Fletcher's Stairway to Success
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
It is late in the afternoon in the mid-1980s and a young boy is racing across Superior Avenue. In his hand he carries a basketball and he flies over the curb, down Norwood Road toward the E.J. Kovacic Recreation Center, a building he and his friends call "the Rec." The trip from his home to the Rec is not long, just a few blocks, but once you cross Superior, everything changes. Here the houses are filled with white people. The boy and his friends are black. And there is a good chance that on this day -- like almost every day -- they will be chased simply for being in the wrong place.
But the boy is not afraid. Back home, there is trouble that makes anything that happens on these streets irrelevant. In a few months his sister will be raped and beaten, left to die on the railroad tracks. His mother, the foundation of his life, won't be able to handle this pain and soon she will start slipping out to meet the handful of men who linger on the corner, desperate for the drugs they keep tucked in their pockets.
For a young London Fletcher, salvation lies inside the brick-walled fortress of E.J. Kovacic. The city has brought in somebody new to run the place, a man named Tim Isaac, who will soothe the racial unease and coach the center's basketball teams. He sees something in young London, something that keeps the boy coming back even as the others start drifting away. He's driven him home before, heard the gunfire near the three-story house at the corner of Giddings Road and Duluth Avenue and knows this is no way to grow up.
Isaac tells London that the guns and drugs will not validate him and the boy seems to listen. He senses the boy always wants to listen, that even at 11, left to be the man of his house, he somehow senses his future is not here. Isaac lets him stay at the Rec even after it closes, figuring it is best to leave him here, where he is safe.
Years later, London will abandon his basketball dreams and grow up to be a football star, will play in Super Bowls, make hundreds of tackles and earn millions of dollars. At 31 he will come to sign a $25 million contract with the Washington Redskins and will be heralded as the one who can pull together a fractured defense. And on a sunny spring afternoon, he will turn a burgundy Mercedes CL down these very same streets and say that he always felt different from the other kids, that his future was somewhere else.
"I just knew my destiny would be great," he said.
Fletcher's NFL coaches will simply shake their heads. In their world there is no logical explanation for a linebacker who stands 5 feet 10, yet hits ballcarriers like a cement truck. A tiny player who has never missed a game in his nine-year career, he sat for only two plays last season with the Buffalo Bills, neither by choice, before becoming a free agent and signing with the Redskins in March. Coaches know him as the leader of each team he has ever been on. Then they talk about his childhood and their voices turn grim.
"It slaps us in the face," said Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense. "He's had just horrible tragedy," added Dick Vermeil, Fletcher's first head coach in professional football. Only Fletcher will not frown along with them, his voice will not harden. Everything he has become is because of where he had been and the fact he had been able to break away when others never could.
"I think of my story as inspirational," he said. "If I can help one kid who may be going through the same things I did, then it is worth telling."
The hardest part was finding out about his mother. Linda Fletcher was everything to London, pushing him to do his homework, to get good grades, telling him he would one day be a success. "She was my world," he said.
He learned she was using drugs one day in his early teens when he overheard two family members talking. The news shattered him more than the news about his sister. She had held the family together for so long, even after her divorce from Fletcher's father, none of this could be true. If anyone was resilient to the lure of the street, it was his mother.