Right after Sunday’s game – after he had saved the day for the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium – Clayton Fejedelem stood bare-chested and still a bit dazed in the dressing room as he tried to explain his unlikely path to NFL stardom.
Coming out of high school in suburban Chicago, he first played football for St. Xavier University, a small NAIA school in the city and then decided to transfer.
“I knew if I wanted to play on Sundays I had to put myself in a little big bigger limelight,” the Bengals third-year safety said. “So I and went to Illinois.”
He first had to sit out a year to meet NCAA transfer requirements and then the Illini took him onto the team as a walk-on – meaning he had to pay his own way to school.
He quickly became a star and as a senior in 2015 he led the Big Ten in tackles. The Bengals took notice, drafted him in the seventh round and for the past two seasons he’s been a stalwart of the special teams.
The real limelight at his safety position, though, belonged to Shawn Williams, who started in front of him, which is what happened in Sunday’s season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
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But then Williams got ejected from the game in the first quarter for a helmet to helmet tackle of oft-injured Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
Already slated to play every play on special teams, Fejedelem was sent in to replace Williams.
Fejedlem explained in the NFL – where collisions often take a toll on players – you have to have the mindset of the “next man up,” so he wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment:
“I’ve always set my goals high, but then I’ve just always taken one step at a …”
He never finished the sentence, in part because a passing teammate pounded him on the back in a celebratory salute. But then he also knew that on this day he hadn’t taken just one step.
He had ended the game taking about 30 in what was the most electrifying play of the day and likely around much of the rest of the league, too,
With under a minute, the Colts – trailing by four – were driving down the field for the potential winning touchdown.
Facing third-and 15 at the Bengals’ 30, Luck threw to Jack Doyle, his 6-foot-6, 262-pound Pro Bowl tight end who was the Colts leading receiver Sunday with seven catches for 60 yards.
Fejedelem and Bengals linebacker Hardy Nickerson converged on him at the 13-yard line and as Doyle turned he became an inviting target.
“He presented his chest and I hit it and saw the ball drop,” said Fejedelem, who then picked the fumble up and began racing toward the Colts’ end zone 83 yards away.
He said he was “gassed” from his full day in the starting line up and on the special teams, but adrenaline kicked in. Luck was the only Colt who had a shot at tackling him.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to be tackled by the quarterback,” and then he managed to dodge the diving Luck.
As he scampered down the sideline past the Bengals bench, he saw his teammates jumping up and down and waving him on.
A stride from the goal line he lunged forward, did a front somersault and landed in the end zone for the score.
When he hopped back up, he took a giant step – like some stomping sumo wrestler – and slammed the ball into the turf.
His score and the point-after gave the Bengals the 34-23 victory.
Asked about the play over and over again the Bengals locker room, Fejedelem was caught in a bit of a swirl of emotion: “I really haven’t thought it through. I’m just still kind of living it…And it’s awesome.”
He was asked what could compare to that play, which was the first touchdown he’s scored since he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone when he was at Illinois.
“Aaaah…getting a turnover and scoring I guess that’s the only thing you can do,” he smiled. “Well doing it in the Super Bowl would be awesome.”
Over the past two seasons he’s led the Bengals in special teams snaps and last year did start five games in place of injured regulars. But he’d never had a moment like this.
When he took off with the ball he said one thought popped into his head:
“Worst case scenario, when the play is over I wanted to make sure I had the ball. Then I could turn it over to our offense and they could run out the clock. That’s why I had to hang onto the ball.”
And he did that until the end zone spike.
“The equipment guys took care of it after that,” he laughed. “I’ll get it from them. That’s coming home with me. And one day when I’m done with football that will go in the trophy room.
“It’s my first touchdown.
“It’s pretty awesome.”