On a blistering May afternoon in Ashburn, in the same offseason that his linebacker contemporaries Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher had announced they had had enough of the hurt business, I asked London Fletcher how a 5-foot-9, undrafted Division III player was able to last so long in the NFL, why he wanted to come back for more.
“I just try to outrace time,” he said.
After treating your body as a temple — acupuncture, deep-tissue massage and weekly back adjustments — it so happens that outracing time also includes lying like a dog or at least omitting anything that could keep you off the field.
Fletcher, Mike Shanahan and team officials concealed from the public that he suffered a concussion in the 2012 preseason (a “mild” concussion, which is an oxymoron if there ever was one). He later failed to tell coaches or trainers about the aftereffects, which included balance issues.
“I wasn’t wobbly or anything like that, just maybe would have a little sway,” Fletcher acknowledged Thursday after practice. “I would notice it. Nobody else would notice it. I never told the team anything about that.”
In the masculine world of pro football, he essentially said he didn’t want to be one of those pantywaists that ran crying to the training room about every little hangnail.
Fletcher’s macho, old-school take is precisely the reason why more men who play this violent game for a living are going to slur their speech after retirement, develop dementia and even more frightening brain diseases, become invalid and eventually die not recognizing the women who have been spoon-feeding them as their wives.
That’s not embellishment. Ask anyone at the Sports Legacy Institute, which relied on the family members of former NFL, college and high school players donating their brains to science to find out how misguided the term “shake it off” really is, how the words “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” need to replace the old football axioms.
If you Google my name and London Fletcher’s from 2006 on, you’ll find out I have not admired more or held in higher regard a single athlete in Washington. From understanding complex defensive schemes to life decisions off the field, he’s one of the smartest, most perceptive athletes I’ve ever covered, and his social conscience is almost unmatched.
But after reading Tim Layden’s rich profile of Fletcher in this week’s Sports Illustrated, which first revealed the concussion, my initial reaction of “Man, I knew this guy was a warrior, but this is incredible” quickly shifted to another thought:
How could London Fletcher be so dumb when it came to his own brain?
Altering football’s warped culture doesn’t begin with a Goodellian proclamation from New York.
It doesn’t happen with a rule change forbidding clotheslining or hits to the head.
It doesn’t happen with a medical professional on every sideline watching for woozy players leaving the field.
It happens when the courage to recognize when to stay off the field is celebrated as much as the willingness to endure pain to stay on it.
It happens when London Fletcher has the guts — that’s right, guts — to let a team physician know he’s “swaying.”
Because then Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will be honest when their neurological systems get rattled. If the captain comes forward, then his teammates aren’t afraid to be labeled soft by football’s meathead subculture, the cretins who think all the concussion litigants are trying to cash in because they didn’t get paid enough back in the day.
In many ways, Fletcher’s admission waived his own right to ever sue the league. In fact, his candor and authenticity could almost be used by an NFL defense attorney against 4,000 plaintiffs.
Asked by reporters if he worried for his long-term health, he replied, “Sure, but also, I signed up for this. Nobody made me play this game. I fell in love with the game of football when I was probably 5, 6 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.
“Again, having more information now, especially with how there’s protocol with the concussion situation, there’s a protocol the league has taken to help players, but at the end of the day, we have to be smart as players and protect ourselves from ourselves. I know I’ve been guilty of needing them to protect me from me because I don’t tell them everything from an injury standpoint.”
Like a NASCAR driver who understands every turn at 200 mph could be his last, there is an inherent, I-knew-this-job-was-deadly-dangerous-when-I-took-it logic.
Fletcher’s raw desire is what enraptures coaches and fans, makes them all want to drop Dez Bryant cold on a crossing route.
The problem is they don’t have to walk around not remembering names and places and faces years later. Fletcher is the only person who physically pays for his silence, for keeping sacred the sport’s outdated manly vows.
I’ll give my friend this: His regret of not reporting his condition earlier to the team sounded genuine. And the excuse he gave about coming into the league at a different time, when seeing stars after a vicious hit was of no concern to anyone, was valid.
Now here’s hoping that an old-school player from little John Carroll University, who somehow remained contemporary at his position for parts of three decades, is able to remain contemporary in a safety-obsessed league — one that will soon pay untold millions to retired players who wished they had the same knowledge of concussions now available to London Fletcher.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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