Plucky P.J. no Harry Potter

P.J. Fleck, the scrappy little rookie receiver who has been a sparkplug at 49ers training camp, took a reverse handoff during team drills Wednesday morning and turned the corner at full speed. As he charged toward the sideline, he was absolutely clocked by safety Ronnie Heard, who then drew the immediate ire of coach Dennis Erickson. But the big hit didn't seem to bother Fleck, who has developed thick skin this summer. You would, too, if opposing defenders called you "Harry Potter" during games.

That's the kind of thing plucky P.J. has put up with most of his football life as an undersized receiver. At 5-foot-9, the former Northern Illinois star has seen and heard it all from opponents who don't quite realize how much punch is in the pint-sized package that is lining up in front of them.

But last Saturday's exhibition game against Oakland – Fleck's debut as a professional – sort of took the cake.

"They were calling me ‘Harry Potter,'" Fleck said Wednesday at his stall in the middle of the 49ers locker room. "That's one of the best ever. That sticks in my head right off the top. But that's part of the game. You hear it all the time. That's the kind of things that go on out there being an undersized wide receiver. A lot of people like to take advantage of that and try to get in your head. You just have to brush it off your shoulder and you just try to make plays to keep them quiet."

Fleck has been doing that most of his life, earning all-state honors as a senior in high school after leading the state of Illinois with 95 receptions. He set a school-record last year with 77 receptions at Northern Illinois, where he was a three-year starter and finished his career as the school's all-time leading punt returner and third-leading receiver.

But those impressive numbers don't mean a whole lot now at the ultimate level of football, where Fleck is getting picked on in a way like never before.

This way hurts. The 215-pound Heard absolutely unloaded on Fleck during drills in which defenders are supposed to only "wrap up" ball carriers, according to Erickson.

But Fleck remained unfazed. He popped back up and dashed back to the huddle with the same kind of "let's do it again" attitude he has displayed throughout camp.

"I think I hit the ground so hard that I couldn't do anything else but pop right back up," Fleck said. "I mean, it was a great hit. I just get back up and get in the huddle and worry about the next play. That's part of the game and things like that happen. It's tough to pull back a guy like (Heard) who hits like he does. I'm a rookie, too. I take my shots. It's part of the game, though. I mean, it really is. Contact happens. I'm sure he wasn't just sitting there, ‘I'm going to knock this kid out.' It's instinct for him. It's just part of the game."

That wasn't the only time in the past few days where Fleck has received, let's say, a lack of respect from his teammates. The other day in the lobby of the team hotel, defensive tackle Michael Landry – who is almost double the size of Fleck – mistook Fleck for an autograph seeker from a youth group.

Again, Fleck was unfazed.

"It's not that big a deal," he said. "I'm not that big. I don't look like a football player. It's just a mistake that he made. It's understandable, because guys come in and out of here so fast. They see so many free agents come in here for a few days and leave, so it's tough to get to know everybody on the team."

But, to be sure, the Niners are noticing Fleck, and it's not just because he's the smallest player on the team.

"He's a warrior," Erickson said. "The guy is a frickin' warrior. He makes catches, he blocks, he's tough, he's quick, he (plays) special teams. I mean, he does it all. You can't ask for anything more than what he has given in this camp. He's an ultimate warrior as far as I'm concerned at that position."

Fleck may not be getting respect from everybody, but he certainly gets it from his head coach. And he's also getting it back home in the Chicago area. Fleck is writing a regular column in the Chicago Tribune in which he writes about his experiences as an undrafted rookie free agent competing in his first NFL training camp.

Fleck downplays his writing ability, even though he was an elementary education major in college and was doing some student teaching this summer before joining the 49ers in camp. But it's obvious the guy has a lot to say, not to mention a colorful way of expressing his thoughts.

Here's what Fleck had to say on a variety of other topics:

On whether he was a cult hero back home because of his newspaper column: "I wouldn't say cult hero. I think it's good for the community to have someone to answer questions about what it really is truly like for a guy who might not have the greatest shot in the world to make a football team. It's nice for people in the Chicago area and whoever reads it to see what it's like for a free agent trying to make a football team, what he goes through and the things that he sees and the feelings that I go through. I keep a lot of feelings inside, so I think this is really good for me to kind of express my feelings. Me writing articles has helped me get through a lot of difficult times that I have faced here."

On going back to Chicago for Saturday's preseason game against the Bears: "It's one of the greatest feelings in the world. It's a dream come true for me, whether I play one snap, whether I play no snaps or whether I play 30. I grew up a Chicago Bears fans, I was a Bears fan until I came here in May. It will be just great because my dad and I used to go to Bears games and I used to tell him that hopefully one day I'll be out there. And he just kept telling me, ‘If you work hard, you will be.' It's just a great dream come true for me to actually get a chance to play in the Soldier Field."

On some of his Bears heroes: "I was a big Tom Waddle fan; he's similar to a guy like myself. And Jim McMahon. I was Jim McMahon for Halloween a few times. My whole room was Bears. Refrigerator Perry, Jim McMahon, Dennis Gentry, Willie Gault, Walter Payton. I was a huge Bears fans. I actually have a (Bears) jersey of (current 49ers receiver) Curtis Conway at my house."

On his progress with the Niners: "You'd have to ask (coaches) where I stand. I know that I am improving as a football player since I've been here. The coaches have been great working with me and being patient with me as a rookie. Learning the offense in 2½ weeks is not an easy thing for all rookies to do. But they've been real patient with me and the mistakes I've made and things like that."

On what receiving positions he's playing: "Everything. I'm trying to learn all the positions because as a rookie you want to be able, if coach needs a wide receiver, you don't want to say, ‘Well, I don't know that position, coach, I can't go in there.' So I'm trying to learn them all, where if he needs any type of position, I can hop in there and get the job done."

So, does Fleck think he's making an impression?

"I'm just a true believer that whether you're 6-foot-8 or 5-9, if you continue to work hard, you will sooner or later get better and it will continue to show," he said.


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