ORONO, Maine — In 2004, Jhamal Fluellen reported to football training camp at Syracuse University excited about his future.

The talented running back and cornerback from Lockport, N.Y., never even set foot on the Orangemen’s practice field.

During a routine physical, team doctors discovered Fluellen suffered from Wolfe-Parkinson White Syndrome, a condition that causes an irregular heartbeat.

The diagnosis explained why Fluellen had experienced premature fatigue and a rapid heartbeat during physical activity. It also nearly ended his football career.

Within two months, Fluellen underwent an intravenous procedure to correct the problem, which results from an extra electrical conduction pathway between the heart’s chambers.

“It was real scary,” Fluellen said. “With my family being there, and through the grace of God, I got through the surgery OK.”

Even so, the doctors at Syracuse wouldn’t let him return to football, citing liability issues.

“It was really devastating to me because football was a passion of mine,” Fluellen said.

Four years later, Fluellen is the heart and soul of the University of Maine offense. On Saturday, the senior tailback will lead the Black Bears onto refurbished Morse Field for a 6 p.m. game against Stony Brook.

“My perspective has changed a lot,” said the Bears’ soft-spoken co-captain. “Most athletes, they really don’t get a second opportunity. With me, given that second opportunity, I just ran with it.”

And run he has. Last season, the 5-foot-9, 178-pounder rushed for 1,052 yards and five touchdowns, providing stability on an inexperienced unit.

Fluellen, who had offseason shoulder surgery, came into 2008 on pace to crack the school’s top 10 career rushing yardage list. He and has posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts to open the season.

“He’s got a great running style,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove. “He’s very smart as a runner. He sees things and he’s got a burst of speed and energy. He makes people miss with a quick, stop-on-a-dime type of move.”

It took Fluellen time to get back into the swing of things after his arrival at UMaine in 2006. Save for a few games in the New York Amateur Football League during the summer of 2005, he had been away from the game since 2003.

Fluellen was initially utilized as a wide receiver, with some reps at running back. Last year, he became the featured back.

Prior to UMaine, Fluellen had resigned himself to life without football — and the college education that accompanied a scholarship. After another medical evaluation negated a chance to play at the University of Buffalo in 2005, he took a job as a seafood cook.

“I felt depressed,” Fluellen said. “I was back at home, making minimum wage at Long John Silver’s.”

Daren Stone, a childhood friend and former high school teammate, knew of Fluellen’s plight and mentioned the situation to his coaches at UMaine. Lockport coach Mike Finn then got involved and approached Cosgrove about taking a look at Fluellen’s case.

“I told Mike that out of respect for him I would look into it if we could get the medical stuff through and get it to our doctors,” Cosgrove said. “[Our doctors] saw it differently than Syracuse did.”

“I felt reborn,” Fluellen said. “I was telling myself, ‘you’re done playing football,’ but in my heart I still had passion and love for the game and I felt like I could still play.’”

Fluellen arrived in Orono a changed man and has taken advantage of his second chance. Not only has he been effective on the field, he will graduate in May with a degree in child development and family relations.

He shudders to imagine what might have happened had UMaine not come along.

“Football has always been the motivation for me to be in school,” he admitted.

Throughout his saga, Fluellen remained hopeful. He cred-its his mother, Deneen Fluellen, with helping him keep everything in perspective.

“My mom’s my best friend,” he said. “She always taught me to pray and to give thanks to God because a lot of people don’t get the opportunity I have and that it’s a true blessing.”

The young man known to his teammates as “Grandpa” — because of his deliberate walk and his age (23) — has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates while remaining humble and helpful.

“He carries himself with a real high level of dignity and pride,” Cosgrove said. “Because of that, he impacts others. People listen to him.”

After football, Fluellen plans to dedicate himself to helping troubled teenagers. He and teammate Jovan Belcher have spent time mentoring a 4-year-old boy from Bangor.

“I’d just like to get their lives back on track and show them there’s more in life than being out on the streets,” Fluellen said. “I had a good support system with my mom and the rest of my family.”

He appreciates UMaine’s willingness to give him a shot.

“I’ve met a lot of phenomenal people up here and I’ve done a lot of things I never thought I would,” Fluellen said. “I’m grateful.”

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...