Graduate safety Troy Lefeged Jr. (No. 4) gets to Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson during Texas State's game against the Trojans on Oct. 16 inside Bobcat Stadium. Lefeged is second on the team so far this year with 46 tackles. Photo by Gerald Castillo
Troy Lefeged Jr. tackles more than just football
Texas State’s offense huddled up on Jim Wacker Field during practice on Oct. 12, getting ready to run a two-minute drill. Jake Spavital looked down at his play sheet, calling out what he wanted the Bobcats to do next.
When the head coach looked back up, he saw safety Troy Lefeged Jr. eavesdropping on the whole thing. Troy flashed a smile, then scampered back to the defense’s sideline.
Troy was in his element — inside his opponent’s head.
“I always do that,” Troy said. “I mess with the offense every day.”
Troy’s grin isn’t a common sight. The 24-year-old is withdrawn around most people. He’s got three sisters, two brothers, a mom, a dad, a daughter and a belt-sized circle of friends; it can be hard for him to let anyone new in and even harder to take his mind off the people who are counting on him.
It’s the result of a journey that’s taken Troy from coast to coast and added weight on his shoulders at every stop.
“It's hard,” Troy said. “I don't really talk about it too much, really.”
Lefeged (pronounced “lef-ridge” or, as Troy puts it, “left-handed refrigerator”) grew up in the northern suburbs of Washington D.C. Many of his relatives come from the same place and played football, too, like his cousin, Joe Young (formerly Lefeged), who was an Indianapolis Colt from 2011-13.
Troy’s father, Troy Lefeged Sr., described him as an active child. Sports helped Troy fit in and get some of his energy out. Troy Sr. started his son off in wrestling when Troy was around four or five years old. Troy got into flag football around the same time and moved on to tackle football at age seven. He was stockier than kids his age, more muscular and aggressive. A natural talent.
Troy liked football but he didn’t love it. He didn’t realize how good he was either. He had enough to deal with off the field, anyway. His parents were separated and neither of them were on their feet. Troy spent long stretches of his life staying with his grandmother, cousins or friends.
“My life was kind of in a mix-up. I had kids by two different women. They were all the same age,” Troy Sr. said. “A lot of things that they should've had, I wasn't able to give. I was in and out of jobs, you know, I wasn't doing all that well at that time. So it was kind of rough trying to take care of all five of them and not really being financially stable enough to do so.”
When Troy graduated from middle school, he went to New Jersey to live with his mom. He was mad about moving away from everyone he knew, though. He stopped playing football altogether, frustrated by his situation, missing out on his freshman season.
Troy moved back to Maryland at the end of the school year. But his circumstances still hadn’t changed. He got back into football, playing for Germantown Northwest, but missed practices left and right, having to make tough decisions for his own well-being.
“Troy ain't always have a home to go to,” said Brandon Herring, one of Troy’s childhood friends and former high school teammate. “He had no food to really eat at nighttime, didn’t know what our next meal was. And it was just things like that. We ain't know how he was going to get around, we had to always catch the bus.”
He couch-surfed from house to house, never staying anywhere long. Troy said some of the friends he lived with got into trouble and were “locked up.” He’d have to find somewhere new to sleep, a nomad in his own neighborhood.
“That’s when I really knew I had to play football,” Troy said.
His father encouraged him to play all the while. Troy Sr. could see himself in his son in both good ways and bad. Troy Sr. had a rocky family life growing up, too — his dad wasn’t there for him and he had to go live with his aunt after his mother had a nervous breakdown and was placed in a mental hospital. He was good at football but gave it up when his situation became too difficult to deal with. He didn’t want Troy to do the same.
So Troy stuck with it. He helped Northwest win 25 games combined in 2013 and ‘14, claiming state titles in both seasons. Afterward, he reclassified and transferred to an all-boys private school called Avalon in Silver Spring, Md. He made up a secondary unit that also featured current Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs.
“He wasn't the biggest. He was kind of undersized but he had the heart of a freakin’ lion,” said Avalon head coach Tyree Spinner. “He (told me) every time, ‘Coach put me on the best player.’ ... He just was always up for the challenge. But then once he started hitting the weights, once he started working out and everything caught up to his skill set and courage, he started to take off. I mean he changed his speed, he changed his explosion, he changed his size, his muscle mass. But the one thing that remained the same was his heart, and that's all it takes.”
Spinner helped Troy connect with Phil Austin, the head coach of a junior college in California called Fullerton, who offered Troy a chance to join his team. To Troy, it represented a fresh start.
However, California JUCOs can only offer roster spots, not athletic scholarships, meaning all of Troy’s costs would have to come out of his own pocket. And being from out of state, his tuition fees would be spiked.
Fullerton tries to help its college athletes in ways that are permissible. The staff would teach players how to apply for food stamps and where to look for part-time work. There were also two houses where the team would suggest out-of-state players move to so that they could split rent with their roommates and wouldn’t have to worry about finding an affordable place to stay. When one player graduated or left, a new one would come in and take over the lease. Austin said some players who come to Fullerton end up paying rent that’s higher than their parents’ mortgage.
Troy ended up at one of the out-of-state hubs in the spring of 2015 — a run-down, three-bedroom house with a front door that didn’t lock and windows that didn’t shut all the way that packed up to 10 football players at times.
The occupants would split up into two or three to a room and rotate from sleeping in a bed to sleeping on a chair to sleeping on the floor. Troy was used to that, though.
“We called it ‘The Trap,’” said Reynard Nobles, one of Troy’s teammates and roommates at Fullerton. “It was like a trap (house) … It was get it how you live out there, man.”
“I never heard Troy ever complain,” said Muhammad Jefferson, another one of Troy’s teammates and roomates.
But Troy didn’t last long on the west coast, burning through all his money before the 2016 season even began. He returned to Maryland and spent his freshman year with Bowie State, an NCAA Division II school on the northeast side of Washington.
“You knew he was a unique kid, but he never wanted to ask for help,” Austin said. “And you always knew that stuff was going on. Even when he went back home, I didn't even know till like the last minute. I don't think he wanted to tell me. But I mean, to be honest, we get a lot of that here, especially in the kid's first year.”
Troy racked up 17 tackles, one forced fumble and one pass breakup at Bowie State. He likely would’ve been a starter if he stayed another season. But he still had his heart set on Fullerton — and was going to do whatever it took to get back there. He started saving up throughout the year and, on Jan. 10, 2016, created a GoFundMe fundraiser with a goal of $1,500.
A total of 34 donors pitched in, their contributions ranging anywhere from $5 to $150. After a few weeks, Troy picked up $1,540 — just enough for a second chance.
“I know a lot of people either dead before they're 18 or 21. A lot of people incarcerated. So at some point in your life, you wonder, ‘Is that going to be you?’” Jefferson said. “And when you get a chance like coming to California, it's unbelievable.”
Troy was academically ineligible to play in 2017 but still became a leader for the Hornets. Austin said Troy never missed a practice, a rarity for players stuck on the sideline. Fullerton went 23-0 over two seasons with Troy on the team (though, one win was overturned due to forfeit). In 2018, the one season he got to play, he posted 37 tackles, two interceptions, a blocked field goal and was named to the Southern California Football Association all-conference First Team.
He received offers from a handful of FBS programs, including Akron, Buffalo, New Mexico, Old Dominion, UMass and UTEP, per 247 Sports. He committed to Utah State for the chance to be a plug-and-play starter.
Troy Lefeged Jr. spent two seasons at Utah State, helping the Aggies earn a bowl bid in 2019. Photo courtesy of Wade Denniston, USU Athletics
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound safety finished fifth in the Mountain West with 104 total tackles in 2019, 49 of them coming by himself. The Aggies went 7-6 overall, 6-2 in conference play and earned a bid to the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl, losing to Kent State on Dec. 20, 2019. Making it to the NFL in the future suddenly wasn’t out of the question and USU head coach Gary Andersen planned to help Troy's pro career aspirations by moving him to nickelback.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things. The MWC originally announced it would suspend all fall sports on Aug. 20, 2020. The league reversed its decision on Sept. 24, allowing its schools to play an eight-game slate against conference opponents.
Troy played in just two games, suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Andersen was fired on Nov. 7 after an 0-3 start to the year and the Aggies finished the season with a 1-5 record.
Troy had a choice to make. He likely wouldn’t gain much NFL attention if he ended his college career. The NCAA’s eligibility freeze granted him another year to play but that meant starting over again and finding a new coaching staff that still believed in him.
“At a young age, he learned how to be independent and just not ask for anything,” said Terrell Campbell, one of Troy’s childhood friends. “Just to go get it himself, really, and just make things happen.”
The sixth-year senior entered the transfer portal and chose to move to San Marcos to play for Texas State.
“Troy had a really good profile tape from the year before when Utah State was playing at LSU. And he was tackling, you know, the starting running back for the (Kansas City) Chiefs, (Clyde Edwards-Helaire),” Bobcats defensive backs coach Brett Dewhurst said. “He's got a knack and nose for the football. He's one of the best that we've had at — you know, there's a lot of fundamentals that you teach in tackling. And he's been taught those along his career and he's natural at it. So as he gets going with all his tackling stuff, there's a lot of stuff that you don't have to coach that he's already doing.”
Troy has started every game for the maroon and gold this season. Heading into Saturday’s game against Louisiana, he was second on the team with 46 stops and had the team’s only interception of the year.
He’s also been a mentor to the younger members of Texas State’s secondary.
“He's a great leader,” freshman safety Zion Childress said. “He expects greatness out of everybody around him because he goes hard. He probably goes the hardest out of all of us. And when I see him go hard, I try to pick up my intensity.”
Troy still has ambitions of making the NFL. He can’t envision himself in a 9-to-5 job. He's not sure where he'd be without football. Those who know him aren't sure either.
It's one of the few things that brings a smile to his face.
“I know if I do this, I can help everybody, not just me. This is bigger than me,” Troy said. “I want to help my father, I don't want him working no more. I don't want my mom working no more. I’ve got a lot of brothers and sisters, I just want to help everybody. I don't want my little brother going through what I went through. So I know this can help everybody. And it can keep my therapeutic going, man. It's therapy for me.
“I think I just like the game, to be honest with you. It's stress relief. I only gotta worry about one thing. I don't have to worry about nothing outside. It's not reality, it's football.”