Manning High School defensive coordinator Pat Fleming had a similar childhood to many of his student-athletes. He grew up in a single-parent household and used sports as an outlet.
Fleming estimates that over half of his student-athletes are …
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Fleming estimates that over half of his student-athletes are growing up in the same environment and now that he's a coach at his alma mater, he wants the football field to be a place where they can come and feel loved.
"Coming from a single-parent home, I used athletics to help me overcome adversity and go to college. Now I'm a teacher, an educator and a coach, and I feel like it's one of the hats that a coach wears," said Fleming. "When I was growing up, my brother was the only father figure that I had.
"It's just important to have some sort of guide. I just feel like sports with a good coach who is there for you for more than just on the field to try to make you a better man just goes hand in hand."
High school is an important stage of development for kids. Fleming, who also coaches track and field, knows that and holds himself to a high standard for the example he's setting for his athletes.
"I hold myself to a high regard on that because they're at an age right now where they're really finding themselves, their true identity," he said. "We reiterate this a lot, as far as making them be better men. If we can just get them to think before they make a hasty decision that could cost them not only their career, but their life. It's very important to me.
"I always go back to growing up with a single parent. I used sports as a tool to help me as far as reaching my goals and to stay out of trouble. A lot of those kids don't have anything else besides sports, so we want to make it a family atmosphere to make them feel wanted."
The first step in building those relationships is simple: just listen.
"Just someone to talk to for guidance. Sometimes they just want to be heard and don't have anyone to talk to. Not even being 40 years old, I kinda can relate to them," said Fleming. "I give them my number, they can call me any time with any kind of problems just to let them know that we're here for them for more than just football."
But it takes more than just talking to the Monarchs to be a father figure. Manning stresses the "student" in "stident-athlete" so the coaches work to make sure their athletes are focusing on their schoolwork. Fleming has also given his fair share of rides to and from practice, whatever he can do to help a student in need.
"I take guys home, to and from practice, anything they need. In the school setting, making sure they're on top of their work, they're not missing assignments. In our program, (head) Coach (Reggie) Kennedy does a great job of relationships with the teachers and the coaches, because we're trying to put the student before the athlete. We're trying to build better men for the future and not the moment."
Fleming and the other Monarch coaches have worked to build a family environment. That, in turn, helps build strong bonds on and off the field.
"I'm more of a family-oriented guy, so we coach like a family," said Fleming. "We laugh together, we cry together, we sweat and bleed together. It's like a family. I take great pride in that, knowing that I reach them not only as a coach, but on multiple levels.
"Some of these kids, we're the only family they have and that's important. In a team sport like football, where everyone has a job to do, it's like a family. All the pieces fit together to make the whole better, so it's important to have that family atmosphere."
That family feel is even more important at this time because of the civil unrest in the United States. As a black coach of predominantly black athletes in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, Fleming knows there are a lot of important conversations to have with his players. He also knows that sports can help bring people together.
"We're dealing with issues that have been going on for years, and one thing that's the most important thing is just awareness of any situation.," said Fleming. "Just letting these guys know what's the reason behind all of this. Not just George Floyd (a black man who died at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis) or any of the other things recently, it's been happening for years. Just to understand the world that we live in, where we're trying to go, but also try to use sports. In America, sports has been the common denominator for bringing everyone together and unity. We're just trying to use sports as a tool to help with some of the social issues we have out here."
Those conversations have been harder to have because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the Monarchs are in the early stages of their return to the field. Manning had its first week of practices this past week, and Fleming was thrilled his players were able to come together for the first time. Being at home for months on end can be taxing mentally, so he's excited to give his players an outlet.
"Mental health is the big thing right now," said Fleming. "Some kids don't do well being home. We don't know their home life, if they're eating. Some of them have had to become the head of household and go to work because their parent is laid off.
"It's important just to get them in a good mental space, because without being in a good mental space, nothing good can happen for you. We're just trying to get them in a good mental space, get them back out there, get the lactic acid out of them and just prepare to have a successful season."
It can be very difficult for men to have conversations about emotions and mental health, but Fleming has tried to open the door for his players to have those conversations with him.
"A lot of guys are like, 'I'm not macho if I express myself' but it's like an inactive volcano. It's building up inside and there's an eruption," said Fleming. "I work in special services, so I see how mental health can affect you positively and negatively. We're trying to be as positive as we can."
While there is still a lot of work to be done as the Monarchs return to practice, Fleming is glad to have his kids back.
"It feels awesome. The guys are lightening up, they're happy. You can't ask for much more from a teenager."
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