Redskins linebacker London Fletcher has grown from boy in peril to NFL elder statesman

Mike Wise
Columnist January 5, 2013

London Fletcher caught just a bit of Ray Lewis’s big announcement Wednesday in Baltimore. Letting it all out as only Lewis can, the great, proud, yet now clearly aging middle linebacker declared this his last NFL postseason.

Fletcher won’t lie; born four days apart from Lewis in May of 1975, he saw the obvious parallel. After 15 years, 240 straight games and more than 1,000 numbing ice baths to heal for another week of giving and receiving pain, it made him think.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“Anytime you see a guy retire, especially a guy like Ray who’s been at this game for so long, you wonder when it’s going to be your end,” he says. “I don’t know. I’m just thinking about the Seahawks. You know me: I’ve been year-to-year for, like, five years.”

It’s about 48 hours before the Redskins play their first home playoff game since 1999, the same year a 24-year-old undrafted free agent out of a Division III college in Cleveland helped Dick Vermeil’s St. Louis Rams to a rousing Super Bowl victory.

Did you know London Fletcher made the Rams’ public-relations staff change his listed height of 6 feet to what it really was, barely 5 feet 10, because he wanted undersize kids to know the NFL was possible for them too? Or that his teammates used to call the rookie “Stuart Little?”

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Looking back, Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf was a tremendous story. But London’s was always better, richer, the best tale of a walk-on who ever played for Vermeil — more inspiring than even Vince Papale playing for the Eagles, dramatized in “Invincible.”

Because Disney can’t go to the places Fletcher has been, what he made it through. Too dark, too layered — too painful.

“Kecia,” Fletcher said Friday afternoon before he left the team’s locker room in Ashburn, making sure it is spelled correctly. “It’s K-E-C-I-A.”

When you see a 37-year-old man with gray whiskers protruding from his chin, the same man they call a mentor to 22-year-oldRobert Griffin III, the captain of the Redskins’ defense, the rock of this roster through good and bad times since 2007, you forget: London Fletcher was once an 11-year-old boy in one of the worst neighborhoods in Cleveland, trying to negotiate a world of drugs and guns the best he could.

That’s when he and his siblings heard the guttural scream of their mother, who learned her baby girl had been beaten, stabbed and raped, left to die by the railroad tracks.

“It definitely shocked us, she was 18,” London says of Kecia’s murder. “That had a lasting effect on everybody in the family. You still think about what her life could have been. I was just 11 years old, turning 12 later that year.”

London’s mother went to the worse place to deal with her despair: the corner, rock cocaine. He knows Kecia’s murder triggered the drug addiction, changed his only real support mechanism after his parents divorced into the mother he no longer knew.

Through college and into the NFL, he prayed for her sobriety. When she got clean, it was almost bittersweet; Linda Fletcher died six days before his wedding in 2006. “Heart attack,” his younger sister, Trina, said a few weeks ago in a makeshift tent for players’ families in Cleveland, where Fletcher had played in his home town for the first time in his career.

“My sister and I were boo-hooing during the wedding. It was tough on all of us, but especially London,” Trina said. “He had to plan for a wedding and a funeral.”

He has had cousins and uncles shot and killed much younger than 37. He has seen family members in and out of jail and back again. Fletcher himself once had a loaded gun pointed at his temple after an argument with a neighbor almost cost him his life.

“You hear all the stories and it was like that,” he says. “But that’s the inner city for a lot of kids, not just me. Lot of people I grew up with weren’t as fortunate.”

Even victorious homecomings like last month’s in Cleveland can be tainted. Fletcher learned after the Browns game that four of his family members, including several cousins, had been arrested for what Cleveland police said were altercations with fans. Fletcher said overzealous stadium security led to the problem.

“I take every day as a blessing being in this league,” Fletcher says on Friday before he leaves the locker room. “Never took anything for granted. I’ve been blessed with great health, preparation, all the things you need to be successful. Accountability, just really trying to make sure I’m on top of my game at all times. That’s why I’ve been able to last so long.”

Maybe you feel like you’ve heard this story before, the one about the African American kid from the inner city who overcomes hell to survive and thrive in pro sports. Sadly, it’s still too common. But his beginning was worth repeating.

Because now you know where the anger and the hurt Fletcher plays with came from, how he used things no child should see to become a three-time Pro Bowler, to not miss a game in 15 seasons — how he could leave that violent person on the field and be a committed husband, religious father of three, the man who started London’s Bridge Foundation to target kids like himself in Charlotte, Buffalo, Washington and Cleveland.

I have been to the Capitol with Fletcher and some of those kids, who stared to the top of the dome in awe and wonder. I have seen him honor a charity request by dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with 30 grade-school kids at Washington Episcopal School.

Look, the football player is flat-out amazing. The consistency, the leadership. Four interceptions in the past six games, 139 combined tackles at 37, days away from a December in which he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month. Given the amount of treatment he has to go through each week just to get on the field and an injury that nearly ended his streak, his season has been incredible. The guy has the pain threshold of a complete “Rocky” DVD set.

But none of the numbers stacks up to London Fletcher, the scarred boy from East Cleveland who somehow ended up triumphing over his environment. When his sister was murdered and his mother was all but lost, that kid gave life a forearm shiver. And he grew up to become not just an ironman of an linebacker but, much more importantly, a man.

Here’s hoping Sunday isn’t his last game. Either way, his story — the 11-year-old still inside that old head of an NFL veteran — deserves to be remembered as much as he still remembers Kecia.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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