David was an intelligent kid, but that assessment wasn't reflected when report cards arrived home in the fall of 2005. He was passing, but really he was an average student. Average didn't meet the family's standards for a kid supposedly going places. David Fluellen Sr. feared his son was destined for nowhere.
What to do?
As a counselor at Wyndham Lawn Home, a detention facility in Lockport, David Sr. had the solution at his fingertips. He wanted his son to understand the short distance from JV to juvee, so he took young David to work for a frightening Father Baker-style visit that was familiar to generations of young Western New York males.
Father Baker is a candidate for sainthood these days, but for decades his name alone struck the fear of God into adolescent boys. For every kid the detention home in Lackawanna straightened out, there were a thousand others who were scared straight after their parents drove them past the youth home.
It was part of our local culture. You hear “Big Blue Water Tower” and think traffic. You hear “Wide Right” and think Super Bowls. If you're a young male and hear “Father Baker,” well, it's time to make better choices before they're made for you. And that was the message the elder Fluellen imparted on his son.
“I always stressed to him, 'Look, you have a gift. You have a talent, but when you don't have support, you can find yourself in one of these facilities,' ” David Sr. said. “I've always been a stickler for discipline. I've always showed him the right and wrong things to do. It kind of hit home.
“Dave is laid-back, he's quiet, and he listens. Playing sports was the outlet. He was just an average student, but once he saw that he started putting it all together. He was like, 'Dad, you're right.' He knew he could take it to the collegiate level and play football. He knew he had to have his grades together.”
Support shown, message received, problem solved.
Almost immediately, Fluellen became more focused in the classroom and more dedicated to maximizing his ability on the field. His grades and work habits improved. He exercised his body and mind, molding himself into a 6-foot, 215-pound specimen who could compete in the classroom or anywhere else.
He didn't need to look very far to understand where football could take him, either. His brother Jhamel had nearly every rushing record at Lockport High before accepting a scholarship to Syracuse. He later transferred to Maine. His father was an all-Western New York back at Medina in 1982.
David broke his brother's record, rushing for 2,992 yards and 35 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Lockport. He was named all-Western New York and first-team all-state. He was the Division AA player of the year. He was a finalist for state player of the year after completing his career with 4,274 yards rushing.
“In high school, he always wanted me to be on the right path,” David Jr. said. “He was around these bad kids. He would tell me, 'You can have your dreams come true if you stay the course, stay focused and be responsible for what you do.' I knew from going to work with him, and seeing how those kids lived, that I didn't want to be in that situation.”
The elder Fluellen knew from experience. He was a terrific player at Medina. He later joined the Army, met David's mother, Arletha, in Philadelphia and worked as a guard in county corrections. David was 11 when his parents' marriage fell apart. They maintained a strong relationship.
Their children came first.
The younger Fluellen was growing up in a tough southwest Philly neighborhood. He wasn't in trouble, but the potential loomed around the corner. Arletha Fluellen had no problem raising a boy but concluded her ex-husband was better suited in Lockport to raise a man. Years later, David Sr. still praises her selflessness.
Fluellen is finishing up his career at Toledo, which will play host to the University at Buffalo tonight in an important Mid-American Conference game. He was leading the nation in rushing with 1,067 yards before suffering a sprained Achilles that caused him to all but miss a few plays of the last two games. His status for tonight's game was uncertain Monday.
The senior is averaging 7.0 yards per carry this season, third among Division I backs who have at least 125 carries. He had 220 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries in a rout over Western Michigan last month. He tore through Navy for 160 yards in a shootout and had 61 yards on three carries at Bowling Green before getting injured.
He emerged as one of the best backs in the conference last season.
He was eighth in the nation in yards per game (124) last season, just behind NFL rookies such as Le'Veon Bell of the Steelers and Montee Ball of the Broncos. UB certainly remembers him. He had a career-high 228 yards in a win over the Bulls last season.
Fluellen also has become a mentor, a natural leader for underclassmen at Toledo. He shares with them what his father shared with him. He reminds them that they're getting an education and a chance to play ball. They see his work ethic in practice and understand how he carved his path toward becoming one of the nation's leading rushers.
Now, he's showing them the way.
“I see a lot of players who, even though they know they have this great opportunity, sometimes they're making the wrong decisions off the field,” Fluellen said. “It affects them tremendously, how important their education is. And if it's for free, they're extremely blessed. You don't want to mess up that opportunity.”
Fluellen was recruited by UB, but the Bulls' interest waned after they signed James Potts to a scholarship. Fluellen ended up at Toledo, where he rode the bench for two years. He tried coming home after his first semester. His father insisted he stay, reminding him that Barry Sanders once had to wait his turn behind Thurman Thomas.
He was right, as usual.
Fluellen will get an opportunity to play in the NFL. So-called draft experts have him being taken in the middle of the draft or later. He could wind up signing as a free agent, which James Starks did coming out of UB before winning a Super Bowl with the Packers. He's expected to graduate in May with a degree in … criminal justice.
Why, of course.
“I'm very proud of the man he's become,” David Sr. said. “You need to learn life experiences for yourself. I never had any problems with him.
“Sometimes, it hits me, like, 'Damn, this kid is really doing this.' He's going to get a chance to play NFL football. He's going to realize his dream. And to graduate and earn his degree, that really makes me more proud than anything.”