Joe Fleming on his Canadian football League career
Just a few days after doug Flutie hung up the cleats, Fleming became the second MetroWest resident to leave pro football this week, when he officially announced his retirement from the Canadian Football League.
Fleming, who grew up and still resides in Wellesley, attended Xaverian Brothers and the University of New Hampshire before becoming one of the CFL's best defensive players over the past decade. During a stellar nine-year career, including stints with the BC Lions, Calgary Stampede and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive lineman was named a league all-star four times and the CFL's Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2003.
"I had to make sure that I'd be home, be a dad and do the things that are important and take care of my family," said Fleming last night. "I had to stop the moving and settle down. I was able to do this on my own terms and pace, and that's great as a professional athlete.
"This was an emotional day. I've been playing football since I was six years old. To end that is difficult. But I did it on own terms and not someone else's. A lot of pro athletes do not get to do it that way."
Fleming, 34, will now turn his full professional attention from football to his real estate business. "I started in real estate four years ago," he said. "With the mortgages and all, it's been good and busy. I enjoy it. It's a full service, from beginning-to-end real estate company."
In high school, Fleming was a football and hockey standout at Xaverian. Though he was drafted by the NHL's St. Louis Blues, he opted to play football at UNH, where he was a three-year starter, All-Yankee Conference pick and ECAC All-Star. He had 22.5 career sacks for the Wildcats with 10 during in his senior year.
After college, Fleming tried to make Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns in 1995 as a free agent. He was one of the last cuts by the Browns late in training camp. A few years later, after establishing himself quickly as one of the best defensive players in the CFL, he gave the NFL another shot and signed with the Chicago Bears in 1999.
"In Cleveland, at that point, I was not ready for that step," said Fleming. "I needed to be seasoned a bit. But in Chicago I was ready and had been playing well. Unfortunately, I got hurt and ended up back in Canada.
"I never looked back. I'm glad I remained up there. It was a blessing I got hurt. I was much happier there than doing anything else. It was a lot of fun. I'll remember so many good things like the friendships I'll have for rest of my life."
One of his most unforgettable highlights playing in Canada was against another CFL great who grew up and lives in neighboring Natick and also enjoyed playing north of the border.
"It was the first game I ever played against Flutie," said Fleming. "He was older. He was in his 30s and I was in my 20s. I remember watching him play at BC when I was a kid. He was quick and tough to catch. But I had the good fortune of actually sacking him. It was wasn't a good hit. I got him by a shoe string."
In 145 CFL games, Fleming recorded 273 tackles, seven pass knockdowns and 70 sacks. During his player-of-the-year season with Calgary, he had 33 tackles, including three for losses, and 11 sacks. The 2001 season was also a high point of his career. He had 11 sacks and returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown while helping lead Calgary to the Grey Cup championship.
"I also retired after 2001 after winning the Grey Cup," recalled Fleming. "The last play of the championship game, I had a sack. I thought that would be a good way to end. But this definitely will be my last time."
Fleming played four more years after winning the CFL championship.
"It was a very hard decision to make," he said. "I had the opportunity to play for three great organizations in the CFL, many great coaches and have amazing teammates. Except for my wife Stacy and my kids Madelyn, who was born in Canada, Erin, Joe Jr., the CFL is the best thing that ever happened to me."