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Rocket Science

Cameron Fleming is a 320-pound monster NFL prospect with a Pac-12 pedigree. Also, he can explain orbital mechanics, calculate the movement of satellites in space, and tell you how to design a jumbo jet. Meet the new student-athlete.

It takes a moment to spot Cameron Fleming on trivia night at the Rose & Crown in Palo Alto. Even though he’s an NFL prospect at a faux-British pub where football means soccer, even though he’s half a foot taller and 200 pounds heavier than the average trivia contestant, and even though he’s one of the few African Americans in the room. He’s sitting on a stool against a side wall, surveying the chaos. Stanford students and start-up founders push past each other toward the bar, shouting orders for Belgian beer and shepherd’s pie. All the tables have been claimed for hours. There’s no shortage of people in Palo Alto who are smart and like to show it. You can barely make it through the door.

Cameron’s face, though, is perfectly serene. It’s soft and full, a baby face but for the thin mustache and the calm eyes. He doesn’t stand out as strange. He hardly seems to displace the space he occupies.

A trivia contest on a Tuesday night is not exactly a normal thing for an NFL draft prospect, but Cameron is not exactly a normal draft prospect. An NFL source called him “one of the most intelligent” draft hopefuls he had met. “He was very, very impressive.”

Cameron can tell you more than just the best way to cut off a backside defender on an outside zone play. He can talk about jets and orbital mechanics, calculate the movement of satellites in space, and tell you how to design a jumbo jet. Even at Stanford, the term “student-athlete” is backward — a  football player is an athlete first and a student second — but Cameron is about to graduate with a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. “I don’t know that I would say that he’s much different than any other student in the class,” said Brian Cantwell, the Edward C. Wells Professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford.1

Cameron is not studying aeronautics engineering because the work comes to him easily; he doesn’t get the top grades. “Stanford challenged him to the ends of the world,” his dad, Kem Fleming, told me. Cameron is the rare football player who took on one of the biggest challenges in the classroom he could find. There were tests he wasn’t sure he would pass. (“That’s life, you dealing with things and no one knowing,” Kem told Cameron when the grades came in and the father saw the son’s relief.) There were nights when Cameron was up until 6 a.m. doing problem sets for Space Dynamics, knowing he’d have to be in the weight room at 7 a.m. — “but that’s probably why it was one of my favorite classes,” he said.

If he weren’t playing professional football next year, Cameron says, he’d probably be going to graduate school. In fact, because Aeronautics and Astronautics is such a small major — there are only about 18 undergraduates majoring in it at Stanford right now — many of the other students in Cameron’s classes are getting their master’s degrees.

So there are reasons to think that Cameron might be good at this trivia thing. He knows arcane facts about Robinson helicopters, and he can also describe in detail the best moves of St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Jake Long. He’s at the Rose & Crown with three friends, Ali, Julia, and Jordan — all girls. (A couple of football teammates made noises about coming but bailed.) The four of them have the easy intimacy of college seniors who have been friends since they found themselves in a dorm together freshman year. They read each other’s looks; they anticipate each other’s jokes. When their trivia team needs a name, Julia suggests “Hashtag Revenge of the Little Whites.” Julia happens to be little and white. “Revenge of the Little Whites?” I ask. They look at each other and laugh. It has something to do with David Yankey, one of Cameron’s teammates and roommates (and a projected second-round draft pick), they vaguely explain. “Nothing interesting,” adds Cameron. (“No, no, no, no!” David groans when I ask him about it later. “That’s a very long story. Don’t worry. There’s just a war going on. Nothing big.”) The team settles on #ROLW. As I watch them laugh, my thoughts tumble back to my own senior spring. There’s something about this moment — the stupid hashtag, the conspiratorial backstory, the inside joke — that seems to capture the strangeness of the position they’re in. They’ve already claimed adulthood, and they show frightening polish and poise. As they talk about their professors, a friend’s party, or their favorite terrible movies, though, they seem not quite young and not quite old. They’re on a precipice: ready to go, but not yet gone.

For Cameron, the drop into the post-college future is extreme. He’s applying for jobs, like other graduating seniors, but for him that means flying out to Nashville for dinner with Titans coaches, or going to Washington to watch film and chat with RG3. It means preparing psychologically as well as physically for what he’s about to endure. He has already been dissected and discussed by countless strangers, but a pro football player is a public avatar. In the NFL, the attention will be more brutal, more impersonal, and more intense. He’ll become a set of stats, a figure against the cap, a steal or a mistake. I’ll have to call him “Fleming.” Here at the Rose & Crown, though, it’s hard not to think of him as Cameron.

It turns out that Cameron is really bad at trivia. In fairness, so is the team’s secret ringer (me). Cameron doesn’t know what Herbert Hoover’s salary was in 1930, or what international salon has the slogan, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good,” or the household item that the style of Charlie Chaplin’s mustache is named for. Presented with a picture of Angela Lansbury, he can only shrug.

When the announcer asks what the capital of Louisiana is, though, Cameron’s face breaks into a big smile. “Baton Rouge,” he says.

Click here to read all of Grantland’s 2014 NFL draft coverage.

He’ll be in Baton Rouge during the NFL draft. His father, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, will come in from Atlanta, and on Friday, his mother, a colonel, will fly from Pennsylvania, where she’s a student at the Army War College. (His parents recently divorced.) His aunt is having a party. They’ll boil crawfish, barbecue, and wait for the phone to ring.

Cameron isn’t sure when that will happen. He can’t be absolutely certain that it will happen at all. Scouting reports generally have Cameron picked somewhere around the fourth round, but his spot on draft boards could slip. Or there could be a run on his position, right tackle, and he could vault higher. Wherever he goes, he’ll still have to make the team. The uncertainty isn’t easy.

He didn’t have to run the risk now. Since he redshirted as a freshman, he could have returned to Stanford for a fifth year. It wasn’t an easy decision for him to make — not like it was for Yankey, the likely second-round pick. Cameron waited until the last possible moments to file his declaration papers for the draft.

He’s not sacrificing his fifth year for the money. He could use the nice check — a scholarship doesn’t cover the price of living in Palo Alto, where a plate of fish and chips can cost $14 — but he doesn’t need it. His parents both had long careers in the military and don’t want his help. Besides, he’s been told that waiting another year might have helped his draft position.

His coaches urged him to come back. They wanted his help avenging that painful Rose Bowl loss. They also thought being a fourth-year starter, a senior member on a young but fantastically talented offensive line, might help his stock. “I thought he could become a feature lineman, a guy everyone talks about,” Mike Bloomgren, Stanford’s offensive coordinator and former offensive line coach, told me. If Cameron had played a fifth season, he could have shown that his improved play in 2013, especially in pass protection — according to Bloomgren, he gave up no sacks last fall — wasn’t a fluke, that he’s stopped dropping his right foot, that he’s lower and more square, that he doesn’t rely as much on brute strength and force as he used to. Shannon Turley, the strength and conditioning coach, thought Cameron should continue to work on his mobility and body control. His weaknesses, especially his lack of flexibility, are real and no secret.

Cameron listened to Turley and Bloomgren. But he also heard them say something else, and it confirmed what he already felt: He’s ready to play professional football. Physically, he is strong enough. Technically, he is sound enough. Mentally, there is no doubt.

“He’s a guy I think could benefit from coming back a fifth year,” Turley said. “He knows that. But is he ready to play in the NFL? I think that too. His character, I don’t think, is in question at all. He’s great at life — let’s be honest.”

“I’m going to miss him,” Bloomgren told me, “but I think he’s going to play a long time in the NFL. I have no hesitation.”

Cameron trusts Bloomgren and Turley’s faith in him. Bloomgren was an assistant offensive coordinator for the Jets, and Turley has become so well respected that NFL personnel have come to Palo Alto to study his methods. They’ve coached several current NFL players. They helped maintain Stanford’s remarkable turnaround from a program that finished 1-11 in 2006 to one that has ranked among the top teams in the country every year — despite losing Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck.

And Cameron trusts himself. He made the decision to enter the draft this year on his own. He has played alongside NFL offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. He has protected Andrew Luck. He spent three years playing on the offensive line in tandem with Yankey. Cameron and David have been friends since they were freshmen on the team together. They test themselves against each other — “competitive but not combative,” Cameron calls them. “We talk a little shit now and then,” Yankey said, “but we never joke about the serious things.” Yankey is ready. So is Cameron. He wants a new challenge, the biggest challenge he could find.

When it came down to it, he said, “I didn’t feel like I was coming out early.” He’s been at Stanford for four years. He’s played a lot of football. He’s finished his degree.

“It’s just crazy,” Bloomgren says, “to graduate in four years with that degree while playing football.”

Cameron insists that his major doesn’t make him stand out on the team. Several of his teammates are engineering students. There are other guys who have to work longer and harder than he does. His roommate Kyle Olugbode, an architectural design student, is often in the architecture studio all night. “Kyle has to build things,” Cameron said. “I only have to make the calculations.”

But the fact is that most football players aren’t rocket scientists. The bar for admissions might be higher at Stanford than at other top football schools, but there are plenty of gut courses at the Farm. The Athletic Academic Resource Center even used to provide a list of “Courses of Interest” to athletes — known as the easy class list — until the San Francisco Chronicle reported the list’s existence in 2011. Football players often major in Science, Technology, and Society, which they can take seriously or not. Cameron is actually studying rocket science. A few weeks ago, he had a pro day from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. At 3:30 p.m., he took a graduate-level final exam for his Aircraft and Rocket Propulsion class.

A propulsion exam doesn’t test a person’s football IQ. If it did, Cal Tech would be a powerhouse,2 and there wouldn’t be players who are incredibly smart on the field but can barely spell their names. Cameron’s degree doesn’t mean that he’s a great football player. It means that he’ll be able to get a job when his football career is over. He likes planes and always has. His father was an air defense officer, and Cameron grew up on Army bases around jets. He went on a field trip to NASA. He wants to do something with aeronautics, preferably military planes. He knows he won’t be playing in the NFL forever. “Football,” Cameron says, “is an unpredictable sport.”

“The day you get called in the draft,” his father told him, “is the day you have to start thinking of the day you retire.”

2014 NFL Combine

He’ll play in the NFL not because he studies aeronautics, but because he’s 323 pounds and 6-foot-5. His arms are 34 inches long. He has big hands and incredible strength. “He’s just a road grader,” Bloomgren says.

It’s his mind on the field, though, that makes him special. He has an easy manner, calm and collected, even when things are going badly. One of his teammates pointed out that football is problem solving, and Cameron is good at that. “He rarely gets tricked,” said David Yankey.

“I know what’s going on,” Cameron explained. “I’m able to recognize things. My eyes do a lot of work for me.” At the NFL combine, he knew that the glorified track meet was not where he could really make his mark. He doesn’t have the kind of explosive agility and athleticism that makes scouts giddy. The interviews were where he set himself apart. Stanford plays in a pro-style offense, and Cameron knows it inside out.

“Out of all the offensive linemen I interviewed, Cameron was by far the most detailed in his answers,” said the NFL source, who asked that neither he nor his team be identified. “He spoke more like a coach than a player.” He can speak about technique and schemes with precision. He knows not only about his own responsibilities but also about those around him. He doesn’t overanalyze what’s happening. He reads, reacts, and compensates.

“Cameron has an incredible appreciation for the physics of football, which is very important for his position,” said coach Turley. “He’s definitely one of my all-time favorite guys because he’s so easy to coach. He always responds. I’m not saying he says, ‘Yes, sir.’ I’m saying he engages in what you’re asking him to do.”

It wasn’t that way at the start. It took some time for Cameron to get used to Turley’s methods. The point of Turley’s strength and conditioning program isn’t to become a better athlete but a better football player. Cameron has tight hips and ankles. He’s had to work on his mobility and stability, making sure that he doesn’t come in too high or off balance, making it easier for a defender to topple him. His lack of flexibility will always be his weakness. In the weight room, Turley is trying to make sure it’s not a liability. It’s actually easier for Cameron to lift heavier loads, Turley explained to me, because the pressure of the weight forces him into good technique. The problem is that Cameron’s not lifting weights on the field. “He has to get his body lower than another man’s body if he wants to have leverage against him,” said Turley. He has to be able to control his own body weight with good technique first. So Turley, whose maverick techniques are a big part of Stanford’s success, has Cameron on a modified program. Cameron actually lifts less weight during training than he physically could. He does yoga. He has special flexibility exercises. “It’s a painstaking, grueling process,” Turley says. “There are no obvious results that come quickly.”

In the weight room that morning before class, Cameron reached up to the ceiling and then down toward his toes, over and over. His face shone with sweat. He walked around the room in circles, carrying a kettlebell. He balanced on one leg while holding a medicine ball. He hopes all of this helps.

It wasn’t his dream to play in the NFL when he was a kid. Cameron didn’t even like football. He preferred basketball. His father pushed him, hard. Kem Fleming would roll up a rug and make Cameron spend hours running straight through it in the backyard after practice. “Cameron would be in tears,” remembered his mother, Karen Fleming.

“I couldn’t quit until I got cut,” Cameron said, “and I haven’t gotten cut yet.”

It wasn’t until his sophomore year in high school that he began to see himself as a football player. Not incidentally, that’s around the time that he began to get big — “not just tall, but big.” He improved rapidly, to the point where people started to notice how good he was. Really good — Texas football good. TCU was the first team to recruit him. He hadn’t imagined anyone would. On his visit, the coach handed him an envelope with a scholarship offer inside. His father encouraged him to wait before committing. “I think I waited as long as it took me to get home, so about a four-hour drive,” Cameron recalled. “Then I called them and told them I was going.”

Committing to a school doesn’t mean a true commitment, though — on both sides. Other schools started to call, and he realized he had options. He thought about Baylor; he liked the idea of staying close to home. Then Stanford expressed interest. Stanford was different. Even football recruits have to go through the admissions process. “We said, ‘If this works out, you’re going to Stanford,’” Kem Fleming said. “Me and his mom, we were like, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime.’”

Cameron laughed when I told him what his dad said. “It was their decision,” he said. They were the ones who scheduled the visit as soon as the offer came. But they didn’t have to do much to convince him. He wanted the chance to play with Andrew Luck. He knew there was a core group of offensive linemen that he could learn from, a group that was helping to turn around not only the team’s performance but also the team’s culture. And he felt a little humbled at Stanford. “At other schools, especially in Texas, football is God,” he says. “But here, I could be in a class with Olympians. Playing football really isn’t that big of a deal.” He liked that.

His parents are still on his case, telling him to prepare for the future now. They know the risks their son will face. “I’m sure you’re well aware of the stories of young men, professional athletes, who lose it all,” Karen Fleming said to me. “You look at them five, ten years down the road, and they have nothing to show from a financial standpoint for what they’ve achieved.”

Over spring break, Cameron went to Atlanta to visit his father, and they drove to Memphis to watch the men’s basketball team play Dayton in the NCAA tournament. Throughout the ride there and back, they talked about life in the NFL — especially about money. “I made him take notes,” Kem said. They covered budgets, IRAs, E-Trade accounts; they talked about what to do when someone shows up, puts out his hand, and asks for a little help.

“If you’re not doing the right thing, you’re going to be living here,” Kem told Cameron. “You’re going to say, ‘Dad, can I borrow the car?’ And I’m going to be like, ‘Yeah, you was an NFL player.’”

Stanford v USC

Cameron is quiet, but he’s got a sly side. “He’s a jokester,” Kyle Olugbode says. If someone pulls a prank in the locker room and no one can identify the culprit, you can guess it was Cam. He fits in easily almost everywhere. When his friends, parents, and coaches talk about him, they often use the word “adapt.” He’s been adapting his whole life. With both parents in the military, he moved constantly growing up. He was born in Texas in 1992, but he moved to Germany for several years, then Virginia, Kansas, and two different bases in Texas. He’s dealt with having one parent or the other overseas in a war zone for long periods of time. When he was in eighth grade, both were gone. He had to learn to manage his fear when his dad was in Iraq or his mom in Bahrain.

It helped to have teammates. They were, he says, “instant friends.” Traditionally, offensive lines are particularly close. What counts for them isn’t glory but pride. They form their own subculture in a football locker room. Linemen are self-regulating, and they’re self-conscious of the way they form tight bonds. “It’s like getting raised by a village,” Cameron explained. “Everybody knows something about something, they’re all willing to share their knowledge.”

The O-line is especially tight at Stanford. “The guys above us, the fifth years, the guys who didn’t win a ton of games until my freshman year — I think they kind of made the decision to bring the locker room together,” Cameron says. “I hear a ton of stories from before I got there, when people weren’t close, were losing games, were blaming each other. Then the seniors came in and were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to turn this around if we’re going to be happy here.’ Those are the guys who really brought the linemen together. Those are the guys who made sure the locker room was close.” A few years before he arrived, the linemen started calling themselves the Tunnel Workers Union Local 88, in honor of the union that one player’s father belonged to in South Quincy, Massachusetts. They turned it from a nickname into a group, a code. The Tunnel Workers Union helped them spell out their ideals. “You have to be admitted to the Tunnel Workers Union,” Cameron explained. “We talk to former members, we talk to coaches, and we talk to the strength staff, and we see who on the team deserves to be admitted to this union. You gotta work hard, you gotta compete, you gotta push, you gotta drive. There’s a whole covenant to it.”3 The offensive line’s breakdown chant is woot-woot-union.

Most NFL locker rooms, of course, are not like the one at the Farm. They can be lonely places. Cameron is aware of what happened to Jonathan Martin, his former teammate, after all. Moose Martin had been one of the fifth-year seniors who had made Stanford’s locker room such a positive place, but in Miami, he was bullied and hazed in extreme ways. Even in the best circumstances, Cameron knows that he’ll be alongside guys of different ages, guys in different stages of life. He’ll be with guys who are making millions and guys who are praying not to be cut.

“Our locker room is really family-like,” Bloomgren says. “The ones I was part of in the NFL, even though they were better than a lot of them, there’s a lot of selfishness. It’s really different.”

When I asked David Yankey about what Bloomgren said, Yankey answered carefully. “It’s a question that probably wouldn’t arise a lot with the media if the Jonathan Martin thing hadn’t happened, but Coach Bloom probably would have talked about it with you anyway, because the environment here is so tight.” Yankey expects to be hazed to a certain point but not beyond. “We all consider ourselves pretty tough guys. We’re not afraid to take on most things.” Cameron, Yankey said, “has got this quietness about him, but there’s this hardness, too. He’s not going to take shit from anyone.”

“Cam knows how to make friends. But he also knows how to stand his ground and not be walked over at all,” said his teammate Dillon Bonnell.

His father is confident that if Cameron had been in Martin’s situation, he would have handled it differently. “He was raised by Mississippi folk,” Kem said. “Jonathan Martin — we talked about it, and what I said was, you got to look at it, the point is, [Cameron] is nowhere close to Jonathan Martin’s background. Jonathan’s parents both went to Harvard. His lifestyle was different growing up. I would tell my son not to back down from a fight but to avoid the fight.”

Cameron himself seems less certain. He has seen Martin a few times since Martin left the Dolphins, but they’ve never directly talked about what happened. “I don’t think it really worries me,” Cameron said. “It seems like an isolated case.” He paused. “I do think about how I would handle it, and I’m not really sure how I would.”

He’s not sure what to expect. He doesn’t know where he’ll move in a couple of months. He doesn’t know whether he’ll have roommates or live alone, or how he’ll make friends. “I’m not much of a worrier, but you’re kind of bringing it out in me,” Cameron told me when I pressed him.

I’m guessing that he won’t miss trivia night. But he’s romanticizing college already, in the prematurely nostalgic way that seniors tend to do. He talks about how Stanford is a “special place” and tells me how much former players miss it there. “When they come back, they say, ‘There’s nothing like this locker room.’”

And he will miss that locker room, too. There, his teammates called him Cam, Rocket Cam, even Cammy Fresh — like he asked them to. (“[He’s] one of the only people I know who’s self-proclaimed his nickname,” Dillon Bonnell said with a laugh.) They joked about his baby face. They cheered him on in dance-offs. He could have stayed for another season. But he’s ready to go.

Back at the bar, his friend Ali opens the note on her phone where she keeps the collective bucket list of things to do before graduation. She knocks off trivia night at the Rose & Crown.

There are seven weeks left in senior year, and the list is long. 

Filed Under: NFL Draft, NFL, College Football, Cameron Fleming, Stanford, Jonathan Martin, aeronautics

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas

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