ASHBURN — The first St. Rita High School football player to reach the Super Bowl once almost gave up the sport to concentrate on bowling.
Darius Fleming, who's on the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl XLVII roster despite suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee, originally dreamed of a pro bowling career.
As a St. Rita sophomore, the Auburn Gresham native pondered transferring to nearby Brother Rice, which had a better bowling squad.
"I wasn't going to let that happen," said 15th-year football head coach Todd Kuska, a West Lawn native. "I told him you can win an individual state bowling title anywhere, but you can only win a state football championship here."
Kuska, also a St. Rita grad, was right. Fleming led the Mustangs to the 2006 Class 7A state crown as a junior, before a standout career as an outside linebacker at the University of Notre Dame.
The 49ers, who will face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in New Orleans, selected Fleming in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
But Fleming's season lasted only 15 minutes — he tore his left ACL during his first rookie minicamp.
The 49ers put Fleming, who signed a four-year contract, on the physically unable to perform list for the first eight weeks and moved him to injured reserve for the remainder of this season.
"For some reason, it was meant for me to tear my ACL, as crazy as that sounds," Fleming, 23, said via cellphone from California on Friday. "I just pretty much accepted it and took it as a wake-up call."
But Fleming is the first player from the school, which was founded in 1905, to reach the NFL's premier game.
"He's an easy kid to root for," said West Lawn resident and 1993 St. Rita grad John Nee, the school's dean and assistant football coach.
The Super Bowl scenario seems implausible considering Fleming didn't consistently play football until his freshman year at St. Rita.
His father, Larry Fleming Sr., said Darius' Pop Warner coach rarely inserted him into games.
"I think everything that he's gone through since he was in grammar school is amazing," said Fleming Sr., who grew up on Chicago's South and West sides and recently moved to Desha, Ark.
Kuska and Nee said Fleming still makes significant time for his alma mater.
When Fleming was at Notre Dame, Kuska said he would talk via Skype to prospective seventh- and eighth-graders about the positives of a St. Rita education.
During his 49ers bye week, Fleming spent a full school day at St. Rita and spoke to the football players before a playoff game.
"Darius has so many qualities that we try to instill in our students," said Katie Curran, a St. Rita math teacher who also was Fleming's bowling coach. "He never bragged, never let his skills go to his head."
Fleming said he's finally a better football player than a bowler, although he still easily can score in the 200s.
Fleming, who was named the Catholic League bowler of the year as a senior, said he twice has rolled 289 and bowled 279 at least eight times.
"I still think about being a professional bowler all the time," Fleming said.
Fleming also consistently thinks about riding horses — a passion since childhood.
Through his teenage years, he spent weekends with his aunt, Valorie Peeples, who boarded horses in the south suburbs.
Fleming's favorite horse was Stormy, a black and white paint quarter horse who died in March at 17 years old.
"Darius was very quiet when I told him," said Peeples, who now resides in Winona, Miss. "He knows that horse is not replaceable."
St. Rita personnel feel the same way about Fleming.
"I've been here 15 years," Nee said, "and there's not a better kid I've seen who graduated from St. Rita."