Feel good stories headline college football quite frequently.
Players surfacing on the national level that once grew up with scarce resources and family, Gatorade Players of the Year–we’ve endured our fix of heartwarming stories via Tom Rinaldi on Saturday mornings.
As for Illinois safety Clayton Fejedelem, a transfer from NAIA powerhouse Saint Xavier University, he contributes much more to the Fighting Illini secondary than simply a knack for the football.
As a freshman, the Lemont native assisted in pocketing a first-ever National Championship for the Cougars in the winter of 2011. “Fej,” as teammates call him, intercepted a pass from rival Marian (IN) in the semifinals to lock a bid to the title game in Athens, Georgia.
Two weeks later, the storybook ending was complete.
He finished his freshman year as the team leader in tackles and interceptions. Big-time programs came knocking and he committed to the Fighting Illini.
Fejedelem has blossomed into a dynamic force in the defensive backfield for the Illini. I caught up with the safety to discuss his route to division-I football and what Illinois has in store for 2015.
AK: Going from high school to the NAIA and now to Illinois, how has the speed of the game transitioned now that you’re a member of a Big 10 team?
CF: Going from high school to NAIA and now to the Big 10, the speed of the game has increased drastically. In high school and NAIA there was always a few good athletes that could move. The biggest transition at the Big 10 level is that regardless of size everyone has good feet and can move pretty well.
AK: Does it feel somewhat surreal? Playing at Saint Xavier where you’d play in front of a couple thousand people and now going into places like Nebraska and Wisconsin. What’s the emotion like to enter such prestigious venues with such chaotic crowds?
CF: Transitioning between playing in front of a few thousand at Saint Xavier, to now playing at Memorial stadium is definitely surreal. Traveling to stadiums like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Washington, and Ohio bring emotions that you can’t explain. The live energy that these historic venues possess is one of the reasons I love the game of football, and one of the reasons that I will never forget the experiences and opportunities that football has blessed me with.
AK: While the Illini roster holds players from all over the country, you’re still pretty close to guys from around the Chicago area. How have they helped you kind-of ease into the new program and make life a bit easier as you transition to a new team?
CF: Still being close to home has definitely helped and eased the transition to the University of Illinois. The ability to go home on weekends and have my family be able to make all of our games is comforting. Transitioning from NAIA to the Big 10, a lot more is asked of you. You are constantly being pushed to your limits both physically and mentally. Having my family close and supporting me allowed my to excel in whatever Illinois Football threw at me.
AK: I asked fellow receiver Mike Dudek the same question: was there an occasion in your inaugural season where it finally hit you that you were finally at the biggest stage of college football?
CF: The Big 10 opener at Nebraska last year was when it hit me that I was playing on the biggest stage in college football. I try to play in the moment and not let outside distractions get to me during the game, but it sank in after I tackled Nebraska’s star running back Ameer Abdullah. I remember running off the field at the end of the drive and thinking to myself, ‘I just tackled a guy up for the Heisman watch and I was told that I would never be able to play at this level of college ball.’
AK: You had a monster spring game back in 2013 that really displayed your presence, and you spoke about the defense as a whole following this year’s spring game. What can we expect from the Illini defense as you guys move forward to fall?
CF: Our defense has made some tremendous strides this past spring. Our greatest improvement was for sure in our d-line. Our linebackers and secondary also made some great improvements, but the biggest strength for our linebackers and secondary is going to be our experience. We have a lot of returning players that have seen time in critical situations. This fall you will see a physical defense up front from the Fighting Illini as well as a secondary that flies around, makes plays, and gets the ball.