Clayton Fejedelem played a key role in Illinois' 14-13 upset over Nebraska on Saturday, intercepting a pass in the third quarter and finishing with eight tackles. That's no surprise, given that the senior safety is the Fighting Illini's leading tackler this season.
What is surprising, continually, is how Fejedelem got here. Just three years ago, he was playing for an NAIA school.
"It's a feel-good story," said Mike Feminis, his former coach at St. Xavier University. "These things just do not happen."
Feminis was among the many who never envisioned that Fejedelem could actually go from one of college football's lowest levels to the FBS, much less become a Big Ten starter. But Fejedelem forged his unlikely path through determination.
He thought he was Division-I worthy after he earned all-state honors as a senior at Lemont (Illinois) High School, but college recruiters saw a guy who was too small and maybe a step slow. His highest offers came from Division II schools such as Grand Valley State. He took a scholarship at St. Xavier in Chicago, where his older brother, Ryan, played linebacker.
"His heart was broken," said his mother, Colleen Fejedelem. "His dream was always the Big Ten."
The brothers helped lead the Cougars to the 2011 NAIA title, with Clayton intercepting a pass in the end zone in the final minute of the semifinal game. St. Xavier would make the national semifinals again in 2012, but before that season even started, Fejedelem (pronounced FEJ-uh-lem) had begun plotting his dramatic move up.
He sent out highlight tapes to FBS schools that fall, and on Dec. 9, he heard from Alex Golesh, an Illinois assistant coach. Golesh promised this much: If Fejedelem could get into school, he could walk on for the Illini. That afternoon, Fejedelem and his mother scrambled to get his transcripts in order and rushed to Champaign to knock on doors.
Fejedelem told Feminis his plans a few days later. Feminis was accustomed to seeing players drop down from higher divisions to the NAIA. This was a first.
"I told him, very honestly, that we're not talking about jumping to Illinois State or Southern Illinois," Feminis recalled. "We're talking about the Big Ten, which is at least a two-level jump.
"I think he knew going in that the odds were not in his favor. But I just don't think he was going to be happy or fulfilled inside unless he gave it a shot. I certainly wasn't going to be the one to stop him."
Few ever have been.
The middle child of three boys, Fejedelem has always taken the lead during family activities like their annual ski trips. The first year he tried wrestling, he won a state title. Colleen remembers asking him what his Plan B was if Illinois didn't work out. Confused, he looked at her and said that having a Plan B would only detract his focus on Plan A.
"I'm a pretty confident individual," Fejedelem said. "I knew there were risks along the way, but I never doubted myself."
Joining the Illini meant sitting out a year under NCAA transfer rules and paying his own way. He was fortunate, he said, that former high school teammate and ex-Illinois offensive lineman Graham Pocic advised some veterans to pick Fejedelem for their winter workout team shortly after his arrival on campus. The guy from the 4,000-student NAIA school held his own in conditioning drills to earn some early respect and gain more confidence.
The Illini needed bodies on defense -- especially in the secondary -- in 2014, so Fejedelem played in all 13 games that season. He got his first major reps on special teams and defense in last season's Big Ten opener at Nebraska. He remembers looking at the 90,000-plus people in the stands that day in Lincoln and remembering how only two years earlier he'd been playing in front of maybe 1,500 at St. Xavier.
Fejedelem earned his first career start in last year's regular-season finale against Northwestern, recording 12 tackles. During training camp this summer, he was getting taped up for practice when he was summoned into then-head coach Tim Beckman's office. Beckman handed Fejedelem scholarship papers, and he held out his phone for Fejedelem to call his mother with the news.
"It felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and my family’s shoulders," he said. "I was pretty emotional."
At 6-foot-1 and about 205 pounds -- more than 20 pounds heavier than what he weighed at St. Xavier -- Fejedelem looks every bit the part of a Big Ten player. He ranks seventh in the league in tackles, with 45.
"He just gives us high energy," Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit said. "He's physical and a really dedicated player -- he gives us a lot back there.
"A lot of it is heart, and he works really hard. He's a great kid, he learns, and he's exactly what you want in a safety."
Cubit named Fejedelem a team captain for last week's game against Nebraska. The giant leap from the NAIA to leader of a Big Ten defense was complete, as improbability lost to determination in a rout.