BC's Donnie Fletcher still defying odds
His rise from homeless youth to possible NFL draft pick stirs hope and pride
The tears just wouldn't stop. He had never cried in front of his young children before, and he knew it was confusing for them.
Sitting in the car, crying for no apparent reason.
His wife noticed, too.
At first, he tried to play it off. "Something's in my eye," he said.
But when the tears kept flowing, she asked again.
"What's wrong, baby? You're crying," she said from the passenger's seat.
"Nothing," he responded from behind the wheel, watching the familiar scenery of this cross-country trip roll by through the tears. "Nothing's wrong."
It was the truth, and it wasn't. Alan Fletcher, a former Cleveland prep star and safety at the University of Cincinnati, a husband and a father, was just overcome by emotion. He was driving to see his adopted son play his final college home game. The boy he took in years before was now a man, ready to graduate and pursue his dreams of becoming a professional football player.
"From where he started," Fletcher said by phone last week, "none of this should even be possible."
Donnie Fletcher's backstory is a familiar tale of hardship. His father was never really involved in his life, and his mother developed a drug problem.
When Donnie was just a year old, he and his siblings were taken from their mother's home in a low-income area of Cleveland and put into custody of the state. They bounced around Ohio, from home to home, for the next seven years as their mother worked to get clean.
He was 8 years old when she did, and he lived with her until she died five years later. Then, for a while, Donnie was homeless -- bouncing from relative to relative, spending more and more time on the streets.
The gang life was calling, and young Donnie seemed ready to answer it.
That's what told Andrea Fletcher, Alan's wife and Donnie's aunt, it was time. "You've gotta go get him," she told her husband, who was working as a social worker in Cleveland public schools after graduating from Cincinnati. "You've gotta go get him, right now."
Alan wasn't sure he was ready. He'd always been the cool uncle, and if he brought 13-year-old Donnie into his home he would have to immediately transition to parent of a child with behavioral issues.
He's glad now that he did. There were bumps along the way, but after one dustup ended in a boxing match between the two -- Alan remembers pushing around living-room furniture to form a makeshift ring, and says, "If I did not deal with him that day, that moment, like this, I might've lost him." -- the family hit a rhythm.
Football helped. The discipline required to excel on the field -- where he learned hand placement, footwork, backpedaling and other techniques from his experienced uncle -- also helped him in the classroom and at home.
"For the first time in his life he had real structure," Alan said. "I was really pleased that me and [Coach Ted Ginn Sr.] were saying the same things."
Under the guidance of Ginn and his uncle, who also coached at rival Shaw High School, Donnie became a top prospect at Glenville High. He garnered fistfuls of scholarship offers and ultimately landed at Boston College.
"It was kind of an open-and-shut case, because Coach [Ben] Sirmans convinced me that not only will Donnie be an outstanding football player here but he was a guy that was gonna graduate," Alan said. "That meant everything to me."
Once he arrived in Chestnut Hill, Fletcher made his presence known almost immediately. He played in all 14 games as a true freshman, starting four, and snagged three interceptions. His stock hit a high after his junior season, when he finished tied for 11th in the country in interceptions with five, despite playing in BC's zone scheme.
The zone philosophy meant the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Fletcher wasn't able to use his size as much as he would have in a man scheme, forcing him to sit back in coverage and react rather than be physical with receivers and make them react to him.
Fletcher injured his back in a preseason scrimmage before his senior season and missed the team's opener against Northwestern. And though he returned to the starting lineup the next week, his stat line for the season was a step back from the one he put up as a junior.
That left Fletcher, who graduated from BC in December with a degree in human development, having to prove to scouts he's still the player he was before the injury.
He got invited to the Senior Bowl, which gave him an opportunity to match up with talented receivers in straight man coverage.
"A lot of coaches said I'm a real physical corner," he said, referring to the feedback he got after the event. "They didn't know I could play man, just because of the system we run [at BC]. Real impressed with my skill level, so I was excited about that."
Like many draft hopefuls, Fletcher spent time in an Arizona training complex. While he was there, the invitations to the NFL combine went out.
He didn't get one.
"It was real rough, real disappointing," he said. "Then I realized that it's nothing I can do. I can't invite myself to the combine. It just gave me more fuel to the fire. Put a bigger chip on my shoulder."
"It came as a bit of a surprise when the combine didn't extend an invitation to Fletcher," Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench said, "and it will be an even greater surprise if he doesn't hear his name called on Day 3 of the draft.
"In fact, he could come off the board as early as the fifth round."
Muench said there are concerns about Fletcher's limitations in man coverage and his durability, but his above-average awareness in zone coverage, ability to make plays against the pass and the run and physical gifts (size and speed, which was clocked in the 4.4s in the 40-yard dash at BC's pro day) should be enough for a team to take a shot on him.
It's possible that he'll be drafted as a safety, which would be just fine with him.
"It'd mean everything," he said of being drafted. "It's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. I can help out a lot of people in my family financially.
"I'm just happy to be in this position. Thank God."
He's back in Cleveland now, where he plans to watch this weekend's draft with a few friends and family. And for them, for the ones who know him best, even if his name isn't called and even if he can't latch on with a team as a free agent, he'll still be a success.
"That process, this whole NFL thing?" his uncle said. "The biggest of the big deals has already happened for me. He graduated.
"He's come a very long way and I'm just very, very proud of him."
Proud enough to shed a tear, knowing all that went into just getting here.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.