Before he was a coach, P.J. Fleck was an underdog football player who made it all the way to the NFL and appeared in one regular-season game with the 49ers at the end of the 2004 season. With the NFL draft approaching, Fleck reflected on that game, his career and what it meant to him in a conversation with the Star Tribune's Michael Rand.
Q: What is it like the very first time you step on the field for a regular-season NFL game?
A: I remember it was against the Patriots, the world champs. I didn't even know if I was going to be active or not until 15 minutes before the game [when] they told me I was going to be active. It's a culmination of every bit of process, every extra minute you spent in the weight room, every second you spent working on your game, every person who's believed in you, every person who's provided the opportunity for you to be successful, it all runs through your mind. The 15 minutes felt like five hours. There are so many people that run through your mind, and it's emotional — at least it was for me. … It just proves that if you truly, truly believe enough and are willing to pay any price, you can have any dream you want become a reality.
Q: You touched the ball once — on a punt return when you gained 10 yards. Do you remember that play?
A: Yeah, I do. I remember I got hit pretty good. I remember the commentator, after I went back and watched it, said, 'Welcome to the NFL, young guy.' … In the preseason, I caught a lot of passes. In the regular season, I didn't catch any. Even my roommate, Ken Dorsey, who was one of my best friends, he was the quarterback [against the Patriots] and he wouldn't even throw me the ball. He said, 'Hey, I'll throw you the ball, but you just can't get open.'
Q: You went undrafted out of Northern Illinois. How does an undrafted guy make it on an NFL roster?
A: I still remember my first minicamp. I had a $2,000 signing bonus. By the time I got out there, after taxes, I had like $900. Everyone thought I was rich, but it paid my rent for a month. I went to my first minicamp, and I didn't get any reps. Now I know as a coach that if you don't get any reps in your first minicamp you're probably not going to make it to the second one. [Head coach] Dennis Erickson calls the team together right after practice, and I hadn't gotten any reps. And he said, OK, we're going to have a conditioning test. I figured the only way I was going to make it to tomorrow is if I win the darn thing. Brandon Doman and I went stride for stride and fell across the finish line at the same time and basically won the thing. That was the way I could get my name known. People knew who I was, what kind of person I was and how hard I was willing to work. It gave me a chance to get to the next day, and I got one pass that day. I caught that pass, and it gave me two more passes. … I was not going to give them a reason to cut me.
Q: Do you feel like playing in the NFL has given you more credibility with your players now that you're coaching?
A: I think I'd be lying if I said it didn't. Of course it does. I think for anybody who is a teacher and educator, if you've been there and done that, I think it gives you credibility at the start. … And then the type of teacher and educator you are will bring you validity as you move forward.