Carrying hefty price tag

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:03 AM ET

When's the last time you heard of a defensive lineman earning more than the quarterback?

Joe Fleming admits that's pretty rare.

Yet, here's the 33-year-old Winnipeg Blue Bomber, earning a splashier paycheque than that of projected starting pivot, Kevin Glenn.

In fact, Fleming's annual stipend -- a reported $165,000, or so -- puts him right near the head of the financial class on this team, next to receiver Milt Stegall.

So are we to presume Fleming will be scoring touchdowns and doing end-zone dances, while single-handedly taking the Bombers back to the playoffs?

Exactly what does a defensive lineman, a tackle, no less, have to do to earn that kind of coin?

We wonder how it feels, too, carrying the extra weight. After all, the last guy to be paid an inordinate amount in these parts, Khari Jones, lugged it around like an anvil.

Acquired from Calgary in the Jones trade last September, Fleming seems remarkably comfortable in the CFL's high-rent district.

If the big bucks come with a burden, the burly, nine-year veteran holds it up with ease.

"No doubt about it, it brings a lot (of responsibility)," Fleming was saying yesterday. "You have to carry yourself in a manner in which a pro would. One of the things that goes with that is you have to be a leader. It comes with the territory. I actually enjoy it.

"I definitely don't think it's a burden. I find it to be a challenge."

The way Fleming sees it, no one can put any greater expectations on him than he does.

He expects to be a force this season, as he has pretty much every year, culminating with being named the league's top defensive player in 2003.

That was the year Stampeders defensive co-ordinator Jim Daley helped coax him out of a one-year retirement.

Daley had a big hand in acquiring Fleming last fall, too, not to mention convincing him to forego free agency in the off-season to sign a new Bomber contract.

"If you watched a game tape of Joe, you would think it was a highlight tape," Daley explained. "When you get highlight tapes from players, it's all their best plays with the best effort. Any game he plays in, even if he did not have success on that play, the effort's unbelievable. Not everybody operates with the same engine. He's got a special motor."

Daley describes Fleming as one of the best, most professional players he's worked with in nearly 30 years of football.

So how will this translate to the 2005 edition of the Bombers, a team rebuilding after three years of steady decline that bottomed out with a a 7-11 mark last season?

Fleming admits he doesn't know how good this team will be.

But his very presence tells you something.

Bomber fans may recall why he left here in the first place, after the '99 season. For the same reason he wanted out of Calgary as far back as a year ago: the team stunk, and didn't appear to be going anywhere.

"It's realistic to expect to go to the Grey Cup," Fleming said. "I wouldn't have signed here if that wasn't the intention of this club. Then it's how much you put into believing it, and how much effort you put forth... we're going to fight and claw and get ourselves into a playoff spot. Once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen."

You mean, like an 8-10 team beating a 14-4 one in the Grey Cup?

"A subtle reference to '01," Fleming admitted. "I don't want to make too many references to it, because it probably doesn't sit well in the beautiful city of Winnipeg. If you ask any guy on our Calgary team, Winnipeg was a more talented team. But you can win on intestinal fortitude."

We haven't seen a lot of that here the last couple of years.

If Fleming can bring it, and spread it around, he'll be worth every penny.


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