Reporting David Elfin
London Fletcher is having surgery this morning to repair the left ankle that bothered him for much of the second half of the 2012 Redskins season. Later this month, the Pro Bowl inside linebacker will go under the knife again for some cleanup work on an elbow. What’s amazing is that after 15 NFL seasons and nearly 38 years on the planet, the operations will be the first of Fletcher’s life.
But they had to happen because as Fletcher told me the other day while making me promise to hold the news until this morning, “Surgery is the first step towards prepping for next season.”
So the captain has shelved the retirement talk that has been swirling and is planning to return in 2013 after helping lead Washington from a 3-6 start to a 10-6 finish, its first playoff berth in five years and its first NFC East title since 1999.
Fletcher’s decision to keep playing also has to be a relief for coach Mike Shanahan and the cap-strapped Redskins since veteran backup Lorenzo Alexander is six days from being a free agent and the other possible replacement on the roster, Keenan Robinson, is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered on Thanksgiving.
On a personal level, I’m also glad that Fletcher’s coming back and not just because he’s about as close to my age as a pro team sports athlete gets. Unlike such young Redskins as Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, Fletcher’s too old to be my son.
Although our backgrounds are very different, Fletcher and I click. That’s not surprising because when you cover a sports team on a regular basis, you inevitably get closer to some players than others.
When I covered the Caps in the early 1990s, Alan May, Al Iafrate and Calle Johansson were among “my guys.” Covering the Redskins over the past two decades, Darrell Green, Ray Brown, Trevor Matich, Ken Harvey, Ethan Albright, Cornelius Griffin and Casey Rabach were some who fit the bill. To this day, LaVar Arrington calls me his “messenger.”
There’s no real way to explain why you connect with some players more than others. It’s like school or work. You’re colleagues with some people and friends with others.
I covered the Super Bowls that Fletcher started in for St. Louis in 1999 and 2001. I spent a few days at the Rams’ complex the season in between, but I truthfully don’t remember if I even talked to him at length during any of those weeks.
When the Redskins signed Fletcher in March 2007, I thought it was a smart move because after two fine years Washington was coming off a dreadful season on defense and Fletcher had directed then-defensive boss Gregg Williams’ system in Buffalo in 2002 and 2003. I also admired Fletcher because he had overcome his short stature and not even being drafted to become the NFL’s top tackler.
But when I sat down with Fletcher not long after he joined the Redskins, I really learned what he had overcome to attain stardom. Before he turned 13 on Cleveland’s dangerous East Side, Fletcher’s sister had been raped and murdered, his grandmother had died in his arms, and his brother had embarked on a lifetime behind bars. His mother was recovering from her drug addiction when she died days before his wedding in 2006.
That interview bonded us. Over the ensuing six seasons, we’ve had private chats every so often. Fletcher asks about my job situation. I ask how he’s really feeling as he fights through a series of nagging injuries without missing a game, something he has yet to do during his 15 NFL seasons. We talk about our children and basketball, his first love and the sport in which he earned a college scholarship.
After Washington’s ugly 2011 season ended in Philadelphia with a 10th defeat in 12 games, I asked a not atypical negative-tinged question. Fletcher gave a typically more positive answer. Then, with a smile and a shake of his head, sarcastically uttered the final postgame press conference words of that 5-11 campaign, “I love you, David.”
I knew Fletcher wasn’t really mad at me. He was just heartsick over a third straight double-digit loss season. About to be 37, Fletcher admitted he might not have re-signed with Washington last spring if the Redskins hadn’t made a deal with the Rams which allowed them to draft Griffin second overall.
“To go into another year with not having a [good] quarterback was not very appealing to me, I’ll tell you that,” Fletcher said with the candor that came with being the captain and a Pro Bowl pick three years running. So when they were able to make the trade … that definitely made the situation a lot brighter as far as coming back here. I’ve had enough years of other stuff.”
And now Fletcher has decided that he’s willing to put up with at least one more year of such stuff as practices in the heat and humidity of August and in the cold and wind of December, endless meetings, and too many questions from nosy reporters in order to have the chance of going out on top with his first trip to the Super Bowl in 12 years.
Glad you’re staying, London. I, make that we, would’ve missed you.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin