There is a rule in NCAA press boxes around the country that cheering is prohibited. You are there to work. But there are certain circumstances where the inner fan in me screams out as loud as possible. I have no problem admitting I am a fan of R.J. Fleming. I am a big fan of all of those who battle back from adversity. And R.J. Fleming’s story is full of adversity.
The day was going to be big for R.J. Fleming.
The Arkansas State game plan for that night’s GoDaddy.com Bowl game was full of Fleming, and if the Red Wolves were going to record their first bowl victory, the sophomore wide receiver from Natchez, Mississippi was going to be a major player. Very major.
But sitting in a morning team Bible study, everything changed when he was called aside by interim head coach David Gunn, who had a message for Fleming to call back home to Mississippi.
“The whole bowl preparation that my coaches planned for me was to get the ball in my hands as much as possible,” said Fleming. “I was going to be running some Wildcat (offense) a little bit and rotate from running back to receiver. I had a really big role in the game plan and was getting ready in my head and all of that. I am in the room with Allen Muse and I had just walked into the Bible study. We have this team Bible study on the day of a game.
“So coach (David) Gunn came in and got me from the Bible study and I was thought they were just going to to call each one of us over to the side and say get ready, get your mind right because we are going to need you,” Fleming said. “They called me to the side and asked me to call this random number. I called it and the cops did not want to speak to me; they wanted to speak to my coaches to verify I was who I said I was. A lot of identification-type things. Then I saw coach Gunn with the phone and he had tears in his eyes, and I knew there was something going on. And when I got on the phone they told me about what happened. I don’t really recall what happened from there.”
What happened back in Mississippi turned what could have been the biggest night of his life into his worst day ever.
On the morning of Jan. 6, 2011, his mother, Eyevette Fleming, 46, died of a gunshot wound in an apparent domestic dispute. His father, Frederick Fleming, 45, was charged with murder and was booked at the Adams County jail. Mrs. Fleming was believed to have died sometime between 5-8 a.m. that morning.
“You could tell he was just stunned,” said coach Gunn. “We were with him and we knew before he got the call, but the official word had to come from the officials in Mississippi. And he just kept saying, ‘no way, no way’ and he eventually became emotional and very distraught, as you would expect him to. It was a natural response.”
Fleming was escorted to Hattiesburg, Miss., by two ASU representatives where they met with two of his uncles, who lived in Natchez.
Before kickoff, ASU issued a press release that the sophomore receiver would not be at the game for personal reasons. Whispers in the press box told the real shocking story.
Aside from being a football coach, David Gunn is also an ordained Baptist minister, and Fleming’s pastor. He was a position coach at ASU until Hugh Freeze, who had engineered the Red Wolves’ 10-2 season, left for Ole Miss two days after the Red Wolves captured the Sun Belt title. Gunn was named interim head coach for the bowl game and oversaw the team’s preparation even after Gus Malzahn was named the new head coach.
“I am amazed at how he has handled it,” said Gunn. “You could easily see how he could walk around and be angry at the world, or just give up and quit. He has every right to have those reactions. But you see him; he always has a smile on his face. It is a testimony to the character of R.J. Fleming.
“If you were to suddenly come into his life and spend a couple of months around him you would never know what he has experienced in the last year,” Gunn said. “He is a very special young man, and a heck of a football player. He has become like a son to my wife and me. He is special.”
Two weeks later things got worse. On Jan. 19, Frederick Fleming died in jail. The sheriff’s department said it appeared to be natural causes.
“I still don’t know,” said Fleming. “We still are not sure what happened. All I know is that they called my uncle and my aunt and that my dad had passed away. I don’t know what happened. I still don’t know what happened. We got a lawyer involved, investigated the whole thing. Nobody is really sure what happened.”
After his father was buried, Fleming, suddenly faced with the added responsibility of his little brother, did some deep thinking, which included a possible break from college and move home to be near Trey, who was 15 at the time.
“I would not say that my intentions were to quit,” he said. “But I did have intentions to put everything aside for a little bit and go home and be with my little brother. He was there the whole time. He witnessed everything. I just wanted to be there for him. That was my main thing. I talked to him everyday on the phone and through text. I have a lot of family and lot of close friends back home that I had keep tabs on him. I was just trying to get feedback everyday.
“The main thing is we both have a strong relationship with God,” Fleming said. “My biggest thing is I have a strong relationship with God and I depend upon prayer. I was just praying for my little brother every day. I would talk to him and he said he was doing OK. Me and him are the same way, just remember the good times. That is what gave me peace of mind knowing that God was going to take care of everything.
“My whole life revolves around my relationship with God,” he said. “There is no way I would be able to get through all of this without that.”
Back in Jonesboro, there was an outpouring of love for R.J. from classmates, teammates, coaches and people in the community. The ASU Family rallied around the likable young man.
“I promise I don’t even know where to start,” he said. “I know not everyone can say this but God has blessed me with a lot of people who I am close to and who I can confide in. As far as my coaching staff, I have had several talks with coach Gunn and coach (Casey) Woods a bit and there are several people around here who have helped. One family, the Hoffmans, have been very special. They have … I don’t even know where to start. But it is very special to have those kind of people around you.”
Last month, the Red Wolves wrapped up their second straight Sun Belt Conference title. A team that was 2-3 at one point, won its final seven games. Fleming, who switched jersey numbers from 82 to 4 this season because it was his parents’ favorite, was right in the middle, being a part of the receiver mix and finishing with nine receptions and a career high of 113 yards.
“He is a very good football player; he has just been a little nicked up at times,” said Gunn.
R.J. was openly looking forward to his trip home to Natchez for Christmas, even going as far as posting a Facebook note about being blessed to be back in the 601 (Mississippi), but he knew it would never be like before while celebrating the day that is the foundation of his life.
Well, every day is not like before for Fleming, but there is nothing that says family more than Christmas and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
R.J. and Trey, now 16, were reunited at Christmas with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, and the scars of what happened a little more than a year ago.
“Christmas was great,” he said. “Obviously, I have a little brother there and other family members to help me help me try and keep my mind off things. I can’t sit here and say it was the easiest thing. A part of me was missing my parents. I just try to remember the good times and not dwell on what happened. I try to keep it in my heart and remember all the nice stuff.”
The nice stuff included a traditional family who built their lives around their sons’ athletic and academic pursuits at tiny Trinity Episcopal School in Natchez and the church, which R.J. said was 300 yards from their home and a place they often walked to together as a family.
Now a year later, he is about to return to where things all fell apart. After the Red Wolves’ 42-0 pounding of Middle Tennessee the team wound up with a second straight trip to Mobile and the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
“I kinda feel like the whole team wanted to go somewhere else,” said Fleming. “We all had our sights set on the Liberty Bowl, and we wanted to play Ole Miss. All of the A-State Nation wanted to go there. When we got Mobile, personally, it was not like that ‘oh no, here we go again.’ My plan is to go down there and do what I planned to do last year; I just plan to prepare and take advantage of every opportunity I have.”
In last year’s bowl game, bowl officials were impressed with the showing of the A-State fans, saying it was the best any school had ever brought to the game. This year, the Fleming family plans on being a big part of the crowd.
“Oh I will have tons there,” he said. “I felt horrible because I was not able to get them all tickets. But it is really big to me that my little brother will be there. It is going to be awesome to know that he is in the stands watching.”
And so will a lot of other fans, most of them cheering for R.J. Fleming.