Bengals rookie safety Clayton Fejedelem has defied all odds to make it to the NFL, betting on himself all the way to Paul Brown Stadium.
Sitting nervously in his head coach’s office at St. Xavier University on the south side of Chicago, Clayton Fejedelem had to tell one of the few college football coaches in the country to give him a shot out of high school that he was leaving.
This after the Cougars had won the 2011 NAIA national championship in Fejedelem’s freshman campaign, and followed that up with a semi-final appearance in 2012.
It was his year-end meeting with Cougars head coach Mike Feminis, and Fejedelem had to pull himself together.
“I was extremely nervous,” Fejedelem said. “You’re a young man, walking in front of your head coach, and you’ve got to tell him thanks for the opportunity but … I’m trying to go for bigger and better things. It was an awkward, hard conversation to have.”
Feminis couldn’t believe it.
Fejedelem was already an All-American as an underclassman and the Cougars were positioned to contend for another national title over the next two years.
As a 5-foot, 10-inch, 180-pound high schooler from Lemont, a southwest suburb of Chicago, Fejedelem received not a bit of interest from Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) football programs; and here he was telling Feminis he was leaving St. Xavier to walk-on at one.
Feminis quizzed him. Where are you transferring to? When told it was Illinois, Feminis caught himself.
Clayton, do you mean Illinois State?
Feminis cautioned him. It’s a two-level jump, if not more, to go from the NAIA to the FBS. Your family will have to pay for you to do this, for perhaps the entire time you’re attempting to play.
Fejedelem knew this, but he also knew if he was ever going to fulfill the dream of playing major college football, this was the time to jump.
“I was still young, so going into a whole bunch more college football, if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to make the move now,” Fejedelem said.
Feminis admits he held his reservations, but he wasn’t going to hold Fejedelem back. The coach offered whatever help he could, and released the player from his commitment at St. Xavier without hesitation.
“Who am I to stop him?” said Feminis, who was invited to Fejedelem’s post-draft party this spring. “You know what, he’s been proving people wrong ever since high school, from the standpoint where not one Division I school gave him a look out of high school. Once he left us, I’m sure there weren’t a lot of people except maybe his mom and dad and brothers that thought he’d have a chance to play at a Big Ten school.”
After sending a highlight tape out to a few Mid-American Conference and Big Ten schools, Illinois was the school that opened the door for Fejedelem. But it was only cracked, and he could only hope to slip through after sitting out a year.
Former University of Cincinnati co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks was in the same role at Illinois, as well as its secondary coach, when Fejedelem came to campus. Banks stressed that the path Fejedelem was taking was littered with difficult obstacles.
“Any time you’re trying to walk-on to a program, on top of that a power five institution, it’s tough,” said Banks, who is now the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Penn State.
“Obviously a lot of times you’ve got kids there you’ve already invested scholarship money into and you’re going to give those guys every opportunity to be successful.”
Fejedelem was on the fringe of the program, thrown into a school with coaches and teammates that didn’t know him at all. Mix that in with the stark realization that no matter what he did in the weight room or in practice, he wasn’t going to play.
“I’ve always played, I’ve never not been the star – that’s how you kind of are when you go to college to play football – you’re always that guy on your team, you’re always the guy they look to,” he said. “I’m like oh man, I’ve got a year off and even if I compete and I’m the best guy out there nothing will happen. It was kind of a downer. But looking back, it was a blessing in disguise.”
For that year, Fejedelem worked on his physique and mastered the defensive schemes. The slight-of-build defensive back coming out of high school three years ago was now over 6-feet tall and a chiseled 200 pounds.
Finally able to prove his wares with a shot at playing in 2014, Fejedelem took Banks’ words to each walk-on to heart: Make us notice you. Don’t be a get-along guy. Set yourself apart.
“I guess I can kind of be described as a prick – I’ve always got that chip on my shoulder,” Fejedelem said. “I’m not the nicest person on the field. But you have to be noticed as a walk-on. If you’re playing at the same level as a scholarship guy, the scholarship guy is going to get the start, get the job. You have to go above and beyond to even be noticed.”
Fejedelem knew his route to the team, to the field, and ultimately a scholarship: He had to make a mark in meetings, workouts in the gym, drills and in practice, quite literally one snap at a time. And he made the most of it.
“If he got three snaps, he made two plays,” Banks recalled. “If he got five snaps, he made four plays.
“At the end of the day, nine times out of 10, you’re going to end up playing the best guy. The problem is just getting an opportunity to show that you’re one of the better guys.”
That also added to Fejedelem’s anxiousness.
In his mind, he was already one of the best defensive backs on the team. And, in respectful ways, he would let Banks know it.
“I remember him telling me, it might have been his second year there, he thought he was the best DB there. I’m like man, buddy, I don’t even half know your name,” Banks said with a laugh. “I butchered his name up a ton. But he was right. He ended up being probably the best defensive back there, not just in words but in actions.”
Fejedelem finally got a bit of playing time at the end of 2014 and earned a scholarship. But he was quickly on to the next – how can he start? How can he help Illinois win as much as possible? He took that leap, at least individually, in 2015.
He was named Illinois’ defensive player of the year and recorded 140 tackles. His pro day measurables (he wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine) of a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, a 40.5-inch vertical jump, 20 reps on the 225-pound bench press (after hitting the rack), and over 10-feet in the broad jump, had translated to the field.
“He’s a super athlete, man,” Banks said. “I mean he really is. I don’t know if he gets enough credit for that. I’m not sure why.”
“Once he figured out it was more than just athleticism and he had to kind of understand route combinations, situational football, once he got all that down, I mean the sky was the limit. I really think his best football is ahead of him. I really believe that.”
Always on to the next
Cincinnati Bengals assistant secondary coach Robert Livingston worked the Illinois pro day, and as the Bengals coaching staff and scouts dove in on Fejedelem, all of the intangibles off the field matched up with the film and the stats.
“He’s an old school guy,” Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle said.
The Bengals made Fejedelem their final pick of the 2016 draft, filling out the back end of the safety room with a player who they know will play special teams but could push the rest of the group with a high level play in limited snaps.
Head coach Marvin Lewis introduced Fejedelem shortly after picking him as a “great story,” one that is often imagined but rarely executed. Even Fejedelem admits the NFL dream faded after having to go to St. Xavier out of high school.
“It’s probably one in a 500 shot or a one in a 1,000 shot to go from a small college level to being not only on scholarship but being one of the best players in the Big Ten,” Feminis said, unable to stifle an incredulous chuckle.
The NFL has its share of long roads leading to the league, but from zero star high school recruit to the NAIA to walk-on to NFL draft pick in four years?
“What’s really an amazing thing is that he had the self confidence and the determination to say ‘I can do this’ at another level, where some guys might have been content to be at a smaller level and try to be a dominant player,” Coyle said. “Here’s a young man who felt he wanted to take the challenge – and the risk. There’s risk involved, in trying to go to a bigger school and walk-on and see if he could really cut it. Not only did he cut it, he became a dominant player for them and he got drafted in the NFL. It’s an amazing story. It says a lot about his character, a lot about his mental toughness and just overall determination as a person.”
It seems like a long time between Fejedelem’s nervous conversation with Feminis in the winter of 2012 to the call from Marvin Lewis in the spring of 2016, but Fejedelem doesn’t think about it in that context, though. He hasn’t allowed himself to. From the very beginning he’s been on to the next, and that has paid off at every improbable stop.
Fejedelem’s family celebrated the draft while his mind spun forward, to rookie camp, to mini-camps, to training camp. He’s never caught in the moment, because in his situation that moment could be the one that makes or breaks his career – and even more so at the NFL when little is guaranteed. But it’s a position Fejedelem has thrived in for years. He’s just looking to make sure he continues to.
“I just immediately wanted to know what do I do now to get on that team?” Fejedelem said. “I guess that’s kind of always how I was. High school and college then I was a transfer; what do I need to do to get on that team? Now, I have my foot in the door here, what do I need to do to make the team? I guess I was looking for the next step. I didn’t take a step back to take it all in. I’m just living in the moment, trying to make the most out of it.”
“It’s always been how do I better myself, how do I continue to build on my success and just continue to increase my technique and be the best player I can be and help the Bengals win the Super Bowl this year. That’s the end goal.”