Clemson's Jordan Leggett keeps pushing for his fallen teammate

A Livestrong bracelet is a fixture on Jordan Leggett's wrist, but it takes a beating. In the trenches at Clemson, it invariably stretches or tears, so a few times each season, a new one arrives in the mail as a replacement. As Leggett's playing time has increased since his freshman year and his tenacity as a blocker has blossomed, he has started wrapping tape around the bracelet to keep it intact, but it still snaps from time to time.

"They're getting broken more often," said Denise Lockwood, who's been supplying the senior tight end with the bracelets from his hometown of Navarre, Florida, since he arrived at Clemson. "We just sent him 10 more."

The bracelets are meant to be symbolic, to serve as reminders. But for Leggett, this routine is particularly fitting. He wears it for the teammate who'd always pushed him to work harder, and now each time he needs a little extra, Ian Lockwood's family is still there with a little more motivation.

Six years after Lockwood died of brain cancer, Leggett's career at Clemson is coming to a close. He arrived overmatched, blissfully unaware of how hard his path to success would be. He is leaving as a two-time finalist for the Mackey Award -- given annually to college football's most outstanding tight end -- and as the school record holder for catches, yards and touchdowns for a tight end. Lockwood has been with him every step of the way.

"We both loved football," Leggett said, "and with it being taken away from him, I just try to keep his legacy on my shoulders."

Leggett was a high school sophomore when he was paired up to share a locker with Lockwood, a senior and team captain at Navarre High School. Leggett was all talent -- bigger and faster than nearly everyone else on the field. Success came easily. Lockwood was all effort -- "one of those 110 percent all the time kids," his mother, Denise, said. Lockwood asked to be partnered with Leggett. He wanted to see how good Leggett could be if that talent was matched with Lockwood's drive.

The two became fast friends, and Leggett soon felt he was part of the Lockwood family. When Ian got sick, Leggett became a fixture at the house. The two were virtually inseparable.

Lockwood played six games his senior season in 2010 before the cancer forced him from the field. He delayed a third brain surgery until after Navarre's season ended -- a one-point defeat in triple overtime that Denise described as devastating. The family became close with former Florida and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, staying at the Meyer house on trips to Gainesville for treatment. Lockwood addressed the Gators before their bowl game that December, barely able to get out of bed but determined to make an impact. Leggett had planned to visit Lockwood in the hospital on Jan. 28, 2011, but Denise said Ian wasn't feeling up to it. Ian died hours later.

"It was rough," Leggett said. "A sad day."

But it wasn't the end of Ian Lockwood's story. Leggett and the rest of his Navarre teammates have seen to that.

Leggett was promised Lockwood's No. 10 at Clemson, but that didn't pan out. Instead, he wears No. 16 -- the sum of Lockwood's high school jersey and his own.

When Leggett left Navarre for Clemson, Denise gave him a small vial with Ian's ashes inside. She'd done it for all of Ian's former teammates who'd moved along. Most kept it close -- on a bedside table or hanging from a rearview mirror -- but Leggett had another idea. Before Clemson's spring game in 2013, he walked to one of the 10-yard lines at Memorial Stadium and spread his friend's ashes there. Three years later, the Lockwoods watched from the stands as Leggett and Clemson knocked off Florida State. Afterward, they took a family photo at the 10-yard line.

For Leggett, however, the mementos are everywhere.

On his first bus ride around Clemson Memorial Stadium (aka Death Valley) before Clemson hosted Georgia in 2013, he texted Denise. He was thinking of Ian. He could feel Ian with him.

"I cried a lot," Denise said. "Then we watched the bus stop and saw Jordan run down the hill, and it was really special."

There's a cross hanging in Leggett's bedroom that Denise gave him. Leggett looks at it every day and thinks of Ian.

"All my passwords for social media have something to do with him," Leggett said.

What matters most, however, are those trips back home. Six years after Ian's death, Leggett still thinks of the Lockwood house as a second home and still calls Denise "Mama." They'll make sushi together for dinner or go out on the Lockwoods' boat to relax. In so many ways, it's as if Ian is still there with them. The ashes and the cross and the bracelet are Leggett's reminders, but for the Lockwoods, simply having Leggett in their lives is a way to stay close to their son.

"It helps fill that little empty spot they have in their heart now," Leggett said.

The Lockwood family has helped push Leggett, too, and that's something he's desperately needed during his career.

The photo of Leggett scattering Ian's ashes came up in Denise's Facebook Timehop app recently, and she was astonished at how young he looked. He was thin and baby-faced, hardly the physically imposing presence he is today on Clemson's offense. Those early years were a struggle for Leggett, far from home with limited playing time and an uncertain future. He'd chosen Clemson because it felt like family, but he wondered if he'd made the right decision. Denise was astonished.

"We told him to go back, to show them you want it," Denise said. "And that's what he did."

It wasn't that Leggett had been lazy, it's just that he'd been used to things coming easily. He was talented, and that was both an asset and a drawback.

"It wasn't uncommon when kids are more gifted talent-wise, they rely on those things," said Chad Lashley, Leggett's high school coach. "There were times you had to challenge him and get onto him, but he'd always respond."

Ian had seen that early, and he pushed Leggett to make the most of his ability. Denise has done the same.

Leggett returned to Clemson with renewed enthusiasm. He hit the weight room and bulked up. He worked on his blocking to become a more refined tight end. He engaged his teammates, pushing them to follow his lead. He tried to follow in Ian's footsteps.

"It took a little while early on to get him to understand," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's just become so much more of a complete player these last couple years and has impacted our team in a great way. He's become a great leader, too. He's become one of the most committed guys."

Leggett finished his junior season with 40 catches for 525 yards and eight touchdowns, a school record for tight ends. He considered leaving for the NFL, but the draw of a final run for a championship was strong. He wanted to keep getting better, to finish what he started. It's another lesson learned from his friend, who was forced to leave so many dreams unfulfilled.

Denise sees the impact it's made. Leggett is stronger, more humble. He's comfortable in his role but pushes to do more. She sees the impact her son made on Leggett, and for her, it's a way to keep Ian's memory alive.

And so she sends the bracelets, and Leggett wears them as both a reminder and a motivator. Before each game, he'll get a text from Denise, just saying she's thinking of him and wishing him luck, and he knows the family will be watching him.

"Everybody wants to make Ian proud," Denise said. "They work hard knowing he didn't get that opportunity."