Notre Dame’s Darius Fleming had to wait till 165th pick, but he’s happy it was 49ers
BY MARK POTASH firstname.lastname@example.org May 4, 2012 11:00PM
Darius Fleming poses for a photograph at EFT Sports Performance, 1630 Old Deerfield Rd., Thursday, May 3, 2012, in Deerfield. | Photo illustration by John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: June 6, 2012 8:09AM
Despite the best of intentions to avoid watching the NFL draft last Saturday, Darius Fleming couldn’t avoid it.
‘‘I planned to go golfing, but the weather was really bad, so I didn’t do that,’’ Fleming said. ‘‘I ended up going to my grandmother’s house. I was getting a haircut. My grandmother was watching the draft, so I had no choice but to peek in every now and then and watch it with her.’’
There are few things more American than watching the NFL draft with your grandmother. But this wasn’t any draft for Fleming. The former St. Rita star and Notre Dame linebacker was expecting to be selected anywhere from the fourth to the sixth round, maybe higher. This was supposed to be one of the most exciting days of his life. But as the fourth round unfolded, anticipation soon gave way to less-becoming emotions that Fleming was finding hard to control.
‘‘I kept seeing linebackers go and go,’’ he said. ‘‘After a while, I started getting frustrated. I was in my own little world. People were trying to talk to me, and I was being [short] with them. I was frustrated with the whole thing. So I ended up leaving. About 10 minutes [later] on the Dan Ryan, I got a phone call.’’
It was the phone call Fleming was waiting for.
‘‘I answered the phone like a normal call: ‘Hello?’ I was kind of upset, frustrated,’’ Fleming said. ‘‘And the guy said, ‘Hey, this is the 49ers.’ Once I heard it was a team, I kind of got excited, and my whole mood changed. He explained what was going on. My heart started beating faster. I was excited about the whole thing because finally my opportunity was here.’’
The 49ers called to say they had selected the 6-2, 245-pound linebacker with the 30th pick of the fifth round, 165th overall.
‘‘I really didn’t care where I went; I just wanted my name to be called,’’ Fleming said. ‘‘I feel like my better years are ahead of me and soon to come. I don’t think I’ve played my best football yet. I’m just excited about the opportunity. It’s a great fit for me.’’
That might be the most important factor of all. Fleming is going to a playoff team with an outstanding defense but with room for him on its roster. There are few things more underappreciated in the NFL than being surrounded by good players. That’s how most recent late-round picks who make it started out.
‘‘Sometimes it’s just about the right situation,’’ said Fleming’s agent, Dave Lee of Players Rep Sports Management. ‘‘We have other clients on the 49ers, and it’s a great system for the younger guys. It’s going to be a great opportunity to learn from some of the best linebackers in the league.’’
After navigating constant change at Notre Dame, Fleming seems to be at the right place at the right time with the 49ers. Nine of their 10 draft picks last year made the opening-week roster. And though Jim Harbaugh is not a defensive coach, linebackers tend to flourish under him. At Stanford, he recruited Owen Marecic, Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser. With the 49ers, first-round pick Aldon Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011.
‘‘Harbaugh pretty much told me that they’re really light on the depth chart at outside linebacker and I’d definitely give them some help there,’’ Fleming said. ‘‘He said I can be a great help on special teams, which I believe as well. I’m looking forward to playing behind guys like Aldon Smith and learning because my time will come.’’
Eager to move on to the next phase, Fleming reflected on the process that brought him here. After Notre Dame’s season, he was a marginal late-round pick. His four years at Notre Dame, his hard work and his character — Harbaugh mentioned that when he talked to him on the phone — made a difference. But he shared the credit with Lee, who guided him through the process, and trainer Elias Karras and the staff at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park.
They helped give him an opportunity.
‘‘That’s all I wanted,’’ Fleming said. ‘‘I just wanted a team to believe in me, and the 49ers and Harbaugh did that. When they called me, I didn’t say, ‘What round was I drafted in?’ All I wanted to know was that they wanted me and would give me the opportunity, and I’m happy with that.’’