Fleming 'mature beyond his years'

Football was not Darius Fleming's first love, but ever since his eighth grade coach failed to see his potential, Fleming has been on a mission to prove it.

When he was in fifth grade Darius Fleming told his father that he had a problem at school.

"He came home and said that he wasn't learning anything," Larry Fleming said. "I looked in the mirror and started crying. I didn't know what to do."

Larry Fleming discussed the situation with his sister who lived in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago and eventually Darius was able to enroll in school there.

"Once he got there, he excelled. He went straight to the honor roll," Larry Fleming said.

For Larry Fleming, it was a concrete example of what he already knew.

"Darius is mature beyond his years," Mr. Fleming said. "I give Darius all of the credit in the world. He took advantage of the situation."

Larry Fleming and Darius' mother Leona Nelson never married, but both were very involved with Darius' upbringing. Darius lived with his mother until seventh grade when he moved in with his father.

"Darius is a very, very good kid," Nelson said. "I have never had any problems with him."

Like most future top prospects, Darius used sports to keep himself busy and out of trouble. However, Darius didn't play the same games that his all of his peers did as children.

"Darius learned how to ride a horse before he learned how to ride a bike," Larry Fleming said.

For Darius, his first passion may never die.

"I rode in rodeos from age six to 12," Darius said. "I have two horses that I keep at a stable. It's something I still do today and probably something that I'll always be involved in."

Darius gave basketball a shot as a kid, but admits that he was "really bad", so he turned to another family tradition.

"I bought him his first bowling ball at age seven," Nelson said. "It took time, but he mastered the game. I've been bowling in leagues for 25 years and he's better than me."

Darius loved the game and learned all he could about it.

"Darius knows a lot about bowling," Larry Fleming said. "He knows the ball inside and out. He knows how to make the ball move. He understands hand placement and how to read the lanes."

While Darius never gave up riding or bowling, he flirted with a third sport with little success initially.

"He played on a Park District football team in eighth grade, but the coach never played him," Nelson said. "That gave him the determination to play in high school."

Darius went out for the freshman football team at Saint Rita of Cascia High School on the south side of Chicago.

"I knew I wanted to be on the football team, so I went out for defensive back and wide receiver," he said. "I didn't have the best hands, so my defensive backs coach sent me down to the defensive line and bet the D-line coach that I would outplay anyone down there."

He did. But he wouldn't be on the freshman team for long. The coaches at St. Rita pulled him up to varsity by the end of the season, which worried his mother.

"I went down to practice and went on the field and asked the coach why he put my son on varsity," Nelson said. "He told me that Darius was good and that he was learning the game. He said that football was going to take us on a ride."

But Darius loved bowling and said that he had some thoughts of transferring to a different high school to pursue it. After a talk with his coach, Darius was convinced that he should give football an honest chance and has never regretted the decision.

"I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't at St. Rita," he said. "The school and the people there have let me know what I am capable of and it's made me want to go out there and do it."

And when Darius' father had some health problems and was out of work for eight months, the folks at St. Rita were there.

"They really helped us out," Larry Fleming said. "They looked out for me and Darius. They embraced us and treated us like family."

Darius was never a small kid, but when he shot up four or five inches to 6-foot-4 between his sophomore and junior years, it was clear that the coaching staff at St. Rita knew what it was talking about.

Darius made over 100 tackles his junior year and the standard mail he had been receiving from colleges turned into hand-written letters from head coaches and eventually into scholarship offers.

Notre Dame was one of the last schools to offer and weren't a serious contender in the beginning.

"Notre Dame was my 10th or 11th offer," Darius said. "At first me and my dad didn't like them so much, but we went down there and everything was great."

The coaches at St. Rita had told Darius that when he got to the school for him, he would feel it and Darius and his father found out what they meant during a visit to South Bend.

"The atmosphere and the coaching staff was overwhelming," Larry Fleming said. "Maybe the second or third time we were there I felt a chill and I asked Darius if he felt it and he said he did."

Darius gave Charlie Weis his verbal commitment before the 2007 Blue-Gold Game.

"I loved his decision," Nelson said. "He couldn't have made a better choice."

His father agreed with the selection because of the opportunities he would have down the road.

"There is only a handful of college degrees that give you a golden key; a master key that opens up a lot of doors for you and Notre Dame is one of those," Larry Fleming said. "If he were to get to the pros, that'd be fine, but if he gets that degree, I'll lose it."

Fleming won't be the only Chicago prospect in the Class of 2008 as Weis also went after Mount Carmel stud linebacker Steven Filer.

Fleming was not formally introduced to Filer until both were being recruited, but he knew of Filer from their high schools' rivalry.

"I remember our game freshman year and he was killing us," Darius said. "We're real close now. We work out everyday and see a lot of each other."

Filer admitted that it was difficult to put their past rivalry aside.

"He showed me that everybody isn't bad just because they didn't go to Mount Carmel," Filer joked.

It's evident that Weis wasn't joking at his Signing Day press conference when he said, "I think I might just room them together this summer just to see how miserable they can end up being."

But it's unlikely that the former rivals are going to make each other miserable.

"It's going to be good because I can relate to him and I know the style of program that he is coming from," said Fleming of his summer roomate.

But not everyone in Chicago understood their decisions.

"People told me that the school was prejudiced and that they're weren't a lot of black kids there, but we never felt that," Nelson said.

Darius' father said that it's a case of uninformed people.

"I hate when people talk about things they don't know about," he said. "If you've never been to a place how can you talk bad about it? People don't know what they're talking about, because it's nothing like that."

Nelson had trouble putting her feelings about her son into words.

"I can't even describe it," she said. "I'm too proud. Proud ain't even the word. He has impressed me so much. He's a blessing."

His father shares that sentiment.

"Darius is a great person. He deserves everything that he's getting," Larry Fleming said. "He's helped me just as much as I've helped him."

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