Natchez native uses role to serve young men

Published 10:10 am Friday, March 5, 2021

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R.J. Fleming’s first day on the job at Eastern Michigan, this Monday was full of housekeeping and paperwork to complete.

His second day was filled with meetings as the Natchez native settled into a role as a wide receivers coach at Eastern Michigan University. Leading a position group is a new responsibility, he said, as he is now accountable for all of his kids’ lives.

“It is a great opportunity and I’m thankful for the great responsibility that I have,” Fleming said.

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He said he has already begun connecting with players. Letting players know that he cares is important to him, he said, because of a personal tragedy he experienced on the day of the 2012 GoDaddy bowl in Mobile, Alabama his sophomore year at Arkansas State.

In his hotel room the morning of Jan. 8, 2012, his phone kept ringing constantly, he said. Fleming never picked it up because he said he never looked at his phone until after the game. Fleming was in a team bible study at the hotel when an assistant coach pulled him aside and told him to call home.

His mother Eveyette Fleming had been allegedly shot by his father Fredrick Fleming in a domestic dispute. It was a surprise R.J. said because he watched his father treat his mom like a queen his entire life.

His dad had schizophrenia, he said, and his family did not tell him because they wanted him to stay in school. His father’s health deteriorated while he was in jail where he died. Fleming’s coaches at Arkansas State gave him support during the tragedy.

“I had coach David Gunn, who came down to Natchez for days on end, (coach) Maurice Harris never left my side,” Fleming said. “(Head coach) Hugh Freeze went beyond and served as a guardian. He was like a father figure and it was unbelievable.”

It was the kindness of the Natchez community after the tragedy that still sticks out, in addition, he said great, humble, confident people comes to his mind. Meeting the needs of others, he said, is second nature and he learned this from Natchez.

He said so many people created opportunities for his brother and him, and it is something he will forever be grateful for. The period of tragedy in his life influenced him as a coach, he said. On the recruiting trail and in the locker room, he said he comes across players who do not have a father figure.

“Being able to relate to those guys and being able to share my story, and just being able to be transparent about what it looked like for my brother and I. It immediately puts those kids at comfort and at ease,” Fleming said. “A kid named Emanuel Porter (at TCU) lost his dad. Right off of the bat, I knew God was right there in the mix. We met almost weekly. It was amazing the Lord allowed me to have that kind of platform.”

Having a platform to make an impact on older men, and to serve is a driving force in his career. Fleming said his dream job is to become a head coach in the NFL.

Coaching in college football is very fluid and depending on timing a coach can make a move for another opportunity. He said he had four different coaches at Arkansas State.

Fleming’s coaching career began as a defensive backs coach at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, and worked as a wide receivers coach at Arkansas Tech University.

He worked as a graduate assistant at Texas Christian University from 2016-2018 and he spent two years at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia as an offensive quality control coach.

ACCS headmaster David King said he is so proud of Fleming for his accomplishments thus far. King coached Fleming at Trinity high school and described him as an electric player with great hands and vision.

Fleming helped him win two State championships. His sophomore year he returned a kickoff return for a touchdown diving into the endzone.

In his senior year, he rushed for 1,825 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also threw for 700 yards, five touchdowns and had 446 yards receiving. King said he was a player coaches liked because he played hard and had good sportsmanship.

“His whole career was just full of electric moments,” King said. “Even his 3 yard runs were electric. He was just so quick and elusive, and he was violent on defense too. He hit you, he was tough.”

After graduating from Trinity, King played at Arkansas State University where he played for 39 games. He caught 46 passes for 421 yards and had nine kickoff returns averaging 33.8 yards a return.

On his visit to Eastern Michigan Fleming said it was the efforts the school was making to upgrade facilities after back to back bowl game appearances that caught his eye. Having a winning culture like he had at Arkansas State and Trinity high school were also important, he said.

“God has always shown me his favor and allowed me to be a part of winning teams,” Fleming said. “I think there are also a lot of things you can learn when the game does not go your way. Losses hurt but you learn a lot from them.”

It is not just personal loss he said he learned from, it was also a loss to Centerville Academy as a sophomore where he learned another lesson. He said he couldn’t look his teammates in the eye because he felt he did not leave everything he had on the field.

The moment taught him to always give his all when he is in the position to do so.

“I wanted to maximize my roll, I want my teammates and everyone around me to know I am locked in,” Fleming said. “Sitting in that locker room I could not even lift my head because I felt like I let my teammates down. I never wanted to feel that way again.

King said Fleming called him on Saturday when Eastern Michigan made the hire official. He said he is always happy when former players keep moving up in the world.

He said Fleming was a player who had a kind heart and a positive personality. When Trinity would get big leads in games he would pull Fleming. King said he just kept cheering the younger guys on.

“This does not surprise me one bit to see the success he has had,” King said. “The kind of person he was. The heart, the work ethic, he just always had an outgoing personality and I’m just so happy for him. It always makes a coach proud when his former players do well, and most of mine do, so I’m a very fortunate man.”