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After he committed to Clemson, this local football star’s family decided to go with him

Offensive tackle Tristan Leigh, second from left, was joined by his mom, Laura Rigney, and younger brother, Aidan, when he left for Clemson this summer. His older sister, Kaitlin, attends James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va. (Family photo)
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Tristan Leigh and the rest of the Clemson football team walked out of Memorial Stadium on Saturday and continued through a parking lot to a team building. Fans crowded the players, asking for autographs and cheering after the Tigers’ 49-3 rout of South Carolina State.

About an hour later, Leigh, after playing 10 snaps at offensive tackle, emerged from the building in street clothes and jumped into the passenger seat of his mother’s Toyota Sienna. There, he no longer identified as a freshman for one of the country’s top teams. He was only Laura Rigney’s son.

They drove to Burger King, he ordered a bacon cheeseburger, and then they headed home — to her home, not his dorm — about 20 minutes from campus.

Leigh, who starred at Robinson High in Fairfax County, is one of several athletes from the D.C. area whose family followed them to college this year. The grandparents of former St. John’s girls’ basketball star Azzi Fudd bought a cottage in Coventry, Conn., to watch Fudd’s games with the University of Connecticut. Former Gonzaga quarterback Caleb Williams’s mother, Dayna Price, moved to Norman, Okla., with him while he plays for Oklahoma.

Families want to support their athletes as they transition to colleges in new surroundings, and mental health issues among athletes have become part of a national conversation during the coronavirus pandemic. But as adults sacrifice their comforts, they also try to find a balance between assisting their children and allowing them to evolve.

“We wanted to be a part of the experience with him,” Rigney, a single mom, said of Leigh, “because what a unique experience to have a child who’s going to play at a school like that.”

Lindsay Jernigan, a clinical psychologist and therapist who specializes in emotional resilience and relationships, said a family member living near a relative in college can be beneficial if the family member grants the student freedom to create relationships and make decisions. The proximity, Jernigan said, can present a risk if the parent becomes too involved and prohibits the student from maturing.

“Emerging adults need to spread their wings, but they need some space to spread into rather than just staying within the roles and boundaries and relationships they already know and having that bubble move from one place to another,” Jernigan said. “They actually need their boundaries to spread. The task in emerging adulthood is to really figure out who you are in relation to yourself and other people outside of your family.”

As Leigh collected scholarship offers from football programs across the country in early 2019, Rigney said she would support him wherever he went. Leigh considered local universities, such as Maryland and Virginia, but he respected Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney and preferred to play in a warmer area.

In December, Rigney put her Fairfax home, where she had lived most of her life, on the market, and it sold about two weeks later. After Leigh committed to Clemson on Jan. 2, the family visited South Carolina the next week to look at houses. When Rigney’s 16-year-old son, Aidan, saw a pool with a white slide in the backyard of a home in Anderson, S.C., they were sold. The house is about 20 minutes from Clemson’s campus.

Rigney, who transitioned to a remote job at the same health-care company where she worked, had a hectic spring as she prepared for the move. Between March and June, she drove from Virginia to South Carolina six times, she said, filling her minivan with furniture.

Leigh, who could not be reached for comment this week, initially argued that moving would diminish recruiting opportunities for Aidan, who was also an offensive lineman at Robinson. A few hours at orientation a day after his family moved in June changed his perspective.

“Man,” Leigh said to his family, “I’m so glad you all are here.”

Aidan, who holds scholarship offers from five Power Five programs, enrolled at the local high school, Pendleton. He left the friends he has known since kindergarten, but the junior has gotten accustomed to praying with his new team before every game and celebrating victories at Waffle House. He and Tristan did almost everything together growing up, and he didn’t want to lose that.

“It’s really big for me because ever since I was a kid, he’s basically been a mentor to me, and I look up to him a lot,” Aidan said. “Being able to see him almost every single day, it really impacts me a lot.”

Rigney, who bought a larger house about $100,000 cheaper than what her Virginia one sold for, believes the move will also save money when it comes to travel expenses, though that wasn’t her priority, she said. While Rigney was concerned about Leigh’s well-being, she also worried about her own mental health if she was away from him.

Leigh visits his family whenever he has time off. Some nights, Rigney drops off food at Leigh’s dorm, where he lives with freshman quarterback Billy Wiles, a walk-on who played for Stone Bridge in Ashburn.

Rigney encourages Leigh to spend more time with friends, she said, but Leigh told his mom he enjoys eating and chatting with her and playing Xbox and watching movies with Aidan.

“I try to give him the space,” Rigney said. “I’ve encouraged him to do more college-type things, but Tristan is very football-focused. It’s all he cares about. It’s all he wants to do. That’s his goal. He doesn’t go out. I don’t know if that will change at some point, but I’m happy that he’s happy.”

Aidan does not yet have a scholarship offer from Clemson, so when it’s time for him to transition to college in two years, Rigney may have to make another tough decision.

For now, though, Rigney is enjoying South Carolina and trying to help Leigh however she can. On Sunday morning, after Clemson’s win, most players’ parents prepared to return home. Rigney sat at her kitchen table with Leigh, eating steak biscuits from Hardee’s. It was nothing fancy, and it didn’t need to be.

“He likes coming here as an escape,” Rigney said. “He gets to come back and be part of our family. He doesn’t have to be associated with anything. He just gets to come and be a kid — or my kid.”