By Sam Cohn
STANFORD, Calif. - Coby Fleener always had good timing.
As a toddler he saved his 1-year old sister from tumbling down a flight of stairs. In high school, after realizing future success was likely to come in football, he shifted his focus away from basketball where he excelled. Since arriving at Stanford he’s made a habit of finding holes in opposing defenses, highlighted by a record-setting performance in the 2011 Orange Bowl.
Fleener’s prescient nature was evident early on. Michelle Nagel Fleener will never forget the day her oldest child kept Briana from taking a horrible fall.
“I remember it perfectly,” she said. “I was making dinner and I heard Coby saying ‘No, Bree, no’. I went over to them and he was holding on to her walker at the top of the stairs. At 2 years old, he understood not to let her fall down. I remember saying ‘Thank you Coby, thank you’ over and over again.”
Growing up in Lemont, Ill., Fleener watched Michelle work long hours as an interior decorator to make ends meet. The sacrifices that she made as a single mother were integral in the development of Fleener’s work ethic.
“My mom really worked hard when we were growing up to give us what we needed and she did it without expecting anything in return,” he said. “Looking back I can see how much she sacrificed. That was an amazing thing to see and it had a lasting affect on me.”
After his junior year, Fleener knew that he had a better chance of receiving a college scholarship in football than in basketball where he earned all-area and all-conference honors his junior and senior years. The decision to shift his focus turned out to be a seminal moment for him. A natural athlete who intensified his commitment to developing as a football player one year before graduating, Fleener didn’t attract the attention of college coaches until after a summer spent bulking up and refining his football skills.
Fleener entered his senior season a new player. Gone was the hesitant junior that Joliet Catholic coach Dan Sharp had known, replaced by a 6-foot-6 tight end/receiver with speed and athleticism and the ability to go up for the ball like a power forward.
“I could see how blessed he was athletically, but he couldn’t,” said Michelle. “The summer before senior year he realized he could excel at football. I remember him telling me, ‘All summer they kept throwing me the ball and I kept catching it,’ and that triggered something in him.”
Fleener hauled in 34 passes for a school-record 706 yards and eight touchdowns and soon attracted the attention of college football coaches around the country.
He made a late commitment to Stanford, signing in the middle of his senior year, well past the time when most top recruits have chosen their school.
Michelle worried that going to college on the West Coast would be difficult for Coby, but it’s been a perfect fit from Day One. Fleener has even let his hair grow out this season, a look akin to a “California surfer dude,” she said. “He couldn’t be happier with his decision.”
Since arriving in the fall of 2007, Fleener has progressed through the ranks of a talented group of tight ends, including current teammates Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Fleener’s ability to exploit defensive backs who can’t handle his strength and linebackers who can’t run with him creates mismatches all over the field. A long-striding runner, Fleener’s speed often deceives opponents.
“The summer between his junior and senior years when he was going to some football camps, he was running a 40-yard dash in the low 4.5’s, high 4.4’s,” Sharp said. “He was running ridiculous 40 times.”
Safety Michael Thomas described Fleener as “the second fastest player we have” after wide receiver Chris Owusu. Quarterback Andrew Luck is used to taking advantage of slower players defending Fleener.
“I don’t think people realize how fast he is,” said Luck who found Fleener for seven scores last season. “He’s a big guy, but he’s also fast.”
Fleener played in 38 games from 2008-10 but waited until the last of his junior season to break out on a national stage. In Stanford’s victory over Virginia Tech, Fleener caught six passes for an Orange Bowl-record 173 yards and set a Stanford bowl-game record with three receiving touchdowns.
Focused more with winning the game than inflating his stats, Fleener was thrilled with sending the seniors out with a victory. He deflects credit for his record-breaking performance, preferring to recognize the efforts of his teammates.
“It wasn’t amazing plays by me,” he said. “It was the run-sell by the offensive line and we were able to use play-action off of that. When the line sells the run and Andrew makes an excellent throw it makes my job really easy.”
Striving to improve
Entering his final season on The Farm, Fleener has become a complete tight end. A protective big brother by nature, destroying defenders in the run game and clearing a path for his teammates may be the part of his game he’s most proud of.
“I take a lot of pride in my blocking, my ability to get the job done when the ball’s not thrown to me,” he said. “You can’t be perfect out there, but that’s my goal every week. After games, there’s always that play you think about, if I held a certain block a little longer maybe we could have been a little better. It drives me to be a complete player.”
Fleener has made the most of his time on The Farm, excelling in the classroom when he’s not in pads. What little time he has left over is allocated to recovering from a busy schedule.
Fleener is working on a master’s degree in communication specializing in media studies with an emphasis in human and computer interaction. He earned his bachelor’s degree in science, technology and society with a 3.11 GPA last year.
“The best thing about Stanford is that you’re with the most amazing students you could ever imagine,” he said “and then you come over to the locker room and it’s another world of amazing people at the top of their field.”
Fleener and his teammates share a common goal of winning the Pac-12 and playing in a bowl game with a national title at stake. For Stanford fans, Fleener’s emergence may be the best timing of all.