PHOENIX — Chicagoan Darius Fleming doesn’t know for sure that he’ll play in Super Bowl XLIX for the Patriots — but just having the chance is a lesson in perseverance.
Fleming’s NFL future was in doubt before it even got started after he suffered back-to-back ACL injuries in consecutive seasons with the San Francisco 49ers without ever playing in an NFL game. But the St. Rita product gutted out two grueling rehabilitations and resurfaced with the Patriots after being cut by the 49ers.
The 6-2, 255-pound linebacker from Notre Dame spent most of the season on the Patriots practice squad. But he was promoted to the 53-man roster in November and has made an impact on special teams in seven games, including both of the Patriots’ postseason victories. His recovery of a muffed punt led to the Patriots’ first touchdown in the AFC Championship game victory against the Colts.
“It feels great,” said Fleming, a fifth-round draft pick by the 49ers in 2012. “It’s been a rough road. But you don’t really look in the past. You just look forward to where you’re going and I’m just excited to be where I am now.”
Fleming suffered a torn ACL in a non-contact drill in the second practice of the first day of his rookie mini-camp in May of 2012. He tore the same ACL in another non-contact drill on the second day of training camp in July of 2013.
The 49ers released him. But, inspired by his father, Larry Fleming, he never game up. He rehabbed at Andrews Institute of Pensacola, Fla.
“I give a lot of credit to Andrews — the staff down there pushed me to another limit,” Fleming said. “I don’t think I’d be here without them.”
The Patriots invited him to workout last spring after he was cut by the 49ers. He was cut after the preseason but signed to the practice squad.
“It’s a challenge every day, but you enjoy playing for a coach like coach Belichick,” Fleming said. “He’s a great coach. It’s an honor to play for a guy that knows the game in and out and cares about every situation. He’s going to prepare you to win each week. That’s cool to have a coach like that.”
1a. While Fleming has had tough luck with injuries, he’s been a part of two Super Bowl teams in three years in the NFL — the 49ers lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII when Fleming was a rookie. But he figures to actually play in this one.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Fleming said. “It’s a blessing to be here and back to this point. You look at guys that have been playing 15-plus years and have never been to [a Super Bowl]. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in my second one, even though I didn’t play in my first one. It’s an honor to get back to this point.”
1b. Fleming also has had the good fortune to play for two of the best coaches in the NFL — the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick. His defensive coordinator with the 49ers was Vic Fangio, who now is the Bears’ defensive coordinator for John Fox.
“Good coach. He knows the game in and out,” Fleming said. “I think he’s going to do a great job in Chicago. He knows the type of players he likes. I’m sure he’ll find all those guys. And he can build around whatever he has. I think they’ll do well.”
Fleming said Fangio’s aggressive scheme is particularly player friendly.
“Guys enjoy playing his scheme of football — he’s kind of an attacker,” Fleming said. “I think the guys that play for him enjoy that kind of mentality.”
2. It remains to be seen if new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase can get more out of Jay Cutler than the previous five offensive coordinators Cutler has played for. But Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who hired Adam Gase in Denver, likes Gase’s chances of fixing a Bears offense that dropped from eighth to 21st in total yards last season.
“Adam is a great communicator. He has a great personality. He’s easy to get along with,” McDaniels said. “He’s coached people of varying backgrounds. I think Adam will take that challenge head on of taking that offense with a lot of good talented players and turning into what his vision is going to be.
“I don’t think that will take Adam long. He’s a unique guy and coach [John] Fox obviously recognized that and I’m sure he’s very happy to have Adam go there with him.”
3. Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll is a big believer in Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who played for him in Miami when Daboll in 2011 was the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. Marshall had 81 receptions for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns with Matt Moore and Chad Henne at quarterback and made the Pro Bowl.
“Brandon is a true competitor. Really a pleasure to coach,” Daboll said. “He’s a pro that works really hard at his craft and wants to be the best he can be. He’s competitive. He wants to help his team. He’s a good person and a good player.”
4. South Sider Zach Moore took a different route than most to the NFL — from Simeon High School to Division II Concordia University of St. Paul, Minn. to the Patriots and the Super Bowl.
“I didn’t really picture this for myself,” said Moore, a 6-6, 275-pound defensive end who was drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots in 2014. “I had one workout with the Patriots — that was the only contact I had. It was a real surprising phone call on draft day.”
Moore was active for 10 games as a rookie — he played in eight and even started against the Colts in Week 10.
“I can honestly admit, that I was actually kind of timid playing for [Bill Belichick] just because he’s Bill Belichick,” Moore said. “I grew up watching him and the Patriots. But it’s pretty exciting to play for him.”
His biggest moment came against the Bears — naturally. Moore shared a sack of Jay Cutler with Dont’a Hightower, forcing a fumble that Rob Ninkovich recovered and returned 15 yards for a second-quarter touchdown in the Patriots’ 51-23 rout at Gillette Stadium.
“That’s when it hit me,” Moore said. “I was able to play against my hometown team. My family from Chicago was there. I got my first NFL sack and forced fumble. It was great.”
5. With Moore’s help, the Patriots scored 21 points in a 57-second span late in the first half to turn a 17-7 game into a 38-7 rout at halftime. It was the beginning of the end for the Bears. And it helped catapult the Patriots back in to Super Bowl contention.
“I think that game and the Bengals game [a 43-17 blowout after the Patriots had lost to the Chiefs in Week 4] is when we started to click on all cylinders,” said running back Jonas Gray, who rushed for a career-high 86 yards on 17 carries against the Bears. “Those games were like the catalyst for the season — particularly the Bears game.
“I remember our mindset was to take it to them early. We knew they had a potent offense. We knew we had to score in bunches and score every time we had an opportunity and couldn’t settle for field goals. And that’s what we did.”
6. Former Wheaton-Warrenville South star Tony Moeaki started the season with the Bills and will end it with the Super Bowl Seahawks — a stroke of good fortune the veteran tight end deserved after he struggled with injuries the past four seasons following an impressive rookie year with the Chiefs.
Moeaki, who had played in just 17 games since the 2010 season because of a torn ACL, a fractured shoulder and a pulled hamstring, was cut by the Bills with an injury settlement in September. He signed with the Seahawks in Novermber and had eight receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown in six games.
“I was rehabbing back in Chicago and a week after my hamstring got cleared I was working out with the Seattle and they signed me,” said Moeaki, who lives downtown in the offseason. “It’s been a roller-coaster. It’s just unbelievable that I’m at the Super Bowl right now.”
7. Patriots rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who will back up Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLIX, reminisced about his first championship game — as an eighth-grader with the Arlington Cowboys youth football program in Arlington Heights.
“It’s still tough to talk about,” he said with a wry smile Thursday at the Arizona Grand Resort. “We had a good team. We went undefeated until the championship game, and we lost. I’m telling you, it’s tough. Whenever you lose a championship like that, it’s tough.
“But it was a good experience [with the Cowboys]. “Bob Viti — a legendary coach there, an awesome coach — was my coach in seventh and eighth grade. You’re playing with your friends and classmates. It was an awesome experience.”
8. Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, who was the Bears’ wide receivers coach for Dave Wannstedt from 1993-98, said Chicago “still holds a great spot in my heart.
“Chicago’s a hell of a sport town,” Fears said. “As tough as it was when I was there, the fans were fantastic. They’re so die-hard that they put up with us even with what we were going through. Some of my best friends are still in Chicago.”
The Bears made the playoffs once in Wannstedt’s six seasons — in 1994, when the Bears beat the Vikings 35-18 in a wild-card at the Metrodome and lost to the 49ers 44-15 at Candlestick Park in the divisional round. The Bears have not won a road playoff game — or even played in a road playoff game — since.
Fears said he had particular respect for the McCaskey family.
“I’ve been very fortunate with the owners I’ve been with — the Kraft family and the McCaskeys. They were fantastic. I can’t say enough about how well they treated us when we were there.
“The thing that sticks in my mind about Chicago — every [road] trip I used to sit right behind Mrs. McCaskey and we used to talk — it was some of the [most] fun things. Ed McCaskey in front of me on the plane — I’m telling you, that was special.
“They’re special people. We talked about life, whatever was going on. That was the fun part about it. They were such good people. It was a lot of fun.”
9. Patriots running back Shane Vereen on his younger brother Brock, the Bears’ rookie safety:
“It was a tremendous blessing for me and my family [to have both Vereens in the NFL],” Shane said. “It’s just fun. I wish him the best. It was’t the greatest year for them, but I think he had a good year. I think he enjoyed it. I think he learned a lot. I talked to him [Wednesday]. He’s very upbeat about it. Looking forward to it. He can’t wait.”
10. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich, the Lincoln-Way Central product, misses Chicago’s Italian beef, but admitted he wasn’t a big Bears fan growing up.
“Back in the 90s, the Bears weren’t too hot, so at the time the Cowboys were rolling, so I was with the Cowboys. My mom has always been a big Bears fan — until I was in the NFL, of course.”