Breaking the game open

By Josh Albrecht

For NIU junior split end P.J. Fleck, the comparisons to ex-NFL star Don Beebe are flattering, but it’s the comparison to another player that he agrees with more.

“I’d say I am a little bit more like Tom Waddle,” Fleck said, in response to comparisons with the ex-Chicago Bears wide receiver. “I’ll go over the middle. I will extend my body, take some punishment and lay it on the line for my teammates. And I think Waddle did that all his career and that is why he had such a good career.”

Comparisons between Fleck and Beebe aren’t unwarranted, as both Fleck and Beebe went to Kaneland High School in Sugar Grove, Ill., and Fleck chose the jersey number 82, also Beebe’s, when he came to NIU because his high school number, 10, already was taken.

But that’s where the comparisons stop for Fleck, who feels that he isn’t nearly as fast as Beebe. Instead, Fleck prefers to take passing routes for a “slower guy” that will lead him over the middle, just like Waddle.

“He was fearless and that is the type of mentality that I have. I may not be the strongest or fastest, but you are going to have to hit me a heck of a lot to get me out of the game,” he said.

And as with every receiver, there is a defensive back or linebacker waiting to put a receiver out of the game.

“You can sense that something is going to happen and that’s when you cradle under your body a little bit to secure the catch,” he said. “You’re going to get hit either way; you might as well catch the ball.”

Fleck has caught a lot of balls already, averaging 14 catches per game for 132 yards.

Senior quarterback Chris Finlen is amazed at what Fleck is doing on the field.

“If you watched that South Florida game, he took some shots I didn’t think he was going to get up after,” Finlen said.

As not only teammates, but friends and roommates as well, Finlen has had the chance to see Fleck grow on and off the field.

“Physically, he has gotten stronger. His body takes a lot more wear and tear now,” Finlen said. “We do a lot of talking when we get home from practice about what went on during the day. We are more on the same level and the same page than we were before.”

Fleck also has found living with Finlen to be very beneficial to their on-field chemistry.

“You build a bond, a trust, and I think that carries over to the football field,” Fleck said. “He can trust me in making a catch if he has a bad throw, and I can trust him at throwing me a good ball when I run a bad route.”

After a promising freshman year when he averaged 9.9 yards per catch, Fleck suffered a shoulder injury that resulted in a dislocation and a torn rotator cuff that limited his playing time last year.

But the injury didn’t completely sideline him, and he went through physical therapy and attended practices in a coaching role.

“It was kind of a blessing in disguise for me,” he said. “It got me a little more mentally focused on the game.”

That focus has helped Fleck to define his role on the team, especially with the departure of Justin McCareins to the NFL.

“You can’t replace a Justin McCareins. He is one of the top, most talented athletes to ever come through this school, and he is showing it in the NFL right now,” Fleck said. “But I think our core of wideouts can replace somebody like that.”

Along with Fleck, Darrell Hill, Keith Perry, Turner Pugh and Kandras Bledsoe have stepped up their play this year to fill an obvious hole in the Huskies’ offense.

“Last year we had one guy and everybody knew who the ball was going to, and this year we have four or five great wideouts that can catch the ball,” he said. “Defenses have to respect all of us, and they can’t just focus in on one guy.”

But Fleck already has begun to establish himself as a threat to opposing teams, as Finlen sees him continuing to pull in seven or more catches a game, many of which are during third down situations.

“He’s the kind of guy that can come through in the clutch,” Finlen said.

Working primarily as a possession receiver, Fleck has grown into his niche with the Huskies.

“I look at myself — my role right now — as a possession receiver. Sometimes I don’t like to look at myself like that, but that’s the role the coaches are looking at me in and if they need yardage, they usually go to me. And I respect that,” Fleck said. “I don’t have the 4.3 speed that Darrell Hill has or Keith Perry, the 6-foot-4 height that he has, so I take my ability and take what God gave me and use it to the best of my ability.”

However, his coaches don’t only depend on him as a receiver. Fleck also works as a punt and kick returner, a job that he was placed in, but one that he has grown to appreciate.

“I love doing it and a lot of guys will say, ‘how could you even like doing that, it’s like suicide,'” he said. “I look at it as a challenge. You have the chance to get your hands on the ball and break a game wide open and even though I haven’t returned many, there is the excitement and the rush that you could turn it around.”

But Fleck doesn’t leave his intensity on the field — he is the designated team leader when it comes to singing the Huskie Fight Song in the locker room after a win. The singing is a tradition for the football team and normally is done by a freshman, however, after Fleck’s freshman year, the tradition stuck with him.

“I just keep doing it,” he said. “I love getting the team hyped. I love being in there after a win. I love doing it, but it’s the coaches’ choice and I just do what they say.”

And hidden behind Fleck’s enthusiasm is the dream that virtually every football player has.

“It’s been my dream since I was a kid to be a professional football player,” he said. “And all my life I’ve been told that I couldn’t do it, but I strive off that. I love it when people tell me I can’t do something because that makes me prove everything.”

His dad told him when he was younger that no matter how good he was there would always be someone else out there trying to take his spot and that they might be better than him. Fleck keeps that advice close to him.

“That keeps me going and that makes me never stop working hard and hopefully that dream will come true,” he said. “I set my standards high, but I also have a lot of standards and a lot of goals. But right now, I am just focusing on my junior season.”