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Colts’ draft pick Coby Fleener was named for another NFL great

By Coby Fleener | 27 Apr 2012

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Editor’s Note: The Indianapolis Colts selected Stanford tight end Coby Fleener today with the 34 pick in the NFL draft. Fleener will graduate in June with a  master’s degree in communication, and as a student in a sports reporting class, he wrote this article for the Peninsula Press, a news website and project of the Stanford Graduate Program in Journalism. In this first-person narrative, Fleener reveals where he got his unusual first name and how it may have started him on his path to the NFL.

“I sometimes think I was born to live up to my name. How could I be anything else but what I am, having been named Madonna?”

– Pop star Madonna

Coby Fleener runs for a touchdown in Stanford's Nov. 26, 2011 victory over Notre Dame. (Photo courtesy of John Todd, gostanford.com)

Had I listened to these words of wisdom earlier, maybe I could have foreseen where my life was headed—to the football field, and now, to the NFL.

Jacoby, my unusual first name, comes from an equally unusual source. To the surprise of many, it’s not from the Bible or passed down through my family. Names in the rest of my family are pretty typical: Michelle, Bill, Ron, Rob and Kevin.

So where did Jacoby come from? Coincidentally, and perhaps symbolically, it came from professional football.

My mom told me how she and my dad were living in Lemont, Ill., in September 1988, watching an NFL game on television. Pregnant with her first child, a son, she saw a name she liked on the back of a Washington Redskins’ jersey. She turned to my dad, pointed to the name on the jersey of the massive 6-foot-7, 300-pound offensive tackle and proposed they name their son Jacoby.

My dad wasn’t too keen on the name. Today however, he denies wanting to name his son for himself, but I suspect it’s easy to deny the idea now. He says that while he wasn’t a fan of the full name, a potential nickname, “Coby,” did pique his interest. After a difficult delivery, my dad agreed to my mom’s wish. I likely would have been Billy Jr., had Joe Jacoby not been playing for the Redskins that day.

I always wondered about the man for whom I was named, especially since I, too, ended up playing football, as a 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end on Stanford’s nationally-ranked football team. Now, on NFL draft day, Joe Jacoby and I have more in common than a name.

I wanted to talk with Joe, daunting though that seemed. A phone conversation was arranged. Before calling Joe, I felt that it was time to learn more about his NFL career. My mom couldn’t recall the position he played or the team he played for: “I just remember the name on the back of the jersey and the color scheme,” she said. (My mom is an interior designer, and her “memory” typically consists of hand-written notes to herself.) After learning I was going to call him, she asked me to relay every detail of our conversation, which I did. Then she called Joe, and they had a great conversation.

Joe’s career was more remarkable than my mom knew but, as football goes, offensive linemen rarely get the glory. Joe played in the Super Bowl four times with the Redskins, won three championship rings and was a four-time Pro-Bowl selection.

Joe was expecting my call. His tone was welcoming, nearly father-like. He is 53 and married, with two daughters in college. Both are swimmers at Division I universities.

I had thought about this conversation many times. I was eager to tell Joe that I was named for him, but nervous that he might not be interested in that. How could I impress Joe? Without making him scoff or think me foolish, how could I hint at the thought that, because of his name, I was destined to play pro football?

Joe Jacoby was a tackle/guard for the Washington Redskins - Coby Fleener's mom's favorite team - in the 1980s and early 90s. (Photo courtesy of Redskins.com)

This was a new experience for both of us. After some small talk and getting acquainted, I began to ask questions. As far as Joe knows, I am the only person named for him. I found Joe to be a willing storyteller. When I asked him to tell me about his childhood, what followed was a discourse fitting of a movie script, filled with a rough beginning and a triumphant end.

During Joe’s freshman year in high school in Louisville, Ky., his father died, making life difficult for Joe, his two brothers and sister. Fortunately for Joe, his athletic ability and size gave him an opportunity to attend the University of Louisville on a football scholarship.

During his freshman year at Louisville, Joe’s younger brother died in his sleep at 14. When I asked Joe how he dealt with his difficult childhood, he said, “I wasn’t a happy young man, let’s put it that way.” With sports as an outlet, he found his liberation on the football field.

After leaving Louisville early to train for the NFL, Joe did not get drafted. Though disappointed, he did not dwell on it. He tried to figure out which team to sign with as a free agent. The Washington Redskins impressed him during a visit to Washington D.C., where he experienced our nation’s history in ways he had previously only “on T.V. or in schoolbooks.” The trend of difficult starts for Joe wasn’t over yet, though.

During the Redskins’ camp his rookie year, coaches called Joe from a team meeting. He expected to be told he was being cut. The news was worse than that. He was heartbroken to learn that his mother had died suddenly.

Remembering that long-ago night, he recalls the beginning of a deep friendship with another rookie offensive lineman, guard Russ Grimm.

“Russ Grimm stayed up all night with me,” he said. “We were sitting in the bleachers at the Dickerson College football stadium. Here’s a guy I didn’t know, who had probably never experienced anything like that, but he didn’t leave.”

After that night with Grimm, Joe went home and considered quitting the Redskins. But his brother Charlie pushed him back into the game. He locked Joe out of the house and insisted he return to camp.

Joe went on to have an impressive 13-year NFL career and twice was named a Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist. Retirement for Joe led him into different fields; first, he owned a car dealership in northern Virginia. His daughters convinced him that it wasn’t the right profession, so he sold the business and moved on. In Joe’s words, he is a “car guy, not a car salesman.” Now he’s coaching football at Shenandoah University, where his players call him “Dad” more often than “Coach.”

Joe’s daughters and players inspired him to finish his degree. He had emphasized the importance of education to them and decided it was hypocritical not to have his own degree. After taking online classes for two years, Joe earned his degree in Workforce Leadership from the University of Louisville – the same place where he was a scholarship football player more than 30 years ago.

Fleener was named for Washington Redskins player Joe Jacoby.

Like Joe, I earned a football scholarship that paid my way through college. I will graduate from Stanford in June with my bachelor’s degree in science, technology and society and my master’s in media studies. But my path to football began long before Stanford. In fact, in many ways, it began with my name, my mom and her love of the game.

For me, joy in football did not come naturally. When I was in second grade, I joined my cousins in the local Pop Warner football league. After one year, my interest was dwindling. Playing offensive line when you’re young is a great way to lose enthusiasm.

Two practices into my second year, the screaming coaches combined with getting the wind knocked out of me by older boys, made me decide football wasn’t the sport for me. Basketball and baseball were my favorite sports, and I hoped to play professional basketball one day.

When I was in seventh and eighth grade, my cousin, who coached football at a Catholic high school in a nearby town in Illinois, arranged for me to serve as water boy for his state-championship team. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom – who can throw a great spiral herself – had orchestrated it in the hope that the experience would lead me to play.

When I enrolled at Joliet Catholic, I joined the high school football team more for the opportunity to meet people at my new school than to someday earn a football scholarship. I should have realized that my family’s financial situation wouldn’t have allowed me to attend anywhere more expensive than the local junior college. However, it wasn’t until my sophomore year that my mom explained the situation to me. I would need to earn a scholarship to pay for college.

Though my heart was set on earning a basketball scholarship, it didn’t take long for me to realize the chances of getting one of 85 football scholarships were much better than the odds for basketball. My namesake was offered the chance to play basketball on a scholarship in college, but unfortunately, I was not. And the path to a football scholarship was a winding one as well.

Unfortunately for me, playing time is usually necessary to earn a scholarship. Watching from the sideline my junior year meant that I didn’t have any football videotape to send to colleges. My school was known for running the ball, and it was much more efficient to have another lineman in there at tight end instead of the tall and more athletic, but much skinnier backup – i.e. me. Luckily, coaches at smaller colleges saw football potential in my basketball highlights and began recruiting me. After starting my senior year and sending out tape along the way, I was offered a football scholarship to Stanford, which I ultimately accepted.

More importantly, I realized that it wasn’t the sport that I was playing that made me happy, but rather that I got to compete. I realized what I truly enjoyed was fighting for the guys I had practiced so hard with. As I grew naturally and worked in the weight room, I found that, now, I was starting to knock the wind out of others.

My career at Stanford went by quickly. The thrill of walking down the tunnel to tens of thousands of screaming football fans (at least in the last couple years) is something that I have become addicted to during my time at Stanford. I will always be proud to have been part of a group of young men that helped turn the Stanford football program around — from 1-11 in 2006 to two straight BCS bowl games in 2011 and 2012. Like Joe, I have made life-long friendships with my teammates. I firmly believe that going to Stanford University was the best decision I have ever made.

Now, as I prepare to join the Indianapolis Colts, I am training hard and aspiring to join my namesake in the NFL record books and hopefully equal some of Joe’s accomplishments. When I asked Joe if he had any advice for me, he said, “Be yourself. It is still a game, but now you’re getting paid. Your coaches have prepared you well. Have fun and enjoy it.”

Joe’s words of wisdom show he has come a long way from his early days of playing football. So have I. And my feelings for the game have changed along the way. Joe and I have both learned to love the game of football through different circumstances.

I do not know if my name has helped lead me down the path my mom intended, but Joe and I share a degree, a love for football, and of course, a name.

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