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Xavier Magazine | September 1, 2014

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Family Ties

Family Ties
By Jen Saltsman

Andy Fleming leans back in his chair inside his Schmidt Fieldhouse office, finally able to catch his breath.

It’s been less than a week since the end of the 2011 spring exhibition season, and the end of his first full season as head coach of the men’s soccer program. The short time since he took over the moribund program has been, to say the least, a whirlwind. The program won just five games in the previous two years, yet Fleming came in and through some magical mixture of talent, luck and hard work managed to convince essentially the same group of players to claw out 10 wins, win an Atlantic 10 Conference title and claim Xavier’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Life’s been good so far.

There is, of course, still a lot more to do. There’s always more to do. Recruiting is never done. There are player evaluations to complete. Summer camps to plan. Still, for the moment at least, there’s time to do it. May is a slow time in the collegiate soccer world. No games, no practices, no life on the road.

So Fleming starts digging into the stack of work that got set aside during the season when his cell phone begins to buzz. It’s Amy, his wife, who’s nine months pregnant with their second child.

“I’m going into labor,” she says. “I called an ambulance. It’s on its way. Get home. Now.”

She isn’t due for another 10 days. They’ve had a baby before, so Fleming knows the routine. Still, the burst of adrenaline, the stress of the situation and the excitement of anticipation all hit at once. Fleming hangs up and makes a beeline to his car. The house is just seven minutes away, but it feels like it’s taking forever to get there.

After a few harried minutes, the two climb into the ambulance and head to the hospital. Coming to a stop just outside the emergency room entrance, the EMTs begin to wheel Amy toward the doors. Noticing that Amy’s not carrying her overnight bag, Andy jumps back into the ambulance to grab it.

By the time he gets the bag in his hands, he hears a baby cry. Before they can get Amy inside and settled into a delivery room, the delivery’s already over. She gave birth in the parking lot.

Fleming is both surprised and ecstatic. It’s a girl. Daddy’s girl.

 

•••

It takes an hour or so to get Amy treated and settled into a room, so while they wait, Fleming takes out his phone and starts sharing the news on Facebook.

Devin Fleming born in ambulance very quickly at 418pm. Momma and baby are great. Dad is already worried about having a daughter LOL. More info (including middle name) to follow.

As Amy is recovering, Andy sits in a chair alongside the bed. They banter about what toppings to order on their pizza while simultaneously texting their relatives about their newborn daughter.

She’s going to grow up to be a lacrosse player. And get a scholarship to a top-tier school. Notre Dame? Maybe she’ll meet and marry a guy who goes to Harvard.

Fleming pictures himself snapping photos at her graduation and sees himself walking her down the aisle on her wedding day.

Then a nurse opens the door and enters the room. She looks down at Andy.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she asks quietly.

Andy and Amy glance at each other, puzzled.

“We see some markers that are consistent with Down syndrome,” she says. “We need to do some more testing, but it looks like…”

Fleming doesn’t even hear the rest of the sentence. Her voice is drowned out by the noise of his world crashing in on him. The hope of taking pictures of her during her college graduation crumbles. The vision of cheering her on at lacrosse practices disappears. The dream of walking her down the aisle shatters. All he can do is hold his head in his hands and cry.

•••

After a few hours of tears, confusion and trying to process the news, Fleming drives home while Amy continues her recovery in the hospital.

He walks in the door, picks up his 2-year-old son, Brady, and crawls into bed.fleming2

My god, I’m 36 years old, and I’m afraid to sleep alone because I feel like the world is ending, Fleming thinks. I’m just going to wrap my arms around this child, and he’s going to give me strength.

“When I woke up the next morning, Brady says, ‘Dad, Dad how is Mommy and the baby?’ That’s when I knew that I had to face this head on. An attitude is something you can choose, and starting that moment, I had to take it on.”

If there is a positive side to any of it, it’s that Fleming’s always been a determined soul. The oldest of three children from the Boston suburb of Braintree—a blend of blue collar urban and upper middle class suburban—Fleming excelled at every sport he tried. But he was a little more driven than most. He loved practices. He rode his bike to the local high schools to watch the older kids practice and study the coaches. He went to games with his dad, picking out the seats closest to the coaches and team.

When he was 15 years old, he chose to leave his local school and enroll in a nearby Catholic school. It was, he says, an effort to improve his own game and put himself in a better position for a college scholarship. He also admits he preferred the dress code and discipline imposed by the nuns—not the mindset of your typical high-school freshman.

Ultimately, it worked. He set school records for goals, was named conference MVP and is still the only player from the school to earn a full soccer scholarship to a Division I school—Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

While he found some success on the field at Marist, he more importantly found his calling. By his senior season, he was not just the team captain, he was going on scouting and recruiting trips with the assistant coaches. The coaching bug had bitten him. It bit him so bad, in fact, that after graduating, he returned to Boston, lived at home and worked for two years as an assistant coach at Boston University—unpaid.

After seeing his acumen for the game, BU finally hired him full time. Nine years later, though, he was recruited away from the Terriers by perennial powerhouse Northwestern University. After three seasons of helping push Northwestern to new heights, he was placed on the soccer world’s potential head coach carrousel. Xavier took notice. Knows how to win, plays clean, students get good grades. He fit the Xavier mold. He was interviewed on a Tuesday and offered the job on Thursday.

 

•••

Today, three years later, Fleming unzips his blue windbreaker and plops down on the couch in his office, resting his elbows on his knees and massaging his head with his fingers.

He just finished lifting weights with the team and is equal parts sweaty and sleepy. He spent the night in a pastel-colored hospital chair because his 1-month-old daughter, Quinn, is sick. Brady is now 3. Devin is 18 months.fleming1

“I slept for three hours in a hospital chair, the doctor was running late and I had to be in the weight room by 10:00 a.m.” he says. “But I made it in time because I want to show my team how to excel as adults. You know, the players might have to deal with something like this someday. Part of my job is to make sure that they grow up to be good husbands, parents and employees.”

To do that, he needs to lead by example and not break his own rules, specifically Rule No. 1.

When Fleming took over the soccer program, it was a mess. The team was best known for underachieving and having its players issued red cards by the officials for bad sportsmanship. In the previous five years, the team lost two thirds of its games, and its road record was an embarrassing 3-36-3. There was no structure, no organization, no discipline. On Fleming’s first day of practice, only two players were on the field on time. The rest came out late and not properly dressed.

Two things became immediately obvious. One, he needed to lay down the law. So he instituted some basic rules. “If you want to play, you have to know and follow these rules,” he says. “If you can agree to those terms, then you’re in.’’

Rule No. 1: Be on time. Which means being in the locker room 30 minutes prior to practice and on the field 15 minutes before practice.

It also became obvious that he had nothing on which to build and needed to start from scratch. “Welcome to the South Pole,” he told the team. “Every destination from here is upward and pointing north.” He brought a picture of a bus into the locker room. “I’m driving the bus,” he said. “Some of you will get on the bus. Others will be pulled onto it. Some will be denied entrance. Some will watch it go right on by.”

He started referring to the “old Xavier” and the “new Xavier.” He hosted a mandatory Super Bowl party so his players would begin to spend time together off the field. They went to basketball games together. When the athletic department held a contest selling raffle tickets, he demanded they win. “Winners win at everything,” he said.

Too much of the “old Xavier,” he discovered, was all about individuals and not enough about team. Players wore Mohawk haircuts and different color cleats so they would stand out. He put a stop to that.

Rule No. 2: All players must wear black cleats. No exceptions.

Rule No. 3: The players aren’t allowed to wear earrings during team functions.fleming2

He also instilled discipline. When the players run “suicides”—a torturous conditioning exercise in which players run in a zig-zag pattern, bending down and touching a designated line before heading off in the other direction—they must actually touch the line. No shortcuts.

Michael Mulcahey, a faculty member of the Department of Sports Studies, saw them practicing and decided to watch for a few minutes. Afterward, he approached Fleming.

“Keep doing whatever it is that you’re doing,” Mulcahey said, “because I’ve never seen all the players run suicides and touch the lines every single time.”

And it’s all paid off.

In his three seasons, the team has won 36 games, been A-10 champions twice, made the NCAA Tournament three times, been ranked in the Top 10 nationally, led the nation in fewest yellow cards and topped it all off with a team average 3.25 grade point average.

“You have to be oblivious to what’s going on in college soccer,” wrote the College Soccer News, “or without a pulse to not know what’s transpired at Xavier University over the past three years.”

•••

In a mess of blonde hair and giggles, Devin and Brady wrestle each other to the ground. Brady easily lifts himself up and looks around the room for the next best spot to play. He runs toward a dark hallway and inspects it, deciding that it’s worth exploring.

Devin gets back on her feet by using Fleming’s leg for leverage. She takes two steps to the right and loses her balance, falling down on the floor again. She smiles. Fleming does, too. He puts his hands underneath her armpits, lifts her up and straddles her on his knee. He fixes the crooked bow in her hair and tickles her neck with kisses.

The love is obvious. So is his growing understanding of being the father of a daughter with a disability. She struggles, sure, but she’s still Daddy’s girl. If only others could understand. Which brings up Rule No. 4

Rule No. 4: Don’t ever use the word “retard.”

As Devin and Brady run around with the energy adults can only envy, Fleming reflects on how his life has changed.

Two months after Devin entered the world, Fleming was still processing the news about her condition. Not that he wished her any other way—something he is quick to point out—but he was unsure how to move forward. He had been Xavier’s head coach for just 18 months, and he began to wonder how he could use his struggles to set an example for his players.

“I wasn’t thinking ‘Devin, I don’t love you because you have Down syndrome,’ but I was mourning the loss of the child that we were expecting,” Fleming says. “Then I thought, ‘Wow. I’m a coach in a small town, on a small campus and with a bunch of young men who I’m supposed to teach lessons about life to. And what a platform I have, so let’s do something with this, to raise awareness, to tie my family in the team and the community.’ ”

The thought turned into Devin’s Team, a group that raises money and awareness for Down syndrome. Fleming threw himself into the idea with the same zeal as everything else. He wanted to host a soccer game/fundraiser, so in order to boost attendance, he invited the University of Akron, former NCAA champions. The game broke the single-game attendance record and raised $3,000. Akron’s coach, Caleb Porter, personally purchased 100 tickets—a $500 donation.fleming4

When the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati held a 5K, the entire team showed up and ran as one. At the organization’s annual “Buddy Walk” fundraiser along the riverfront, both the men’s and women’s soccer teams as well as the men’s basketball team showed up to support Fleming and his family. The Xavier athletes wore their uniforms, while other supporters sported Devin’s Team T-shirts, which feature a circular logo with her handprint in the middle. More than 150 people attended in support of Devin, raising more than $20,000.

Fleming puts his elbows back on his knees, resting his jaw on his hands.

“I feel like for that one day, during the Buddy Walk, the players became my support. They took care of me. They made me feel like my life was normal.”

He pauses to consider the moment, his life, his job as coach and father. How much everything has changed. How fortunate he really is.

“The athletes here just blow me away,” he says. “I never thought I would learn so much from a group of young men and a little girl.”

Comments

  1. David Restiano

    What a well written, touching piece about an amazing father, a dedicated coach, a wonderful person and an old friend who has become an inspiration to me, as a father.

  2. So proud to call Andy and his family friends! What role models.

  3. Ann Marie Hunker

    So glad my son was able to transfer into this soccer program. What an outstanding role model for life.

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