On Jan. 2, 2005, the 2-13 San Francisco 49ers took on the 13-2 New England Patriots. It was the last game in the regular season for both teams that year before the Patriots gathered themselves for a playoff run that culminated in their third Super Bowl in four seasons.
Few remarkable things appear to have happened in the game. Tom Brady threw a pair of touchdowns. New England won that day 21-7, leaving the 49ers with a 2-14 record for the season. It was a forgettable game in a forgettable season for San Francisco.
But Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck remembers every minute of it.
That’s because the game was Fleck’s NFL regular-season debut and, as it turned out, the only regular season game he would ever play in.
He caught 77 passes for more than 1,000 yards as a senior at Northern Illinois (pictured above during that season), but he wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine and went undrafted in 2004. The 49ers picked him up as a free agent, and after spending almost the entire year on the practice squad he was elevated to the active roster for the final game of the season.
After becoming curious about the game one day while poking around Pro Football Reference, I had a chance recently to ask Fleck about it.
“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 they told me I was going to be active,” Fleck said. “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 (before the game) felt like 5 hours.”
By his recollection, Fleck played about 40 snaps on offense and special teams. He shows up twice in the game log: once for a 10-yard punt return — the only time he touched the ball during live play — and once as the intended target on an incomplete pass from QB Ken Dorsey that was actually ruled intentional grounding.
“I remember I got hit pretty good,” Fleck said of the punt return. “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 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.’”
The story might not have ended there, but Fleck was injured the next preseason and spent 2005 on injured reserve. By 2006, he was embarking on a coaching career that eventually led to Minnesota.
More than a decade later, though, he won’t forget his one shining moment in the NFL.
“At the end of the day, I shouldn’t be playing in the NFL,” Fleck said. “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.”