On Wednesday, a story made the rounds about the heroics of a backup Patriots linebacker. Darius Fleming, 26, saved a woman from a burning car last week, kicking open a window and sustaining cuts that required 22 stitches in the process. Fleming played in Saturday's playoff victory over the Kansas City Chiefs despite his injury, and he was celebrated on social media as the account of the accident spread.
Then reports surfaced that the whole thing might have been made up, echoing the saga of former USC cornerback Josh Shaw, who manufactured a story about a drowned nephew in 2014. Yet just hours later, police reports emerged that appeared to confirm Fleming's account of the accident and rescue.
What exactly happened?
Around 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Darius Fleming's high school, St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago, posted an account of Fleming's incident on the school's Facebook page.
It's an understatement to say we are proud of New England Patriot Darius Fleming, St. Rita Class of 2008. Darius stepped up to play a key role at Linebacker in the Patriots' playoff win over the weekend, but two days earlier made an even bigger impact.
He helped save a woman from a burning vehicle by kicking through her car window to help her escape. In doing so, he suffered a cut to his leg that required 22 stitches to close.
On and off the field, Ritamen like Darius do great things. Keep up the great work, Darius, & thank you for your courage.
Fleming has visited St. Rita in the past to speak to students about his NFL career. It is unclear how the school first learned about the incident.
Several hours later, Fleming's agent, Andy Simms, posted a screenshot of St. Rita's Facebook post on Twitter, calling Fleming's actions "Hero's work."
By Wednesday morning, the story took off, garnering coverage by Pro Football Talk, the Associated Press, USA Today and others, including SB Nation. The Boston Globe published a detailed account of the accident with quotes from Fleming.
The linebacker described driving home from a Patriots practice on Jan. 14 and seeing a truck turn suddenly, prompting a three-car pileup behind it. Fleming told the Globe that he pulled over and watched as one of the cars filled with smoke while the driver tried unsuccessfully to open the doors. Fleming resorted to kicking in the window after he failed to break it with his elbow, and said he pulled her out and "made sure she was OK."
"She was attempting to kick the window out, but she was a small lady," Fleming told the Globe. "I didn’t panic, but I was just like, ‘I got to get her out.’
"It was a little freaky, but anyone in that situation would’ve done the same thing. It’s just, I was there. I’m glad I could help her."
Fleming said that he noticed his leg was bleeding afterward and went to see team trainers. He then continued on to the hospital, where he received 22 stitches on his right calf.
Fleming's Patriots teammates were effusive Wednesday in their praise of the linebacker.
"Darius was really quiet about it, but once the team got a hold of it, the guys on the team, we forced him to give a speech and everything," defensive captain Devin McCourty told Pro Football Talk.
"Darius has been a standup guy since he got here," team captain Matthew Slater said. "When I heard the story, I wasn’t surprised at all, because you look at Darius and the way he carries himself, the way he treats people, you know, he’s a tremendous young man. We’re obviously all very proud of him. You never know what you’d do in that kind of situation but what he did was pretty remarkable."
At 2:31 p.m. ET, TMZ published its first story casting doubts on the story, stating that inquiries to 12 police and fire departments in the Boston area returned no evidence of a crash matching Fleming's description.
Following the TMZ report, news organizations rushed to rework glowing stories about Fleming as they scrambled to verify the account of the accident. Early accounts leaned heavily on the high school's Facebook post and the tweet by Fleming's agent. Did Fleming make the story up to disguise an injury obtained in a less heroic way? Was he attempting to raise his stock with the Patriots heading into the last year of his contract by inventing some good PR? Were his teammates, high school and agent covering up for him?
In a follow-up, an unspecified law enforcement source told TMZ, "It's starting to look like Manti Te'o."
Police department confirms Fleming's story
After hours of speculation, the Walpole Police Department announced that its officers had, in fact, responded to an incident on Jan. 14 that matched Fleming's description. The police department issued a statement that referenced "an unknown good Samaritan," presumably Fleming.
Full statement from the Walpole Police Department on Darius Fleming's account of pulling a woman from a wrecked car pic.twitter.com/t7EiNmbO3W— Lorenzo Reyes (@LorenzoGReyes) January 20, 2016
The statement says that there was no fire involved in the crash, but that an air bag deployed, "which to the untrained eye can appear as if the vehicle is enveloped in smoke."
Walpole was one of the agencies that TMZ claimed had said it had no record of the incident. It is unclear how this discrepancy arose. Herald Radio's Chris Villani pointed out that the accident had been on Walpole's police log all week:
On Darius Fleming, per Walpole police log, there was a multi-vehicle accident last Thursday 4:19 p.m. on Rte 1 & Foxhill Drive, no injuries— Chris Villani (@ChrisVillani44) January 20, 2016
As of Wednesday night, Fleming had been added to Patriots injury report.
Darius Fleming, who had 22 stitches in his right leg, was added to the injury report today. Limited with back/shin injury.— Kevin Duffy (@KevinRDuffy) January 20, 2016
Darius Fleming addressed the incident with media on Wednesday.
"I saw her panic on her face when the smoke started coming inside," Fleming said of what turned out to be residue from the air bag. "She wanted to get out of the car. So I just said, ‘I’m going to kick the window out.’ So I kicked it and eventually it broke and I brought her out."
He tweeted once as the day went on, presumably in response to questions about the veracity of his story.
People are quick to try and bring you down....so sad— Darius Fleming (@dfleming58) January 20, 2016