By Will Vandervort.
It was sort like one of those long bus ride homes when he was playing minor league baseball for the Atlanta Braves and the Seattle Mariners organizations.
Kurt Fleming just walked over to a bench where no one was at and just sat there by himself. He did not talk to anyone. He just sat there alone for what seem like hours.
Just moments earlier, the Clemson freshman was being congratulated and high-fived after he ripped off a 30-yard run that set up an Adam Choice four-yard touchdown which gave the 22nd-ranked Tigers a 73-0 lead with 8:36 remaining in the S.C. State game on Sept 6.
Things had seemed to be going well for the walk-on up to that point, who four years ago decided to give up football after being drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the eighth-round of the MLB Draft. But as quickly as his success came, it quickly faded away.
On Clemson’s next possession, Fleming lost control of a handoff, but luckily his teammate and quarterback Nick Schuessler jumped on the loose ball to retain possession. But two plays later, he wasn’t so lucky.
After carrying the football six yards up the middle on a third-and-nine play from the Clemson 29, S.C. State’s Dominique Mitchell reached in, stole the football from Fleming and rumbled 35 yards for the touchdown. Just like that the shutout, which has been avoiding Clemson’s defense for six years now, was gone.
“I felt like I let everyone down,” Fleming said. “That’s just one of those things. It would be like striking out in the bottom of the ninth and the winning run is on third and you get punched out looking. Then you’re left wondering why didn’t I swing at that? That’s how I felt.”
Luckily, the fumble only cost the Tigers a shutout and not a ball game. Regardless, it’s a learning experience and Fleming says he has to keep the ball held high and tight to his body.
“The way I run, it’s a little bit harder because I’m pushing off people and trying to get away and hit people so I let it get out a little too far when I was on the way down and the guy came up and made a good strip,” the 23-year old freshman said. “Don’t take it away from him. I reached my arm out and he took it away from me so it was a good play by him.”
In the last nine days, Fleming says he has taken a good ribbing from his teammates. He says he has not watched the play on film and he covered his eyes when the team watched the film together last week.
“I heard a lot about it. It is over now. I can’t change it. If I could, I would,” he said. “I just have to learn from it.”
Odds are he will.
Fleming has been taking a good ribbing since he was a young boy. The youngest of three boys, the Louisa, Va., native knows how to handle the good nature fun from his teammates.
“I had two older brothers that picked on me all the time so I had to develop that kind of mentality early,” he said. “My dad was an Army brat and my granddad was in the Army for 27 years so there was no gray area for us growing up because we had a lot competitive stuff going on.
“Our pickup basketball games usually turned into fist fights.”
And those moments made Fleming a tough and hard-nosed-runner that allowed him to become an All-Star running back and centerfielder in high school. He rushed for about 1,200 yards as a junior before a torn anterior cruciate ligament cost him his senior season of football at St. Christopher’s High School in Richmond, Va.
Despite the ACL injury Army still signed him to a scholarship before he decided to play professional baseball as he reportedly ran a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash.
“We weighed the options when I was coming out of school and I knew I could play football when I was a little older, Chris Weinke and all of them did it so I figured I would give (baseball) a shot before I come back,” Fleming said. “If I would have got hurt in college, I would not have gotten drafted again and I would miss out on that opportunity.”
That opportunity has allowed Fleming to pay his tuition at Clemson so he can fulfill his dream of playing college football as well. An early enrollee, he walked on to the squad in the spring and has already become a favorite of his teammates and to the Clemson fan base.
Other than when freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson was announced, no other player on the Clemson team was greeted to a warmer welcome than when Fleming was announced to the 78,000 in attendance at the S.C. State game.
“I love football so I just go out there and play it,” he said. “I’m not really for all that stuff. If I’m a fan favorite, I appreciate it. I love all the fans that come to our games so if they are cheering for me that’s a plus.”
Fans love the way Fleming runs the football, especially when he runs over linebackers and safeties like he did on that 30-yard run against S.C. State.
“My favorite running backs were the big-power backs like John Riggins, Earl Campbell is my favorite running back of all-time, Mile Alstott and Jerome Bettis,” he said. “In high school I always ran like that. I might not have gotten the same results, but that is how I ran.”
Fleming understands he has a long way to go before he consistently starts seeing the field more at Clemson. He acknowledged he has not played in a football game in nearly six years prior to the Georgia game and he has a lot of making up to do.
“I feel like I have to keep learning the playbook and relearning the game of football,” the 6-foot, 230-pound power-back said. “That was the first football game I have really played in since my junior year of high school so it has been six years. That aspect of it and the experience, relearning football all over, I feel like most of Saturday was just me taking hand offs and running the ball. I can get better with my vision and ball security, obviously. I let that one slip away from me.
“I feel that I can fulfill the role as a power back, but I need to keep furthering myself along.”
Until then he will just make sure he hangs onto the football a little tighter when he gets his next opportunity.