By Trey Williams
Charlie Fleming won two state titles in the hurdles and another in the 100-yard dash and put Science Hill football on the fast track toward greatness.
Fleming, perhaps generously listed at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, helped Stewart “Plowboy” Farmer’s Hilltoppers to three Big Five Conference titles (1932-34) and was All-Smoky Mountain Conference while leading East Tennessee State to a league title in ’38.
Farmer’s teams were 27-1-2 during Fleming’s varsity years. Farmer’s first two teams had gone 10-9-2. Fleming, a triple-threat halfback, rushed for 38 touchdowns and caught two others during three varsity seasons.
In his next-to-last high school game, Fleming rushed for a TD and a 67-yard run in a 13-0 win at Chattanooga City. It was Farmer’s first game coaching in his native city against his alma mater.
Fleming made an impression on a Chattanooga Daily Times writer: “Fleming churned up the sod with his powerful legs developed on the cinder track (in track and field).”
It was easy, Fleming said, to keep your legs churning for Farmer.
“Coach Farmer wasn’t hot-headed or hot-tempered or anything of that nature,” Fleming said. “He led us; instead of making us do this or that, he led us.”
Farmer convinced Fleming to compete in track & field. He responded by winning the three state titles in the 100-yard dash and low and high hurdles.
Growing up on Highland Avenue came with benefits. Jim Wallin, a year younger than Fleming, lived “across the alley” and went on to win five state titles for Science Hill in the hurdles events and the high jump in 1936-37.
Sidney Smallwood competed against Fleming in high school while playing for Jonesboro and was his teammate at East Tennessee State. Smallwood went on to coach basketball and track & field at Science Hill before becoming the athletic director. He chuckled while discussing Wallin and Fleming’s athleticism one afternoon in 2006 and noted how Wallin held his own with Olympic gold medalist high hurdler Forrest “Spec” Towns.
“Jim went to the Olympic tryouts in Atlanta,” Smallwood said. “He ran against Spec Towns from Georgia and I think maybe Towns beat Jim in a photo finish. Jim Wallin was a great high hurdler, but not quite as well disciplined as Charlie.”
The football field was where Fleming wowed Smallwood most. A punt return for a touchdown in the mud against King College often came to mind.
“It’d poured rain all day long, and it was still pouring rain,” Smallwood said. “As I remember, the mud was over our cleats. We were having a punting contest there for a while waiting for somebody to make a mistake and Charlie and I were playing double safety (on punt returns).
“The boy from King got off a good kick and I was thinking: ‘Oh Charlie, don’t try and field that thing.’ We’d just been letting the ball go. But Charlie fielded it in that rain, and I just stood and watched. He ran that thing back for a touchdown. And how he ever got through that mud and those players I’ll never know.”
Fleming began his career playing for General Neyland at Tennessee.
“I stayed there for a little while and I didn’t like anything about it,” Fleming said. “(Robert) Neyland, (John) Barnhill and (Hugh) Faust were the three coaches down there. Neyland was the big boss and Barnhill was as nice a fellow as he could be. Faust was the freshman coach.
“Getting closer to home may have been the main thing, and my grades weren’t up to par. I mean I made it alright (academically), I just didn’t like it down there at all.”
East Tennessee State felt like home.
“Eugene MacMurray was the coach then – the finest fellow that ever lived,” Fleming said. “I was a tailback, called the signals most of the time.”
Smallwood marveled at Fleming’s durability. He scored four TDs against Niles “Mule” Brown-coached Elizabethton in ‘34 after leaving the game with a concussion the previous week.
“Charlie wasn’t all that big, but he had terrific leg drive,” Smallwood said. “You know he was a state champion high and low hurdler, and back in those days you ran on cinder tracks. It took a lot of courage to run those high hurdles on a cinder track. One trip going full speed and they had to get out the iodine.
“Charlie really, in my own opinion, was a classic runner with the football. He was not only fast, he was quick and had a lot of moves. And he was always in excellent physical condition. Of course he got hit plenty of times. Back then you had to play both ways.”
Earl Nidiffer was Carl Jones’ first sports editor at the Johnson City Press-Chronicle in 1933. Nidiffer had a photographic-like memory, and talked about Fleming 80 years later – at 102 and 103 years of age.
“I tell you, Fleming was outstanding,” he said.
Nidiffer’s writing during Fleming’s playing days better illustrates his admiration for Fleming: “Fleming, in the opinion of many, is the greatest high school back to ever play in the Appalachian region. A demon on the offense with his whirling and flying heals leaving wrecked hopes in his wake, Fleming rose to great heights in practically every game.”
Fleming coached for 32 years at Bluff City beginning in 1947. He coached baseball, track and basketball. Wins didn’t exactly grow on trees for Bluff City basketball under Fleming, but his 13-16 basketball team upset Buck Van Huss’ second-seeded Hampton, the defending champion, in the district tournament in 1967.
Smallwood recalled Fleming’s Grizzlies denying his Hilltoppers a state tournament berth one year.
“I enjoyed coaching an awful lot,” Fleming said. “We won the Upper Lakes Conference track championship one year.”
Time didn’t diminish the pride and excitement Fleming experienced at Science Hill.
“To tell you the truth, every game was a memory,” Fleming said. “That’s just the way I felt about playing for Johnson City. Plowboy Farmer was one of the greatest.”