Darius Fleming rides through injuries, obstacles after ND
Darius Fleming has been bucked off his fair share of horses.
When he was 6 years old, Fleming — a former Notre Dame linebacker who grew up on the south side of Chicago — began spending weekends with his aunt, Valerie Peeples, who owned a slew of horses in a nearby suburb.
He cleaned the stalls. He conditioned the horses. He learned to ride, and soon, he began competing in rodeos.
“Anything on a horse, you could count me in,” recalled the 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker.
Part of riding, though, is falling. It’s inevitable, the agonizing offspring of gravity and speed. If you ride enough, you’ll pay for it.
You’ll tumble sideways off the saddle, landing in a crumpled heap. You’ll accumulate fresh bruises in painful shades of purple and pink. You’ll lift yourself out of the stinking mud, gather your senses and get back on the horse.
Or you won’t. Those are your options.
In football, as in rodeo, Fleming rides and falls.
Fleming’s favorite Notre Dame memory is one he can’t remember.
It’s Sept. 6, 2008, a sunny Saturday in South Bend, and the St. Rita High School product trots out of the tunnel. “This isn’t so bad,” he thinks to himself, and the freshman takes deep, calming breaths. Notre Dame Stadium is roughly half full. He runs through warm-ups, then disappears into the locker room.
When he reemerges for his first game, everything has changed.
“I was so nervous, because I had never played in front of that big of a crowd,” Fleming recalled. “We came out to the fight song, and the stadium was full. It was like, ‘Whoa.’ It was a little overwhelming.”
The consensus top-100 recruit lines up for the opening kickoff, and the volume steadily grows. He’s a barrel of overflowing emotions, scared and excited and invigorated all at once. On the other end, San Diego State tailback Davon Brown awaits the kick.
Fleming remembers everything, then nothing. His conscious short-circuited.
“I swear, once I hit the line of scrimmage on the kickoff, I blacked out,” he said. “It was like a movie.”
And like a movie, Fleming made the tackle — on his first play, in his first game.
“I blacked out until I made contact,” Fleming said. “That was pretty cool.”
For so long, Fleming was riding high. He made 157 tackles with 15 sacks in his four seasons in South Bend, growing to embrace the once-overwhelming Notre Dame Stadium crowd. He served as the bridge between two eras of Notre Dame football, playing two seasons under Charlie Weis and two more under Brian Kelly.
He was selected in the fifth round (165th overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, joining the NFL’s premier defense.
Then, out of nowhere, he fell. Hard.
Fifteen minutes into his first rookie minicamp in 2012, Fleming tore his left ACL. Following a year of grueling rehabilitation, he returned for training camp in 2013, only to tear the same ACL again. He was released by the 49ers after two seasons, two rehabs and zero career games.
He wondered if his football career was over. Then, he got back on the horse.
“It was something that I needed,” Fleming said. “I was at a point in my life where I felt a lot was given to me. At that point I had to work really hard to get back. I think that in the long run all of it helped me.”
It’s Feb. 1, 2015, and Fleming is not overwhelmed.
He is distraught.
Four days after being released by the 49ers, Fleming signed with the New England Patriots, on May 16, 2014. And now, here he is, playing in front of more than 70,000 fans in Super Bowl XLIX.
He made it all the way back to arrive at this moment, and his team is about to lose.
“It was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we made it this far, and it’s going to end like this,’” Fleming recalled. “It was our moment. I thought it was meant to be. But in my mind, I definitely thought we lost.”
With 26 seconds remaining and New England clutching onto a desperate 28-24 lead, the Seattle Seahawks stand at the 1-yard-line, teetering on the edge of a second consecutive championship. Seattle has the momentum, the experience and perhaps the NFL’s premier short-yardage back, Marshawn Lynch.
All he has to do is run it in, and the game is over. The season is over. For Fleming, the dream is over.
Instead, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll opts to pass, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepts a slant route and Fleming’s comeback is complete.
“It brought tears to my eyes just to stand on that field and look back on everything that I’ve been through and then say that I won a Super Bowl,” he said.
Fleming has had a strange few months.
On Jan. 14, the fourth-year NFL linebacker was driving home from the Patriots’ facility when a semi-truck made a sudden turn, causing a three-car accident behind it. Fleming avoided the wreck but noticed that the woman in the damaged vehicle in front of him was having trouble exiting her vehicle, which appeared to be filling with smoke.
The Irish alum rushed to her aid, kicking out a window and pulling the woman out of her car. The only injury in the entire accident was suffered by Fleming, who cut his left leg on the glass window.
He left the scene and hurried back to the Patriots' facility to get patched up, then received 22 stitches at a local hospital to close the wound.
Two days later, Fleming made two tackles in the Patriots’ 27-20 playoff victory over Kansas City. His anonymous act of kindness went unnoticed — for a while.
“When I did it, I didn’t look for any exposure,” he said. “I didn’t even tell people right away. That wasn’t my goal.”
The following Wednesday, Fleming’s story got out, then got mangled. TMZ questioned whether the incident ever took place, claiming there was no record of the four-vehicle wreck. The sensational website went on to quote an anonymous source at the Foxborough Police Department, who reportedly said, "It's starting to look like Manti Te'o."
Before the day was out, however, the Walpole Police Department, the woman Fleming had helped and multiple eyewitnesses all stepped forward to corroborate Fleming’s account. He transformed from hero, to villain, back to hero — all in one news cycle.
His public perception may have changed, but Fleming never did.
“It taught me not to worry what other people say,” Fleming said. “I’m going to continue to be the person that I am. When I see a person on the side of the road and I can help them, I’m going to help them. I’m not looking for any attention for that. That’s just who I am. That’s who we all should be.”
Last Friday, the Patriots released the 26-year-old Notre Dame product. Fleming returned to the Chicago area, where he’s currently training with former Irish teammate Kerry Neal at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park.
He fell, but Darius Fleming will ride again.
“Things like this — getting released by the Patriots — those situations are easy for me, because I’ve been through so much more,” Fleming said. “I’ll continue to work out and better myself so when the next opportunity comes along, I’ll be ready. But until then, I don’t worry.”