Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a three-part series following the summer training regimens of Stokes County student athletes.
West Stokes graduate Austin Fleming understands what it’s like to play with pain.
Fleming, who helped lead the Wildcat football team to its first state championship last December, played the entire football season with a torn labrum — a ring of fibrous cartilage in the upper part of the scapula — in his right shoulder. Fleming postponed offseason surgery until late March so that he could play basketball his senior year.
Dr. David F. Martin, an orthopedic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Fleming’s physician, was not thrilled with Austin’s decision.
“All I remember him saying is, if you can take the pain, you can play, but he said he would prefer I didn’t play basketball,” Fleming said.
Fleming freely admits his family wasn’t happy with his decision either. His father, Steve, a former Wake Forest football player, warned Austin of the risk of doing further injury to his shoulder. But Austin remained committed to his basketball teammates, and finished out the season.
On March 23, Fleming underwent surgery to repair his torn labrum. Dr. Martin performed the surgery. Fleming recalls the day of surgery as a harrowing experience.
“I woke up that morning for surgery and I was sick — I was throwing up,” Fleming recalled. “I guess it was because I was nervous.”
After coming out of anesthesia, Fleming fell sick again. He finally made it home, his right arm in a sling with a thick pad underneath.
“My right arm was immobilized,” Fleming said. “I had to sleep in the sling, and it was not fun. I had to change sleeping positions; had to sleep on my left side. I probably averaged about five or six hours a night.”
After a month, the sling came off and Austin began working with Jeff Chandler, founder of Chandler Physical Therapy & Sports Rehab in Winston-Salem.
On Tuesday morning, Fleming performed exercises designed to strengthen the muscles in and around his scapula and rotator cuff under Chandler’s watchful eye.
“He’s responded superbly,” Chandler said. “Austin is highly motivated. Usually there’s a process of immobilization followed by trying to restore his range of motion, strength and just overall function. As he’s been getting further along in the program, we’ve been working on more sports-specific activities and core strengthening to prepare him to go off to college and compete.”
This spring, Fleming signed a letter-of-intent to play football for Campbell University. Fleming has had to learn patience during the lengthy recuperation process. Typically, the recovery time from the type of surgery Fleming underwent is six to nine months.
“I’m ready to start throwing again,” Fleming said. “I told my dad, I haven’t thrown healthy in more than a year and a half. It’s a long process unfortunately — it’s taking a lot of time. All I can do is wait until the doctor says I can [throw again].”
Healing is a slow process, but Fleming is well ahead of the curve with his recuperation, Chandler said.
“For Austin, it’s been a process of understanding the type of surgery he’s had,” he said. “He’s had to be patient early on with his arm being immobilized and working through the process of regaining range of motion, strength and function and really preparing him to get back to higher level athletics.”
Fleming said he’s looking forward to seeing if he can return to the form he had before the injury. Chandler is confident he will.
“I expect Austin to make a full recovery,” he said. “He’s really getting out of that risk factor, so at this point, we’re focusing on really building up his strength. We’ll soon be getting into some overhead strengthening exercises that will prepare him to throw the football.”
Once Austin can throw a football with full range of motion and no pain and shows significant improvement in muscle strength, he should be released from physical therapy, Chandler said.
Fleming said he’s encouraged by the progress he’s seen in recent weeks. In the meantime, he’s been running and doing lower body workouts to prepare for the transition to college football. Fleming has been working out with West Stokes and Campbell teammate, DeMarion Jones, doing quarterback drills. Fleming said he plans on red-shirting his first season at Campbell, and begin participating his sophomore year.
Fleming admits he’s been caught off-guard by the tremendous sacrifices required of college athletes. His summer has been consumed with physical therapy, workouts, scouting college defenses on tape, and preparing himself physically and mentally for the challenges that lie ahead.
“It’s a lot more than people think,” he said. “People who have not been to the next level, it’s difficult for them to understand. I’ll say, ‘I can’t go out tonight. I’ve got to work out,’ and my friends will say, ‘You’ve already worked out three times this week.’ But I know if I don’t work out, someone else will be stepping up and looking to take my place.”
“One of the things I learned is you might be good in Stokes County, but once you get out there, you’re in a different world,” he added. “There’s hundreds [of quarterbacks] out there just like you.”
But what sets Fleming apart is his unparalleled inner drive and work ethic, Chandler said, which should lead to success on the college gridiron.
“Austin is humble, he’s very respectful, very mature for his age,” he said. ” I think he’ll do well not only in college athletics but life in general.”