Why 5-star Clemson commit Tristan Leigh's mom is making the move with him

Chad Ricardo
·7 min read

Why the mom of 5-star OT Leigh is moving to Clemson with him originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Five-star offensive tackle Tristan Leigh is taking his talents to Clemson University, and his mother is going with him.

Leigh, of James W. Robinson, Jr. Secondary School, in Fairfax, Va., entertained 41 offers before announcing his commitment to the Tigers during the “All-American Bowl: Declaration Day” broadcast on Jan. 2. The standout lineman, who will be tasked with the responsibility of protecting some of the top quarterbacks in the nation, is thankful that his mother, Laura Rigney, will be there to watch his blind side.

“One of the joys of playing football is being able to look up and see my mom cheering for me and knowing she’ll be there after the game,” Leigh said. “At first, I was hesitant because when you go to college, you need that separation in order to become a man, but then I started talking to other players and they tell me how much they wish their parents were closer. So, being able to see my mom at games and knowing I can go to her when I need her is something I’m all for.

“It’s a big change in life; [going away to college] you’re not in school with people you grew up with anymore, so it’s kind of going outside of your comfort zone and having the support of my family will help me get through that adjustment.”

Football is a mainstay in the Leigh family. Tristan’s brother, Aiden, who is a sophomore offensive tackle at Robinson and holds five Div.-I offers himself, will be making the move to Death Valley as well. He’ll attend and play football at D.W. Daniel, the high school where many of Clemson’s coaches children attend.

Tristan and Aiden’s father, Stanley Leigh, played running back at the University of Virginia, which is where he met their mother. She witnessed Stanley’s experience as a “student athlete,” which provided her the first inclination it could be beneficial to remain as close as possible to her son as he begins his collegiate career.

“I lived through his dad being a college football player at UVA and I know what pressure they have,” Rigney said. “You’re not a regular student. You’re being looked at through a magnifying glass in everything you do. You’re trying to balance an absurd amount of school work with a schedule that’s minute-to-minute planned out. You can’t stay up late, you can’t do anything other people do, and when you do, you have 10 times the amount of eyes watching you and everything you do.

“I think that’s why a lot of kids end up in trouble or have a hard time when they play in school, because no one understands if they haven’t witnessed it firsthand, and we have the advantage because I went through that with his dad.”

NBCSW/Chad Ricardo

Tristan Leigh commits to Clemson

Navigating college football recruiting has become even more challenging in the years since Stanley played at UVA. For years, schools refused to devote substantial resources to recruiting athletes who attended high school more than six hours from campus, preferring to focus on building a proverbial fence around their own state. The prevailing thought was if the athlete’s home-base was within driving range, it would be easier for their friends and family to visit, thus helping the young man make the adjustment of being away from home.

Now, though, the landscape is changing. Top programs are doing more than locking down their backyards, they’re bringing in top targets from every corner of the country. And the distance makes it difficult for parents to travel to their children’s games, which is leading to an influx of parents choosing to “follow” their children to their chosen college town.

“I’ve planned to follow Tristan the entire time, even when it wasn’t what he wanted me to do,” Rigney said. “We went back and forth about this when he first started getting recruited. I kept saying, ‘I’m following you wherever you decide to go,’ and he’d say, ‘No, you’re not following me.’ Finally, I just said to him, ‘Look, I’m not going to be able to come to your games.’

“We live in a very expensive area. I work two jobs, both are almost full time, and I have to do that just for us to be able to get by here. I can’t afford to add all the travel expenses on top of that. I needed him to understand that Aiden would be playing on Friday nights and he’d be playing somewhere across the country on Saturday nights, so beyond the travel, logistically, there’d just be no way.”

As the family visited prospective schools, Tristan Leigh focused on football, while Rigney actively sought opportunities to speak with parents who had made the same decision she was contemplating. She found that each school had a group of families who had followed their children and, as a collective, established a community dedicated to watching over not only their own student athletes but others whose parents lived far away.

“When we went to Oklahoma this summer, I just loved the energy of the moms. They were like their own little team,” Rigney said. “The parents said, ‘Great, if you choose here, we’ll go to all the games together. We’ll buy the grill and the food, and the tailgates will be at your house.’ Everywhere we went, it was that kind of atmosphere. A lot of times, the kids who live far away can’t go home when the rest of the students do, so the parents who follow provide support and a place for the kids to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas and just be together.”

Beyond the cookouts and parent camaraderie, Rigney had more pertinent reasons to explore the move -- a battle with multiple sclerosis is stripping her of her mobility. Four years ago, doctors told her she would likely lose her ability to walk within 18 months, thus she knows the use of her legs is on borrowed time. As much as it “about killed her” to sell her family home, she knows the move will place her in position to find a living situation more suitable for her desired lifestyle.

“We live in a two-story house and I’m climbing up the stairs on my hands and knees almost every night to go to bed, because I can’t deal with the stairs anymore,” Rigney said. “So, we’re hoping to find a one-level house in the town of Clemson that is handicap accessible; no stairs and wider door entrances. I no longer want to be in a situation where I can’t get to bed at night.”

For Leigh, having his mother near and knowing he can check in on her gives him peace of mind he wouldn’t have had if she was hours away.

“Leaving her was definitely one of my concerns,” Leigh said. “I wouldn’t have liked being too far away. She has instances where she needs to go to the ER and when she needs people to be there for her, and since this has been going on for a while, I know what to do. I definitely believe it’s beneficial for me to be close so I can help take care of her.”

As excited as Rigney is to remain close to her son and keep her family together, she knows for their plan to go smoothly, she will need to fight the temptation of being involved in Leigh’s day-to-day life, lending him the space he needs to grow and develop as a young man.

“I will have to continuously remind myself, ‘He’s in college, leave him alone,’” Rigney said. “I don’t want to be that parent -- I think it’s really hard to not be that parent, but I won’t be that parent. But I told him, ‘Once we’re there, call me if you need anything. Other than that, I’m going to focus on giving Aiden the high school experience he deserves.’”

Tristan and Aiden plan to play football for Robinson this spring, if the pandemic allows. They will finish out the school year before they, along with their mother, move to Clemson, South Carolina.

“This is the most unique experience that anyone could ever have,” Leigh said. “Life is short, so why not?”