Reporting David Elfin
If London Fletcher plays in Washington’s remaining 10 games this season, he’ll be tied for the fourth-most in NFL history by a non-kicker with 240. If the Redskins’ three-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker keeps his streak going through next September, he’ll rank behind only former defensive end Jim Marshall (282) and ex-quarterback Brett Favre (302).
Fletcher’s amazing durability amazing was totally unexpected since he was the longest of long shots as a stumpy rookie free agent in 1998 from a Division III school (John Carroll of Ohio) who had begun his college career as a basketball player at St. Francis (Pa.). Fletcher was more likely destined to be using his sociology degree in his native Cleveland than to still to be an NFL star at 37.
“I just take it one week at a time, but when you think about it, it’s definitely mind-blowing,” said Fletcher, the Rams’ special teams captain as a rookie and a starter ever since. “My thought of going to John Carroll was not to go to the NFL, that’s for sure. God blessed me with the talent to be able to play football and the genes and toughness to play as long as I’ve been able to play as long as I have. And I’m a little crazy, I guess. I’ve played with some injuries [such as a sprained foot that had him in a walking boot before the November 2008 game against the New York Giants] that a lot of guys wouldn’t have. I’ve always felt that if I can go out and help my team and not hurt the team, then I’ll go out there. I try to be honest with myself, saying, ‘Can I really go out and do this?’ I feel good that my teammates know that they can always count on me to be there.”
Veteran teammates shake their heads in amazement about the idea of taking the pounding that Fletcher has for 15 years.
“It’s hard to imagine playing as well as London has for as long as he has,” said safety Reed Doughty, who’s in his seventh season.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall didn’t appreciate how good a player and leader Fletcher was before he arrived in Washington four years ago next month. Coach Mike Shanahan purposely assigned Griffin the locker next to Fletcher’s this spring so that the 22-year-old rookie can soak in daily lessons from the wise, old captain.
“Fletch’s a warrior,” Hall said. “The way he’s playing he can do it for a couple more years. It would be amazing to have a 40-year-old linebacker.”
Fletcher, who won a Super Bowl and two NFC titles during his first three seasons as a starter with the Rams, is the NFL’s leading tackler of his time. He’s also only one interception and two forced fumbles from becoming the first player with 20 each of those as well as 30 sacks.
“I’ve been trying to force it lately because I know I’m so close,” Fletcher admitted. “I’ve kinda got to get it out of my mind and go with the flow like I’ve always done and let things happen. (But) it would definitely be a proud accomplishment if I’m able to achieve that.”
Although Fletcher has been as dependable as they come in St. Louis (1998-2001), Buffalo (2002-06) and Washington (2007-) and is under contract for 2013, he has been thinking about life after football since he became a father five years ago.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to play,” Fletcher said. “It’s year by year at this point. I still feel like I’m playing well. I think I could play a few more years if I want to. Your perspective totally changes when you have children. I want to be here for them, see them grow into adults and be able to enjoy grandchildren. It’s a tough sport. I want to be able to walk and speak when I leave this game. You see some of the former players who are struggling [so] when you have a concussion or some other type of physical ailment, you wonder what your life will be like 20, 30, 40 years from now.[When I’m done] I’d like to work with young men and women, preach the gospel and help them in life. That’s something that I have a passion for.”
But for now, Fletcher remains focused on turning the Redskins, who haven’t made the playoffs since his Washington debut in 2007, into the consistent winners they were from 1971-92. The decision to trade up to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III only added to Fletcher’s enthusiasm about the team’s future.
“I wish he had come along a lot sooner,” Fletcher said, laughing. “I feel like he’s going to be able to do some great things and have this team to where it will be competing for the Super Bowl year-in and year-out. I would love to leave a legacy, a foundation to help the guys, especially the young defenders, who will carry on the leadership that’s needed for the group to succeed. I’m already kind of working on that now with guys like Perry [Riley] and Lorenzo [Alexander], imparting as much knowledge as I can. “
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin