Fletcher looks to earn back trust
HATTIESBURG -- It's 2 a.m., and Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora is wakened by a phone call.
His star running back, Damion Fletcher, has been arrested for firing a gunshot outside an apartment complex in mid-February. Fedora has to ask several times if it is indeed Fletcher who has been arrested.
There's no mistake: One of the leaders of his team is sitting in a jail cell, head in hands, waiting for -- and fearing -- his release.
Fletcher's not afraid of what his parents will say, but he's rather concerned about the reaction of his coaches, and whether a stupid act of immature behavior might have cost him his future.
They are thoughts that weren't going through his mind about an hour earlier, when he was showing off his registered gun to teammates.
He was joking around, trying to act cool, and he fired a shot into the air. Everyone got a big laugh before they retreated inside. A few minutes later, there's a knock on the door and police are staring at him, guns drawn. He's handcuffed, his apartment is searched, and he's thrown into the back of a police car.
"I was just showing off," he said. "I've got a gun, and I was just playing around. I was just being goofy really [and] just not thinking of the consequences of what would happen if I did get caught. I was thinking, 'I'm not going to get caught. No one's going to say anything.' And so I just went outside and just popped a couple in the air. And the next thing you know, the police are knocking on the door with their guns out and everything.
"Then I'm in handcuffs thinking, 'Damn, I'm an idiot. This is for real.' I was thinking it was a game when I was doing it, and then the cops came and everything got serious."
Unexpected starIn the history of FBS programs, only eight players have rushed for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. Fletcher is bidding to become the ninth.
During his three years with Southern Miss, Fletcher has rushed for a school-record 4,287 yards. He is the first Golden Eagle to break 4,000 yards, and the first to reach 1,000 yards in three different seasons.
Last year was statistically his worst season as he battled injuries, a new coach and a new quarterback, but still managed 1,313 yards and 10 touchdowns.
New running backs coach Pat Washington didn't know Fletcher personally when he took the job in January. He had previously coached at Mississippi State and had heard his named mentioned as the best back in the state. But the only film Washington saw of Fletcher, a 5-foot-10, 182-pound back, was a paltry 29-yard effort against Auburn last season.
By the time Washington arrived at Southern Miss, Fletcher was almost all anyone could talk about, so he was eager to see Fletcher with his own eyes.
"The first [time] I saw Damion Fletcher was on the field. We were doing some kind of workout, and he wasn't a very fast guy and I was thinking, 'This is Damion Fletcher?'" Washington said. "He wasn't a very big guy. But when I saw him on tape, that's when I saw the magic. That's when I saw a guy that's got great vision, a courageous, tough kid that can cut on a dime."
Fletcher has ranked in the top seven in rushing in Conference USA each year since arriving on Southern Miss' campus, and that's saying something considering some of the players ahead of him were named Ahmad Bradshaw, Matt Forte and Kevin Smith.
He's a better collegiate rusher than Chris Johnson, who played at East Carolina and who's now playing for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. And though Fletcher might not have prototypical size and speed, scouts have been loitering around Southern Miss' practices for the past year.
"Damion brings a lot to the table," Fedora said. "He has a passion for the game. He practices one speed. He likes being out there. He truly likes playing the game."
A fresh startThe waiting and the silence is what got to Fletcher the most when he was sitting in that cell.
The feeling of uncertainty was eating at him, and he couldn't focus on anything but his future. His senior season, history, scouts -- it all raced through his head as he wondered what his coach would do with him when they met in the morning.
"I was told a long time ago when I was younger that being ineligible and not being able to play is the worst feeling in the world, and I had that feeling," Fletcher said. "What if I'm not able to play? That's probably the worst feeling you could ever have."
The player Fedora met in his office on Feb. 16 was not the same confident young man who had taken the field for him all last season.
This player was scared, remorseful and eager to right the wrong he had done. Fedora didn't kick him off the team. Instead, he put forth several undisclosed conditions Fletcher had to satisfy before he could rejoin his teammates on the field.
In March, Fletcher pleaded guilty to firing a handgun within city limits. He was given six months probation and 40 hours of community service. Fletcher spent that community service talking to children, not about gun safety, but about knowing right from wrong.
Deep down, Fletcher knew some of those same kids had come to Southern Miss games sporting their No. 25 jerseys. And they might emulate the things he did. He wanted to be a better role model.
"Everybody knew why I was there. If you lived in the state of Mississippi, you knew," Fletcher said. "At first, I kind of felt down because I let a lot of kids down. I've got a lot of kids who look up to me and stuff like that. After awhile, the kids can learn from what I did wrong and maybe not make the same mistake I made. Just going to talk to them it seemed like I got through to a lot of kids."
The future of those kids wasn't the only future Fletcher was concerned about.
He knew NFL scouts and general managers would question his behavior and judgment, and he feared what they might think. Fedora told Fletcher in their meeting that he'd support him in front of NFL scouts and general managers, one of the things Fletcher feared the most.
"I thought about that immediately," Fletcher said. "Those guys, they look for everything. I already got it bad enough. [I'm from a] small school, I'm small and I did something stupid. So I was thinking, man I've got my back up against the wall. I've just got to prove that that's not me, and that's definitely not in my character at all."
Working toward redemptionFletcher had never sat out of football for an extended period of time. Before he was allowed to practice with his team again, his absence had lasted for about six months.
In that time, he trained hard. He put the energy and frustration of his suspension into the weight room and got stronger and faster. One of the biggest criticisms against Fletcher has been his lack of breakaway speed, so he did power exercises to get more power from his legs.
When he returned to the field, he was rusty. He was sore in places that he said he couldn't train just by working out in the weight room. But he was determined, so much so that he tweaked his hamstring in the middle of camp and has been limited since. But it hasn't stopped his drive.
Although Fletcher didn't have to verbally apologize to the team, he feels like he has to prove he wants to be out there every time he steps on the field. He's trying hard to be a vocal leader even though he's never filled that role in the past. He's trying to prove to the team -- and himself -- just how much football really means to him.
But most of all, he wants the coaches and fans to know that he hasn't lost his focus. He's still the same player who has thrilled for the past three seasons.
"I think I might have to come out and be more of a team leader and perform on the field more than I ever have because of that thing that happened off the field," Fletcher said. "I have to show that I haven't lost focus and that I've learned, and everything is going to be better than what it was last year.
"I definitely can't wait for that first game. I'll probably be running harder than ever. It's a home game, the first game, and they're letting me out of the cage."
Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
2009 College Football Preview
Will Florida repeat as BCS champion? Which teams will surprise? Who'll walk away with the major awards? ESPN.com's 2009 college football preview has the answers.