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Becoming a man through trials

Published: Monday, September 17, 2012

Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012 18:09

rj flemming

Courtesy of Sports Information

Junior wide receiver and former Trinity Episcopal standout R.J. Fleming takes the ball up the field during a punt return against Western Kentucky in 2011.

Jan. 8, 2012 was supposed to be the biggest game of sophomore wide receiver R.J. Fleming’s college career. His coaches told him they had plans to get him the ball and he knew this was his moment to do big things on the field. But on that morning, R.J.’s life took an unexpected turn.

In the early morning hours before kickoff of the GoDaddy.Com Bowl, a domestic dispute resulted in the loss of Fleming’s mother.

“My coaches called me to the side and I was thinking it was something about football and they kind of gave me the heads up on it and ever since then it’s just been like… I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Fleming said. “It’s not reality to me yet.”

Hailing from Natchez, Miss., Fleming left behind his parents and a little brother as he made the six hour journey to Jonesboro to pursue his football dreams at Arkansas State. Once he arrived, R.J. dedicated himself to improving as an athlete.

“[R.J.] is one of the hardest workers I know,” senior kicker Ryan Wilbourn said. “Many times I would see him at the football field before and after the team doing stuff on his own to try and get better, healthier,  stronger and faster. He was always determined to be the best he can be, and he still is.”

Off the field, Fleming was building a stronger relationship with God. This dedication stuck with him when life as he knew it was gone. Not only did R.J. lose his mother, but his father passed away within the next two weeks.

“My relationship with God has been number one in my life. Always has been, always will be,” Fleming said. “I truly believe that is how I have peace throughout all this and that’s how I wake up every day and get through it.”

As the news of Fleming’s loss hit campus, there was talk he would not return. After all, R.J. had a younger brother who was also trying to make sense of what had happened. Although his family was dealing with a major loss, Fleming had another family waiting for him in Jonesboro.

“Anytime an event of that magnitude happens, there is uncertainty. You don’t know how a person is going to react to it,” Wilbourn said. “But at the same time we felt fairly confident that he would come back. Coach [Hugh] Freeze at the time really had us believing in each other as a family and brought us together. If we would have lost R.J., it would have been like us also losing a family member and that would have been hard for us.”

Wilbourn also said that Fleming came back working just as hard, if not harder. R.J., now a junior, made the decision to come back not just to make it in the big leagues, but to be the man his younger brother Trey needed him to be. Despite the six hours between them, R.J. and Trey call and text each other whenever they can.

“Last year, I felt like I was a little boy and now I feel like I’m stepping into a man’s role more and more,” Fleming said. “Today, I’m here for my little brother. I have to be a big brother and a man; a father figure in his life. I’m out here every day and I want to make myself a better person for him on and off the field. He’s an inspiration to me, that’s my heart.

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