By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"She was such a loving, loving person," Fletcher said. "I was in such denial. I was hurt and cried. A lot of different emotions went through me. I didn't discuss it with anybody."
Suddenly everything changed. The sparkling report cards he so proudly delivered to her in elementary school no longer mattered. A's got the same glazed stare as D's. Something started to die in Fletcher as well. Mostly, he felt rage.
At night, when she disappeared, he would, too, wandering the streets looking for the dealers, trying to catch them before they sold her drugs. He had a reputation by then, one as a boy so strong that his family called him "Bam" after the club-wielding child "Bamm-Bamm" on "The Flintstones."
"I didn't care," he said. "My mom was the most important thing to me. All I wanted was to have my mom back to where she was before her drug addiction."
Fletcher is certain she fell apart one night in January 1987, when the police came to tell them his sister, Kecia, had been found dead. She was 17. Fletcher, at 11, was unprepared for the shock of looking into a casket and seeing his sister. At times over the next several years he would look at pictures of her from back then, smiling, and wondered what she would look like if still alive. Would she be happy? What would she be doing?
Yet her death seemed to give Fletcher clarity. "Where a lot of people would look at these things as a negative, I would see them as a positive," he said. It was almost as if a map of how exactly not to live his life had been drawn for him and in the gloom of those early teenage years, he was able to recognize it for what it was.
He was never alone in getting away from Giddings Road. Benefactors kept appearing like saints from the fog. Just months after Kecia was buried, Leonard Schwartz and his wife, Charlotte Kramer, adopted a sixth-grade class as part of a still-experimental project called the I Have a Dream Foundation.
Schwartz, a wealthy suburban building materials company owner, and Kramer provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship assistance, mentoring and life experiences through high school. It was a one-time contribution for them. Just one school. And of all the sixth grades of all the schools in Cleveland, they chose London Fletcher's sixth-grade class.
Even as Fletcher's home life crumbled, it never occurred to him to ignore the offer Schwartz and Kramer made. He met Schwartz for lunch and attended the symphony with Kramer. He told them about his mother, his sister and the brother who was in and out of jail on drug charges. When a cousin or an uncle died in a shooting, he'd tell them about that, too. Then they invited him to dinner at their sprawling stone home.
When Schwartz and Kramer look back at the past two decades, the great disappointment is that so few took advantage of the gift they had been given. Of 72 children in the class only about a dozen used the scholarships or aid grants the couple provided.
"London was always willing to try," Kramer said. "And he always had that smile. He's very smart and he realized that he had this opportunity. His sister didn't have that opportunity. And he knew he should take it."
"I don't know if he recognized it as his way out," Isaac said. "But I know he recognized it as something different, and something different provided a change of pace. It provided a relief from the chaos and the sheer reality of what home life had to offer."
By then a bond had grown between London and Isaac. The director of the Rec understood London. "I came from a big family and my mom was my hero," Isaac said. "I was able to identify with the things he was going through."
Isaac became a father, brother, coach and uncle all at once. When he went door-to-door to local businesses trying to raise money to take their AAU basketball team of young teenagers to the national tournament in Las Vegas, only Fletcher showed enough interest to get up at 5 a.m. and join Isaac.
One day Fletcher was playing basketball at Cleveland State, against some of the school's starters, when in walked Mike Moran, the basketball coach at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High, one of the top athletic schools in the state. Kevin Mackey, the Cleveland State coach, nodded at the small but powerfully built Fletcher.
"He could probably help you in a couple years," Moran remembered saying to Mackey.
"He's only in eighth grade," Mackey replied.
Mackey was off by a year, Fletcher was a freshman in high school, but Moran was transfixed. He spent the next several months working to get Fletcher into the school. Schwartz and Kramer paid the tuition and Fletcher immediately joined the basketball team that went on to win two state titles.
But the most fortuitous event might have occurred his senior year when he decided to try out for football. The coach, John Storey, put him at linebacker and running back. And on the first play of the first practice scrimmage, Fletcher took a handoff, burst through the line and ran 80 yards for a touchdown.
That he would be a natural football player was not a surprise to many people. Even Isaac and Moran had been telling him he was too aggressive for basketball. Moran would watch him on the court, pushing defenders, struggling to fit within the confines of the game and believed he needed a bigger field.
Still, Fletcher was determined to play basketball. He took a scholarship to St. Francis, a small Division I school in rural Pennsylvania, but didn't enjoy his time there. There were more problems at home and he felt he was needed in Cleveland, so after a year he returned and once again called Schwartz and Kramer for tuition money, this time at John Carroll University, an academically acclaimed college just outside Cleveland that played Division III sports.
By his second year at John Carroll, he had given up basketball and was playing football full time. He graduated with a sociology degree in the spring of 1998 and had a job lined up with a firm that did corporate relocations. Then the St. Louis Rams called.
After his first Rams minicamp, it was clear he had won over Vermeil, the team's coach. "I love the underdog," Vermeil said.
By the end of training camp the player who was considered the most outlandish of possibilities was not only a regular on the Rams' special teams, he was the special teams captain.
"He's just a natural leader," Vermeil said. "I think initially it's by example and then it's by presence. He has tremendous self-confidence. He can influence people in the locker room."
A year later, Fletcher was starting for a team that won the Super Bowl, prompting Vermeil to declare that whatever quarterback Kurt Warner meant to the St. Louis offense, Fletcher meant to the defense.
Or as Williams, who coached him in Buffalo, said: "He was the man of his house at 12 years of age. I've got a pretty good feeling that at 32 years old he can hold this defense together."
The world has changed since those days. Fletcher has built a strong relationship with his father whose name, Baker, he wore on the back of his uniform last year. But with his first NFL money he bought his mother and sisters a home in the suburbs. Yet even there her problems persisted. When he signed with Buffalo he moved her there and finally, after more than 15 years of addiction, she was clean.
Fletcher was changing, too. Even with his success he had felt an emptiness, a void that came clear when his girlfriend, Charne, left Cleveland and moved to Florida three years ago out of frustration that he seemed unwilling to make a commitment. On a Friday night in June 2005, he sat alone in his house, ignoring calls from his friends, empty, certain there was something he was missing. He sensed a voice he thinks was God and at that point he dedicated himself to religion.
Instantly, he said, he felt a peace like never before, though he waited until Thanksgiving to call Charne and tell her what had happened. After having barely talked for months, they spoke for six hours that night. Six months later they were married.
And yet just as it seemed his life had come together, there came one more phone call just a week before the wedding, this one from Buffalo. His mother had died of a massive heart attack. Fletcher was planning a wedding as well as a funeral.
"God could have chosen to take her at anytime," he said. "He chose to take her when she was clean and sober."
He shook his head at the unfairness of it all.
"She was so excited about our wedding, she had already picked out her dress. [Last year] was a very tough season for me. All the emotions of losing my mom. I still think about her constantly. Sometimes it hits me when I hear a song she might have liked and think 'I want to talk to my mother.' I don't know if I've had time to grieve or fully process it yet."
So much is going on. Charne is pregnant, due to deliver their first child any day. They have sold their homes in Cleveland and Buffalo and will buy a place in Charlotte, although Cleveland will continue to tug at Fletcher.
A few years ago, he started his own foundation and made Isaac the director. He wants it to give scholarships much the way Schwartz and Kramer provided money for his schooling. The foundation also has funded the distribution of bicycles and worked to fix up local parks. But there is one Fletcher wants cleaned more than all the others. It sits around the corner from Giddings and Duluth. Glass litters the basketball courts, the rims and baskets have long been pulled down. As a child he used to play here and, much like the Kovacic Center, it gave him a diversion, a place to escape. These kids today, he said looking around, have nothing.
But the city said no. The park is too dangerous, the administrators have told him. Too much drug activity. Someone was shot there one night. So the park sits, empty, strewn with litter.
Fletcher sighed. Then he pulled his car away, retracing his way back up the old streets until he turned onto a large road that turned into another large road and soon he was out of the city on the path he wishes he could make everyone else follow.