Reporting David Elfin
Fifteen years ago, London Fletcher was a squatty rookie free agent from a Division III school. Today, the 38-year-old Fletcher is the NFL’s oldest player who doesn’t make his living kicking, punting or snapping footballs.
Most players will tell you they never would have expected such success, especially coming from such a humble start. Not No. 59.
“Not really,” Fletcher said when asked if he would have laughed if he had been told in 1998 that he would lead a team in tackles and interceptions in his 15th season as he did for the Redskins in 2012. “I’m a pretty confident guy.”
You have to be confident to overcome Fletcher’s type of background and succeed. Before he turned 13 on Cleveland’s 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 a drug addict, who — despite her eventual recovery — would die of a heart attack at 53 on the eve of his 2006 wedding.
Fletcher surmounted all that trauma without bitterness. Sports — basketball was his first love and the game that earned him a scholarship to St. Francis (Pa.) before he transferred back home to play football at John Carroll — was his escape.
Until this March when he had operations to fix an elbow and an ankle, Fletcher had remarkably escaped the surgeon’s scalpel. That good fortune and the toughness to play through searing pain certainly has played a role in his league-leading (by a non-kicker) 240 straight games.
The offseason retirements of Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber have left Fletcher, a Pro Bowl participant four years running, as the NFL’s grand old man, but that’s not a title he wears so willingly because he much prefers looking ahead instead of back.
“I take my hat off to ‘em; those guys are enjoying the retired life, but I’m still enjoying playing the game,” Fletcher said after last Thursday’s practice concluded the second of three weeks of organized team activities at Redskins Park. “I’ve got more to give to this team, more to accomplish. I’m still trying to get better, still working on things, still trying to challenge myself to see how I can play at an even higher level. It takes a lot of preparation to be out there week-in and week-out and not just be out there, but be out there and play well. First and foremost, I’ve been blessed with good health. There’s a lot of great players who barring injuries would’ve had long careers. I take my job very seriously and I really focus on not letting my teammates down.”
As if that’s possible.
“Fletch is a leader, a hard worker,” said second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III, who was installed at the locker next to Fletcher’s by coach Mike Shanahan last spring. “The guys love him. He doesn’t have to be out here practicing, but even at his age and the amount of games that he has put up in a row, he still wants to be out here and working at it so that he can get better.”
While more than a dozen younger teammates haven’t been practicing this month, the man who’s old enough to be their father — in some cases — is grinding away.
“He sets the tempo,” Shanahan said of Fletcher, the NFL’s leading tackler during his 14 years as a starter. “He’s our natural leader. He leads by example. I’ve never been around anyone quite like him, and hopefully he can keep on doing what he has done.”
The surgeries prevented Fletcher from doing what he has always done during the off part of the offseason, but not from being ready for OTAs.
“I was really chomping at the bit to be able to get back into the weight room, get back on the field, do what I’ve always done,” he said. “Once I was physically cleared, it was easy for me to get back out here. Coach said I didn’t have to, but this is what I do.”
Probably no Redskins linebacker has ever done it better.
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.