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Beating The Odds - Donnie Fletcher's Journey to College Football and the NFL

A CBS News report from 2011 stated that 2% of high school athletes end up getting a college sports scholarship, with a further 1.6% of college football players becoming professionals in the NFL. It is a path attempted by many, and completed by few. Donnie Fletcher is one of those few. He beat the odds.


Donnie Fletcher was a three-star recruit coming out of Glenville High School in Cleveland, a nationally recognised high school football program. He had a standout career with Boston College, where he was a long, rangy cornerback at 6'1" and 195lbs, and a recorded 40-yard dash of 4.38 seconds. Donnie played college football for four years before becoming a professional player with the New York Jets in the NFL, in Canadian football with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, and a stint in the Arena Football League which rounded off an eventful career.


Growing up at Glenville


Donnie described football as "kind of like a religion" in Cleveland. "When you're born, when every boy is born, they put a football in their crib". Football is a way of life in the Midwest in Cleveland, he explains. Every Friday night when there's a high school football game, any city within Ohio shuts down, the whole city's at the game. "So you're kind of like a, a local kind of celebrity in a way, which is pretty cool".


Donnie quickly drew attention from college scouts playing for Glenville HS in Cleveland (Image credit: rivals.com)

Playing at high school, from 2004 to 2008, offered Donnie an ideal dress rehearsal for the rigors of Division 1 college football. Glenville was a national high school powerhouse, with, he recalls, over 30 players who went on to play in the NFL. Among them, 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, Cardale Jones, who led Ohio State to the 2015 national championship, New Orleans Saint cornerback Marshawn Lattimore, the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, and Ted Ginn Jr., a talented wide receiver, who played 14 years in the NFL.


Donnie lived with his uncle, who played college football and was a four-year starter at the University of Cincinnati. He was friends with Ginn Jr's father, Ted, who would coach Donnie through his Glenville career, playing a national schedule against teams from L.A., Indiana and Florida. Aged 15, Donnie was set on pursuing his dream to play college football and hopefully, the NFL. The competition for places was fierce. That year, his sophomore year - "we had 22 players go to Division 1".


There is a long process that leads towards earning a scholarship. "It's a lot different than people envision it, in regards to how to get to college when you're a high school player", he says, "dedication that gets put into it behind closed doors that you don't see on Friday nights". He explains the rigorous schedule of early morning workouts, school, practice, and additional training sessions. He would attend football camps, study into the late evenings to maintain grades, and train hard to perform at his best on the field, a daily grind, repeated relentlessly, with the ultimate goal of earning a college scholarship.


His daily high school routine would see him run hills and stairs from 6am for an hour, go to school, head to practice, leave practice to go to a trainer for a couple of hours, come home and do homework. And repeat. "Sophomore year, junior year, and senior year, that was my life during the school year."  He describes the importance of positioning himself early in his high school career, focusing on establishing himself in the team, improving daily, and letting everything else fall into place. He didn't fixate on getting a college scholarship, "I broke it down step by step... and continue to get better every single play. And then everything would fall in line. I just put my head down and work hard."


 'The Ted Ginn Bus Tour'


 Coach Ginn facilitated exposure to colleges through the Ted Ginn Bus Tour, where he took the local kids who were top prospects from the Cleveland area to showcase their talents at various camps at college football campuses. This exposure helped Donnie secure his first scholarship from Bowling Green after his sophomore year, which "I was super excited about". He received attention from many colleges, especially from the Big Ten - Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State - and other top schools - North Carolina, Boston College and eventually, Notre Dame. He received around 30 scholarship offers.


Rejecting the Fighting Irish


Donnie's focus on balancing football aspirations with academic and post-football career planning played a crucial role in his college selection process:

 

"One, I wanted to play at a high level, play against good talent that would potentially land me in the NFL.
Two, academics. I always knew, football doesn't last forever. Even if you play 10 years in the NFL, you know, you look up and you're 32 and you still have a long life to live. So what is your plan after once football is over? So I was always looking at what school can I get a good degree from that would mean a lot in the corporate world?

And then three, I wanted to graduate early to get to school a semester early, get settled in and be able to actually compete for a role during my true freshman year."

Boston College offered a diverse city and great opportunity, a mix of high-level football and high-level academics. Outside of Stanford, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Notre Dame, it was hard to find that mixture at that time. The Eagles were a good football team in a pass-happy conference, great for a cornerback where a lot of players in his position were getting drafted.


Two weeks before his departure for Boston College, he received a late offer from Notre Dame. In his words, "That was the show. That's one of the most famous college football programs." The Fighting Irish were Donnie's first choice school, but they waited until the last minute to call, confident he would shun the Eagles for a chance to play in South Bend. "You choose Notre Dame over Boston College. Boston College is kind of our little brother", was the essence of their pitch. They didn't get the response they expected. The call, he says, "gave me even more motivation. Now I'm really going to go to Boston College!"


Boston College

  

The transition to college football was a significant adjustment, both academically and athletically. Graduating early gave Donnie a head start in acclimatising to college life, but he still faced challenges balancing academics and football. Learning the playbook was a rigorous process. Having been issued a 200-page binder ("they have them on iPads now") filled with plays, he would need to memorise 50 plays daily, 10-15 of which would be installed at random at practice the following day. The following day would require 50 more to be learned, and so on.


"Once you start playing against the high, high-level talent, it's more mental. It's probably 80% mental and 20% physical because everyone's big, everyone's fast, everyone's good, which separates you from being just a normal player or even getting on the field, being able to compete. It starts in practice."

A game-winning interception vs. North Carolina State on November 13th, 2011 (Image credit: Boston Globe)

Despite not being the biggest or fastest player, Donnie's determination and focus on continuous improvement propelled him onto the field as a true freshman. His debut against Georgia Tech, home at Alumni Stadium in front of a crowd of 44,500 people, marked a significant milestone in his football career. The Yellow Jackets played an option offense, meaning Donnie would need to play man-to-man against the talented receiver Demaryius Thomas. "I'm eighteen, he's high on the draft board", he said. Thomas would go on to be drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, No.22 overall, by the Denver Broncos, where he would catch passes from Peyton Manning. Donnie held his own, making six tackles and breaking up two passes. He eliminated the nervousness by watching a lot of film and practicing hard, ensuring he was ready for his moment.


"The highlight of my college career"


Alumni Stadium, 44,500 capacity and home of Boston College (Image credit: Bleacher Report)

A night game at home in Chestnut Hill on national television saw Boston College come up against Notre Dame, the team whose late advances had been spurned as Donnie stuck to his commitment with the Eagles. An opportunity to remind the Fighting Irish why they should have made their last-minute offer six or seven months earlier.


Boston College were on track to compete for the ACC championship for the second year running and came up against an in-form Notre Dame team. "It was a big, big game, and a rivalry as well. It's called the Holy War." Donnie ended up making the game-winning interception to seal the game, the emotion of which is hard to imagine, but he captures it perfectly:


Dominating on defense against Notre Dame
"A full circle moment. I haven't felt that feeling, I don't think ever in life, to be able to be in that moment at that time on national television against this team. It was an overwhelming experience."

The journey to the NFL and the New York Jets


Draft prospects


From a promising freshman season, Donnie continued to work, improving every game and by the end of his junior year, where he made five interceptions and 43 tackles. He was now firmly on the radar of NFL scouts, with the opportunity to leave college early and enter the NFL draft. Part of the evaluation process for college football prospects involves film of your highlights being sent to four general managers in the NFL who grade you, the average being your prospective draft grade. Donnie was earmarked as a second or third round pick, comfortably within the top 100 draft eligible players in the country.


He made the decision to return for his senior year, graduate with his class and "play with a lot of the guys I came in with. This was our opportunity... our year for all of us to play together." By the beginning of his senior year, Donnie was in the conversation as a potential first round draft pick, one of thirty-two players who could be selected by teams at the highest level. A back injury derailed his momentum, causing him to play intermittently in that critical senior year. An invite to the NFL Combine didn't materialise, which hurt his draft prospects, but his appearance at the Senior Bowl, an annual postseason college football all-star game and training week for players who have completed their college eligibility, boosted his stock.


Donnie (#34) in action for the New York Jets against the Philadelphia Eagles

Despite going undrafted, he had offers from a number of NFL teams - New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings among others, and signed with the New York Jets. Here, he would face stiff competition in the form of Hall of Fame cornerback Darrelle Revis and Pro Bowl defensive back Antonio Cromartie, but played two years in New York.


Donnie's perspective on his career shifted following spells in the Canadian Football League and in the Arena Football League. He purposefully took time away from football when he stopped playing. "When you're playing at that high level, football, you know, it consumes your life. it's kind of like a way of life. Everything you're doing is football related. Every time you open your eyes, the time you close, you know, since I was probably fourteen has been surrounded or related to football. So it was a good opportunity for me to kind of just take a step back, I think, for a good two years."


If he were playing today?


Donnie works in New York and tries to get to one or two Boston College games a season. He is a self-confessed fan of Ohio State, having grown up in Ohio. Current Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day was the wide receivers coach at Boston College during Donnie's time there. We joked that one of the best coaches in college football today spent his time trying to come up with ways to beat Donnie and his defensive back group on a daily basis. Donnie describes Day as "an offensive guru" and thinks the Buckeyes will bounce back this season.


I asked him if he were a high school senior today, who would he want to play for? "I feel like any kid that grows up in Ohio, you either want to go to Ohio State or you want to go to Michigan. So I feel like those two schools would definitely be at the top". Colorado and their coach would be near the top of his list too. "My position, who wouldn't want to play for Deion Sanders? He's the greatest of all time!"


Life beyond football


Donnie's deep dive into his college football journey, including his experiences playing against storied teams like Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida State, and his commitment to the process that led him from Glenville High School to the New York Jets, sheds a sobering light on the intricacies, commitment and challenges required even to make it to, let alone succeed in college football.


My hour with Donnie provided a valuable insight into the mindset, determination and humility of a former player turned corporate professional, where he is a colleague of mine, working as a specialist HR recruiter at Oakleaf Partnership. Despite facing setbacks early in his life, injuries in his senior year and going undrafted after showing such promise, Donnie refuses to dwell negatively on what might have been. It speaks a lot about his character that he reflects instead on what he was able to achieve and the importance of considering factors beyond the game itself, applying the same focus to his new career.


"I did everything that I wanted to accomplish. I mean, my goal was just to go to college. You know, of course, every kid wants to go to the NFL, but it was like, I want to at least go to college, play football, get a degree, and be able to support myself, my family down the line. And if I got an opportunity to go to NFL, you know, that would be amazing."

Amazing indeed. And he did it. The odds of Donnie Fletcher achieving that goal, statistically, were less than 1%. Odds he was more than a match for.


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