The Heart Of An Underdog

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One of my favorite things this time of year, leading up to football season, is watching Hard Knocks on HBO. Every pre-season, an NFL Films crew follows one team — providing a behind the scenes look at the intense preparation required to field a competitive team on Sundays.

Inside access to the dogged daily grind of August training camp.

Usually it’s a team on the rise. One with high hopes and aspirations. A young roster with plenty of talent. This year the show takes place in Tampa Bay, home of the upstart Buccaneers.

But what makes the show all the more intriguing is the story arc of the relative unknowns. The long shots. Young guys who have the passion and commitment to be stars but due to injury, inexperience or small school pedigree, never garnered the same spotlight of a Jameis Winston or Gerald McCoy — two of the Bucs’ highest profile players.

One of the focal points this season has been Riley Bullough, the kamikaze linebacker from Michigan State. A man his teammates affectionately dubbed ‘Joe Dirt,’ because of his supposed resemblance to the infamous David Spade character.

This week, it was Maurice Fleming. The undersized but lightening quick undrafted rookie, out of West Virginia. His play, on the field, began to turn some heads. But it’s his work ethic, off of it, that caught the eye of Buccaneers Head Coach, Dirk Koetter.

On cue, the cameras found Fleming doing agility drills on his own. Behind the equipment shed. Under the cover of darkness. Long before the team is scheduled to report for practice.

When you are low man on the totem pole, you often have to work twice as hard for the same opportunity.

It reminds me of the quote by John Wooden, “The true test of man’s character is what he does when he thinks no one is watching.”

“I’m an undrafted free agent,” Fleming explained, “so I’m always going to be [looked at] that way.”

Trust me, it’s a look I know well, having walked in those same shoes for three seasons. 

My last summer of playing pro baseball — Savannah Georgia, Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals — I used to show up hours before each night’s game. I’d dress alone and walk myself out to one of the bullpen mounds.

Towel, glove and water bottle in hand.

Under the suffocating late August afternoon sun, I’d work on repeating my delivery. Refining my approach. Putting in the work.

Repetition after repetition after repetition.

Empty stands. No applause. Just a young guy with an opportunity . . . fighting the good fight, one day at a time.

When the Buccaneers take the field this weekend, for their third preseason game, they will do so without Maurice Fleming.

In the final snaps of last week’s 12–6 win over the Jaguars, Fleming’s leg was rolled up from behind. Collateral damage. Yet, he stayed on the field. Eventually breaking up a pass in the end zone that would have given Jacksonville the victory.

He stayed on the field because as an undrafted free agent that’s what you have to do to, to make the team. A dog fight to the bitter end. 

And a bitter end it was. That play was his last. The following day, we caught a look at Fleming undergoing an MRI. An MRI that revealed structural damage to his left knee. Damage that would end his brief time with the Bucs.

High hopes and aspirations seemingly dashed. For now.

He’s summoned to Koetter’s office. It’s a scene that plays out dozens of times each preseason. A scene I know all too well, having sat in that hot seat twice before myself.

Each time one of these young men is summoned to “Coach’s Office” and told to “bring his playbook,” I relive my own experience. That …. gut punch.

It’s the cruel nature of professional sports.

But one thing that I’ve learned about the true underdog is that his heart is strengthened by the adversity — both on the field and off.

He knows that the true test of his character is not revealed by what he does when the cameras are on but how hard he works …

Once they are finally turned off.

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Ryan France

Ryan France is a native of Austin Texas, father of two, super-early riser, avid reader, admitted podcast junkie & bulletproof coffee addict. In a past life, France was an aspiring professional baseball player. Today, Ryan is an entrepreneur, author and relentless innovator of the real estate industry. Read more on the "Who is Ryan?" page.