There aren’t many Arizona Wildcats in the NFL these days, but Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is one of them. The former UA safety signed to the San Francisco 49ers practice squad after going undrafted in 2019.
That was after the Tucson native appeared in 50 games (36 starts) in four seasons (2015-18) with the Wildcats, amassing 243 tackles (10 for loss), 22 pass deflections, six interceptions, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
The minimum salary for practice-squad players in 2019 was $8,000 per week—so $136,000 for the 17-week regular season. Now, DFF is on a futures contract with the Niners, meaning the club has his rights heading into OTAs and training camp where he will again compete for a roster spot.
I caught up with Flannigan-Fowles to discuss his time with the Niners as well as his UA career. Here is the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ryan Kelapire: How did the opportunity with the 49ers come about?
Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles: “Throughout the (draft) process, I was kind of thinking about where I was going to go. I was projected to go in like the later rounds or undrafted, and unfortunately I did go undrafted. But I think I kind of liked going undrafted because I could pick where I wanted to go. The 49ers were reaching out to me as well as the Colts, and a lot of people kind of jumped on the bandwagon after my pro day because I did pretty well.
“And I liked the 49ers’ plan for me. They wanted to convert me to linebacker, which I was kind of weary at first about, but then as I continued to pray over it and think over it, I thought it could be a good move for me because I like California, I wanted to stay in the West Coast and so I chose to go over there. And I loved it. I still love it. I think it’s a great organization. And I think it’s a young organization. We have a lot of promise, so, Lord willing, we continue to keep doing what we’re doing and we can get back to the Super Bowl.”
RK: Why did they want you to try linebacker?
DFF: “They like how I play in the run game, and throughout college that’s kind of something I thrived at when I was in the box, rather than being in the post. I was a pretty good run defender, so they kind of liked that aspect of me and they felt like they could put me in that position to succeed.”
RK: What exactly do you do as a member of the practice squad?
DFF: “Basically we gotta get the team ready for what they’re gonna see in the next game, next opponent. So any way we can give them a great look for the squad, that’s what we’re gonna do. Whether that’s plays or doing a certain movement that a player does, all those things kind of go into play. Some days I would go on offense and I’ll be somebody like (Saints’) Taysom Hill. And then on defense it was really mainly me just working on my craft, not really reenacting a player just because I’m still learning how to play linebacker because it was still new to me. So it was me working on my skills and trying to get better at that position.”
RK: What kind of feedback have you gotten in terms of what you need to do to get promoted to the active roster?
DFF: “Just keep doing what I’m doing, just keep being the person I am, just keep working hard every day. I think that’s kind of what it is in this business. You just gotta keep working, gotta keep your head down and just grind. You gotta focus on every detail, you can’t leave anything to chance, so when your opportunity comes you can take full advantage of it.”
RK: What do you during games since you obviously know you won’t play?
DFF: “I’m just grateful. I sit there and try to learn, try to be a sponge so when the opportunity presents itself I can be ready.”
RK: What was the 2019 season like, winning an NFC championship and going to the Super Bowl?
DFF: “It was amazing. People talk about how, ‘oh man the team’s so great’ but that’s really what it is. There’s never a dull moment in the facility. Everybody gets along. Like literally everybody. From the kicker to the offensive linemen. It’s ridiculous how everybody gets along and everybody gels. I think Mr. (John) Lynch and Coach (Kyle) Shanahan, they’ve done a great job of structuring this team. Granted it’s a business so certain players aren’t there that were there last year, but at the same time it’s still a great team, a great organization that has many great years ahead.”
RK: How is your lifestyle in the NFL different?
DFF: “Right now I just don’t have class (laughs). I wake up, go work out and then I come home and I read. And then I chill because it’s not during the season. But if it’s during the season, then you wake up, you have meetings, lifts, practice and then meetings after. And then you go home and you watch more film, then you go to bed. It’s really my job now so you have to act as such.”
RK: Were you able to attend the Super Bowl? I know practice squad guys don’t always travel with the team.
DFF: “That’s another thing about this organization, they really take care of everybody on the staff. We went to every away game; we went to every game.”
RK: Do you ever have to remind yourself that you’re playing at this level or is this something you always expected to do?
DFF: “Yeah, this is something I kind of expected to do. Obviously the road didn’t go how I thought it was gonna go, but at the same time I’m still blessed to be here, I’m blessed to be at this level, I’m blessed for an opportunity that most people dream of. Of course, I’m not content where I’m at, but I am grateful and thankful with the opportunity that I have, the opportunities that present themselves. So I’m just going to continue to work and continue to grind to continue to try to make myself better.”
RK: How would you evaluate your UA career?
DFF: “I’d say it’s bittersweet thinking of the times I had there. Obviously, it was great time for me, got a couple of coaching changes here and there. My freshman year we changed it up (on defense) a little bit and then my last year (with the head coaching change). But overall I thought it was great, man. Big shoutout to Coach Rich Rodriguez and Coach (Kevin) Sumlin for what they did for me personally when I was at Arizona, and I wish nothing but the best over at that school.”
RK: Is there a game at Arizona that really stands out to you?
DFF: “Oh man, crazy as it seems is the Will Parks game. That was my first game where I was in a lot—the Utah game where he touched the referee’s shoulder. But I’ll have to go with my first game of my junior year, the NAU game. Which is crazy because it is NAU, no disrespect to them, but you kind of go in there expecting to win that game. But it was just the plays I had— eight tackles and two picks, and that one pick where I had that diving interception that I did not think I was gonna get. That was my best, most fun game I had at the UA.”
RK: You mentioned the head coaching change, what changed for you in your final season in terms of how you were used on the field?
DFF: “I really had to step up and try to be more of a vocal leader because I’m really a quiet dude. I kind of like to see how things go, kind of lead by example. I had to talk more, which is not really what I do, per se, but overall I think that helped me grow as a person so I think I liked it a lot.”
RK: What do you think has to happen for the UA to get more players into the NFL? (There were only 10 in the league in 2019, including those on practice squads.)
DFF: “You really just gotta put the work in, because we had a lot of changes in the past couple of years. So I think once we get to stability going and we just continue to work hard and get to where everybody aspires Arizona to be, (it will happen). There’s great players but there’s always a situation where a player may get hurt or something unfortunate may happen that’s out of the player’s hands. That’s life and something we all have to go through. So I think we just need to continue to work like I know they’re doing out there because I know they’re doing a great job, especially under the likes of Coach Sumlin. Then you got the strength coach, Coach (Brian) Johnson. Oh, my goodness, that’s probably the best strength coach ever.”
RK: And aside from a game or play, what stands out about your time at Arizona?
DFF: “I’ll have to say the circle that I had off the field, all my friends, all my teammates and the bond that I had with people like Lucas (Havrisik), Sammy Morrison, Isaiah Hayes, Kwesi Mashack, Malcolm Holland, the list goes on. Our bond outside of football was so tight, and it’s still tight now. Like I just got off the phone with Isaiah right now. We talk every day. It’s just one of those things where you wouldn’t trade it for anything. That’s something you wish for, to be able to gel with those guys. I basically call them my brothers now. They’re family. We’ve been through so much together, like the coaching changes and the bad seasons here and there but we’ve just been so through much together and we just want the best for each other, and it’s the same thing now that we’re all in different aspects of our lives.
“You got Isaiah that’s at Louisville, he’s about to go into his last year and he’s gonna ball out as expected. And you got Sammy and Isaiah both chasing their masters. You got Malcolm out there trying to chase a baseball managing dream. It’s great to see them thriving. Yeah, I’m in the league but I’m still trying to be where they’re at, so I think that drives me.”
This article is part of an ongoing Q&A series that will highlight former UA student-athletes. The rest of the editions are linked below. If you are a former UA student-athlete and would like to participate, please email me at email@example.com or message me on Twitter at @RKelapire.