TJ Fleming wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere other than Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
His mother April is sure of it. She raised him in Lockhart, Ala., surrounded by family and friends with Crimson wardrobes. His most anticipated matchup of the season, every year, is finally here.
If LSU pulls out the upset, he would’ve had the ultimate bragging rights.
A post on TJ’s Facebook wall by his uncle, Danny Beard, dated Nov. 5, 2010, reads, “Hey TJ it’s our favorite week of football. Our Tigers get to swap slobber with Bama. Thinking of you all this week. GEAUX TIGERS!”
Hailing from Vidalia, La., April and Beard transfused purple and gold blood into TJ’s veins from an early age. Beard, a Louisiana resident, would spend those young, Vidalia summers hitting baseballs to his nephew. “What’s your favorite football team?” a less-than-10-year-old TJ would always ask. “LSU,” Beard would be sure to respond.
Their years of conditioning indoctrinated TJ. When the Tigers torched the Tide, he and his mother would give silent high-fives as to not draw the attention of the 20-plus Alabama fans in the room. Even facing death, his loyalty was undying.
It was a nice sentiment, the signed picture of Nick Saban he received in the fax as a get-well-soon card. Still, TJ replied, “What am I going to do with this?” This Tuscaloosan demi-god, made wholly mortal by a perishing young man.
Just as the decade turned, so did 20-year-old TJ’s health. He developed a cancer in his saliva gland for which doctors had no name. The tumor grew rapidly, swelling and deforming his face until it was nearly unrecognizable.
This handsome, universally liked powerhouse of a local athlete went from resembling a movie star to looking like a monster, said his high school football coach Arlton Hudson. The cancer was unable to spread to his resolve, however.
“He never acted like he looked like that,” April said.
Another fax came in that day, following the one of Saban, the letterhead much more favorably colored for TJ’s taste.
The letter was dated May 20, 2010. A short correspondence.
“Dear TJ,” it read, “Coach Hudson called ... and made me aware of your situation. ... The LSU Tigers are thinking about you and keeping you in our prayers. I know you are tough so fight like a Tiger!” it closed. A “Geaux Tigers!” was followed by Les Miles’ signature, then printed name and “Head Football Coach.” TJ was ecstatic.
He would die five days later. Little this perishing young man know that he would show this Death Valley dictator what it means to be wholly mortal, alive in the face of death.
“When I was given the opportunity, I saw it as a real honor to visit with a guy who had that spirit and that strength in those last days,” Miles said.
“A PRETTY SPECIAL GUY”
They got along so well because they’re both famous, April postulates.
Looking at his Facebook, you’d think TJ was superstar. There are thousands of posts on the page his mother keeps up from close friends, strangers and foreigners alike since his sickness. He was adored, and had a knack for roping people in, like he did with Miles.
TJ’s athletic career was the icebreaker. He was All-State in basketball, baseball and football, breaking every passing record in Florala High School’s book his senior year. His passion was for pigskin, but he was still more suited for the baseball diamond and ended up as a catcher for an Alabama community college.
Then, his throat began to hurt, it got worse, and led to a cancer diagnosis. But that’s as far as they could go, according to April, who said doctors ran approximately 40 tests on her son and couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Standing at 6-foot-1, he dropped down to 118 pounds from 235 before he passed.
Miles, sitting in New Orleans traffic, was happy to speak with TJ when Hudson cold-called him. They talked every day until TJ passed, about family, LSU football and some personal things, “if you understand.” They spoke on the phone “three or four” times, Miles said, and texted when he was rendered unable to speak. And when he made the call to the coach, Hudson said he listened to Miles pull the Escalade over to the shoulder.
“When I heard who he was as a man, I wanted in,” Miles said. “When I got him, I realized he had a great sense of humor … A pretty special guy.”
Funny thing, that’s how TJ’s family describes Miles.
A COACH, A CLOWN, A FATHER, A FRIEND
Of all the things Miles is, a premier college football coach is certainly one of them. A 48-6 home record and a crystal ball speak for themselves. The sometimes-silly play calling does get him in hot water with those insatiable inhabitants of Tiger Stadium, but never for too long. He delves shoulder-deep into that hat of his and all is forgotten.
What’s unforgettable about him, of course, is that persona: “Uncle Les,” like Beard and so many others call him. “A player’s coach.” His calculated but vacuous news conference quotes are famous. Always laughing and making others laugh, those being starstruck fans or cynical media.
That’s the Miles most people know, aloof for the most part; both personable and perplexing. But pull back the veil, talk to those who know him, and he comes into focus a bit.
Shawn Jordan, a former fullback who was recruited by and won BCS rings at LSU with both Saban and Miles is a good point of reference. Saban is unfairly vilified, Jordan feels, but he didn’t hesitate to separate the two.
“Just a good, regular ‘ole guy,” Jordan said of Miles.
Miles would bring his kids around the complex, allowing Jordan to watch them grow up. ESPN’s Wright Thompson fleshed out “Miles the Family Man” leading up to the “Game of the Century,” painting a coach trying to raise his biological and contractually obligated children — all 123 of them — at the same time.
So with the gameplanning, practices, media opportunities and family obligations, how in the hell did he find time to talk with TJ?
“I made time,” Miles said.
When April got behind the curtain, “[Miles] wasn’t like he is on TV”. She was surprised at how down to earth he was and she could feel the love for his family from 300 miles away.
The signed photo TJ truly wanted didn’t make it to him in time. Neither did the No. 9 jersey with “Fleming” emblazoned on the back. But April keeps them safe, as they remind her of the joy Miles brought her son in his final days.
“He was like a friend,” Fleming said. “...He wanted to get to know the family and [TJ’s] friends. ... I think that’s very admirable. TJ had him intrigued, and he wanted to learn more about him.”