London Fletcher reveals 2012 concussion and balance issues that ensued

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for the Redskins Week 3 preseason game against the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 24. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
August 22, 2013

Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said Thursday he suffered a concussion last season that he and the team never publicly disclosed, and that lingering effects — balance issues — bothered him until late in the year.

Fletcher suffered the concussion in a preseason game against Buffalo. He missed several days of practice and the second preseason game against Chicago, an absence Coach Mike Shanahan said at the time was because he “wasn’t feeling well.”

Fletcher acknowledged that he didn’t tell the team about the aftereffects of the concussion until midway through the season. He regrets that decision, he said, but he dismissed the injury as just part of the game.

“It’s football, man,” Fletcher, 38, said. “I play inside linebacker and I like to play it physical. It can happen a couple times a game, but I wouldn’t classify them as concussions. It’s just a little bell ring. You see stars for a second and then you’re back to normal. You know, two, three, seconds. Whatever the case may be, it’s just the way the game is.”

Fletcher’s disclosure, which he first disclosed to Sports Illustrated, comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in the NFL about the long-term effects of brain trauma. More than 4,000 former players, including former Redskins Art Monk, Mark Rypien and Clinton Portis, have sued the league over head injuries they suffered while playing the game.

The NFL has taken measures to try to eliminate violent blows to the head, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league wants to “change the culture” of the game so that injuries, particularly head injuries, are treated more seriously.

Asked why he didn’t disclose his concussion, Fletcher said, “I’m an old-school player.”

Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a former linebacker, said he wasn’t aware of Fletcher’s concussion, but that he understands Fletcher’s mind-set. “When I played, I probably had a bunch of them I didn’t know about it either,” Haslett said. “You get them. Players want to play. I understand that standpoint. But obviously there’s protocol nowadays.”

Despite all the attention being paid to the risk of concussions, Fletcher’s view isn’t unique among many current and former players.

“I think there’s a real disconnect between understanding the consequences of playing through an orthopedic injury and playing through a brain injury,” said Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, who conducted a recent study on the long-term effects of repeated head trauma in athletes. “The brain is such an incredibly vital organ that needs to be taken much more seriously than it previously has.”

Fletcher said he suffered the concussion early in the Buffalo game when his head struck the ground after he was hit by a Bills player. “I got a little dizzy. I’ve experienced that in games before,” he said. “I got my bearings back together, played a couple more plays and we were coming out the game anyway, and that was it. Once I got back to the sideline, I had a little blurry vision, told the doctor about it, they took me in for an evaluation.”

Over the next couple of days after going through more tests, Fletcher said the team’s medical personnel determined he had suffered “a mild concussion.”

Fletcher and Shanahan elected not to publicize the head injury, however. Unlike during the regular season, NFL teams are not required to disclose injuries in the preseason.

The Buffalo game took place on Aug. 9, 2012, and Fletcher didn’t practice when his team returned to work, an absence Shanahan described at the time as a “veterans’ day off.”

After Fletcher missed the next preseason game against Chicago on Aug. 18, Shanahan said, “London’s still not feeling right. I’m not sure exactly why, but any time London says he’s not feeling very good, you know something’s wrong, so we kept him out.”

Asked at the time what “not feeling very good,” meant, Shanahan said, “When somebody says they’re not feeling very good, I don’t get into detail. Any time a guy has started over 200 games, he tells me he’s not feeling very good, you listen to him.” Pressed further, Shanahan said, “I’m not going to tell you what he told me.”

Fletcher returned to action on Aug. 22. Shanahan was asked by reporters what had been wrong with Fletcher and said, “C’mon, let’s not go down this road again.”

Fletcher did not miss another game last season, though he ackowledged Thursday he experienced “balance issues” off and on throughout most of the year. Fletcher said he never told the team about the problem.

“I wasn’t wobbly or anything like that, just maybe would have a little sway,” he said. “I would notice it. Nobody else would notice it. I never told the team anything about that.”

Shanahan said Thursday he didn’t know the full extent of Fletcher’s injury.

“I didn’t know for sure,” he said. “Any time you deal with a balance issue, my first thoughts is it could be a concussion. But that’s what the doctors are for. That’s what they’re experts in.”

Asked if Fletcher’s concussion was handled differently than others, Shanahan said: “I don’t remember, to be honest with you. I have a hard enough time thinking about what was last week with injuries, yet a year ago.”

Fletcher said the balance issues eventually were traced to a neck injury that he said he suffered during the same collision that caused the concussion. That conclusion was drawn from extensive neurological testing that Fletcher underwent on Oct. 25.

“Prior to the diagnosis, I was in my mind, like, ‘Man, what’s wrong with me?’ ” Fletcher said. “I knew I didn’t have a concussion, but you’re concerned about your future. I’m seeing all these former players and some of the deals they’ve got going on, and you’re like ‘Man, what’s going on?’ . . .But once I got that situation taken care of, I was able to relax from a mental standpoint and my play, for the last seven, eight ballgames, I played some really, really good football.”

Fletcher was asked if he has concerns about his future health. “Sure, but also, I signed up for this. Nobody made me play this game,” he said. “I fell in love with the game of football when I was probably five, six years old, and remember watching the games on television and just really love the game of football, and I’ve been in love with this game, pretty much my whole life. Would I change anything? Not really. You pray for the best as far as the situation down the line.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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