WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Nine months ago, London Fletcher gave me the scoop that he was going to have surgery on an ankle and elbow and return for a 16th NFL season. Today, he out-scooped me with the announcement that Sunday’s game against Dallas will all but surely be his final one.
I was already working on a farewell to Fletcher column that was supposed to run next week, but as he has done for a linebacker-record 254 consecutive games, starting 213 in a row, I adjusted, so here goes.
Fletcher needed those surgeries, the first of his four-time Pro Bowl career, after he somehow raised his level of play while banged-up last November and December. At 37, he was credited with an average of 11 tackles during the 7-0 tear that won the NFC East. Fletcher also intercepted four passes, defended six more and recorded two sacks.
Two-time Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley played his final five seasons with Fletcher and said his ex-teammate set a standard.
“London played the game the right way,” Cooley said. “No one knows football better than London. He always knew what the offense was trying to do. It was almost uncanny.”
Fletcher said that the part of football that gives him the most pleasure is when he’s watching video alone and dissecting the opponent.
Washington coach Mike Shanahan said that Fletcher’s knowledge of the game has been huge in a 5-foot-10 undrafted rookie from Division III John Carroll being able to start 15 seasons for three teams, winning a Super Bowl and two NFC titles while leading the league in tackles.
“I’ve never been around a guy quite like London,” said Shanahan, who coached Hall of Famers John Elway, Gary Zimmerman and Shannon Sharpe in Denver. “The way he prepares for every game is like he’s preparing for a Super Bowl. The reason why he’s able to make the plays he does is because of his mental preparation and his ability to go out there and play physical football. He likes to hit. For the body to be able to take the hits he’s taken and not miss games is kind of unheard of.”
Hall of Famer Chris Hanburger, the only linebacker to be chosen for more Pro Bowls as a Redskin than Fletcher, admires his successor more than a few times removed as Washington’s defensive signal-caller. But Hanburger also wonders if, as he did, Fletcher should have left earlier.
“I missed most of my second-to-last year with a knee injury and I wanted to come back the next year to show that I could still play at a high level, but I look back now and think I probably played a year or two longer than I should have,” Hanburger said. “You might not physically be able to do the job the way you used to, but you feel like you can make up for that mentally. But there comes a point where you have to admit that you’re just not the same player. Or someone else makes that decision for you.”
Fortunately for Fletcher, whose contract is expiring and said that he came into the season 90 percent certain that it would be his last one, he was allowed to make the decision himself.
“With this being the final home game, I wanted to get an opportunity to say goodbye to the burgundy and gold faithful,” Fletcher said. “The fans at FedEx have been so [gracious] to me [during] my seven years in Washington. [This is] an opportunity to go out with a bang, get the fans riled up, beat the Cowboys. What better way to end it?”
Actually, last season’s first NFC East championship in 13 years would’ve been a much better way to end it than this 3-11 mess, but Fletcher said he felt his that his work of nurturing fourth-year inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr. to succeed him wasn’t complete as it is now.
“What every player wants to do is leave a legacy, putting some seeds in place that hopefully will grow and [flourish] years down the road and can be proud of this organization,” said Fletcher, who admitted that he wished he could’ve gone out like Baltimore’s Ray Lewis did as the captain of a Super Bowl champion last year. “In order to do it at the level that I’ve been able to do it, it takes a lot of commitment, a lot of sacrifice in time spent training, leading and watching extra film. I’ve enjoyed doing it, but I’ve missed a lot of other parts of my life [his wife and three children under 7]. I felt like I’ve accomplished everything I can accomplish in the National Football League.”
Fletcher’s accomplishments are especially impressive considering what he overcame to reach the NFL. Before he turned 13 on Cleveland’s rough 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. He found salvation in the church and in sports. He went to St. Francis (Pa.) on a basketball scholarship before realizing he had a better chance of making the pros in football.
Of course, Fletcher didn’t just make it. He captained St. Louis’ special teams as a rookie in 1998 before becoming the starting middle linebacker the next year for the Rams’ only Super Bowl champions.
“The way I’ve approached it is to go about my business, being accountable and not wanting to let my teammates and the coaching staff down,” Fletcher said. “I’ve always wanted to be able to be there for them and know that they can count on me.”
Riley and two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo both said it would be jarring to come to work every day without Fletcher.
“You almost take him for granted because he’s always here, always the vocal leader,” Orakpo said. “London’s so special with his leadership, the way he plays the game so hard with so much intensity. I learned a lot from him. He’s the total package. It’s crazy that he’s never missed a game. It’s gonna be a whole other direction once he officially retires.”
Indeed it will.
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.