top yet. I know I was tough with a lot of them. But now, Nicolas Tournat, Dragan Pechmalbec, they all know why I pushed them when they were little.
Am I their hero? I might be.
Since I announced I was retiring, a lot of guys told me that I inspired them, and that might be what makes me the proudest.
But these young guys, they know I was as tough with the stars. When Kiril Lazarov arrived in Nantes, he quickly understood that he had everything to prove here. And being such a great player, he took on the test.
Coming back to the hero notion, I never had any in handball. Jackson Richardson was the obvious one, but I could not identify with any player.
So, I watched old VHS tapes of the NBA with Gorgon and Benoit, my brothers. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, those were the guys I looked up to. I remember watching those tapes over and over again, amazed at their ability to perform for such a long time.
My resilience and my ability to remain on top, it might have come from them.
For me to think that I might have such a role on those players makes me very proud. Even though I was working in the shadows, far from the offensive spotlights, I was one of them.
I felt it in the messages I received lately, in the hugs the Barça and Paris players gave me in Cologne. There was respect there. And that I fought my way to the top.
One of them told me: “You put the behind the scenes work into the spotlight.” I could not think of a better phrase to sum up the hell of a ride I’ve been on.