By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008
About two weeks ago, a longtime mentor and coach of London Fletcher's visited him in Ashburn, where he had to convince some of the squat middle linebacker's teammates that Fletcher was a very good point guard who was actually recruited to play college basketball.
Redskins teammates Antwaan Randle-El and Marcus Washington wanted to know if Fletcher, who is generously listed at 5 feet 10, could play above the rim.
"Oh, he could get up, he had hops, he could dunk," Mike Moran said, relaying by telephone this week how he eventually converted the locker room doubters.
"The only problem London had was he never slowed down on the court; he played with same kind of intensity and speed he did on the field," Moran said. "So it was really a bull in a china shop running your team. If you went to take a charge against him, he would hit you so hard you'd be planted against the wall. He was so high-strung. I used to say he started every collegiate game he played in with three fouls."
That aggressive, need-for-speed Division III kid plays in his 11th NFL home opener today at FedEx Field, trying to corral another high-octane offense the way his high school and college coach tried to corral him.
Washington's only significant defensive acquisition a year ago, Fletcher resuscitated a unit that ranked 31st in the NFL the year before he came from Buffalo, and lifted it to the top 10.
"I'm just a piece of the puzzle; it takes 11 guys," he said earlier this week, sitting outside the team's locker room. "Now, is my role a little bit bigger than some of the guys? Yes. But we all have a role. You got your leading actors and you got your supporting actors."
Humility notwithstanding, Fletcher is essentially Denzel in this film, and whether it bombs or not will have a lot to do with how he and his unit perform in the infancy stage of the Jim Zorn era.
Whether quarterback Jason Campbell gradually sprouts wings in Zorn's West Coast offense or not, no one denies any progression will take time. Meantime, a defense that often has carried the Redskins the past four years, allowing them to win eyesores of games, becomes their best chance for victory until the hard wiring on the other side of the ball happens.
Fletcher's ability to synchronize with his new defensive coordinator, Greg Blache, in calling schemes, making sure his teammates are aligned properly -- really, making sure Reggie Bush doesn't run wild today -- should be the major worry when it comes to synapses connecting between player and coach.
Blache calls Fletcher "the smartest guy I've ever been around or worked with."
"And that's saying a lot, because I had [Brian] Urlacher, who's a brilliant football player," said the defensive coordinator, who coached the Bears' Pro Bowl middle linebacker in Chicago.
"But London is mature. He's a professional who studies tape. I trust him on game day. I can give a little piece of information and he can manufacture an entire essay out of it. If all the guys prepared as professionally and hard as he did, we'd be unbeatable."
Fletcher's 11-year NFL résumé is loaded with numbers. No player has more tackles this decade (1,126). He's led three different teams for nine straight years in tackling, including Buffalo, where he was credited with a phenomenal 202 tackles in the 2002 season. Only two other players, Derrick Brooks and Donnie Edwards, have had more consecutive seasons with 100 or more tackles.
But mostly, he's a hovering intangible, flying about the field, closing space and time at intervals no one with his diminutive size is supposed to be able to.
Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, Dr. Z, the dean of American football writers, recently opined that Fletcher is the best current NFL player to never be selected to a Pro Bowl, taking the place of Fred Taylor, who finally went to Hawaii last February.
"That means I guess I'm the best of the worst," Fletcher said of the distinction, laughing.
Underneath the humor, though, he admits to some professional hurt.
"It does baffle me," he said. "I mean, there are days when I think about it and say, 'I can't believe this happened again.' I don't understand why.
"A lot of it is hype. You have a good day on a nationally televised game and that can catapult you. You don't necessarily have to have a great season. I've seen it happen."
He shrugged his shoulders, and said: "I would put myself up against anybody in the league at my position. Anybody."
The slight is another opportunity to take stock not of where Fletcher is going but rather where the native Clevelander -- John Carroll University's own -- came from.
After all, a stumpy Division III linebacker usually has all the credentials in the world to make it -- as an insurance salesman or high school position coach.
"I felt like I had the talent to play, but it was just a matter of would I be given a true opportunity," he recalled.
He did have one thing going for him: Dick Vermeil, coach of underdogs past.
In the tradition of Vince Papale, the Philadelphia bartender whom Vermeil plucked out of an open Eagles workout in the early 1970s -- a story that inspired the movie "Invincible" -- and later Kurt Warner, Fletcher became another find from north of nowhere who merely needed a shot.
An undrafted rookie free agent in 1998, he was a special teams player his first season, starting just the final regular season game. But in his second year with the Rams, he won a three-way competition to become the team's starting middle linebacker.
ESPN the Magazine, during the 1999 preseason, published its assessment of each player with a five-point rating system. Fletcher recalled having a rating of 1. The comment section read, "If he's starting by Halloween, we'll buy you a car."
Fletcher kept the page on his nightstand the entire season, a season in which he became the leading tackler on the Rams' Super Bowl-winning team.
ESPN published a follow-up assessment for the postseason. "It said, 'If he's not the leading tackler in the playoffs, we'll buy you a car.' " Fletcher said. "They switched it up. They gave me a rating of, I think, a 4 a couple months later."
Occasionally he would look at the article, which he said helped him play with a "chip on my shoulder" for the first few years of his career. "They didn't really know what my makeup was, what drove me, what God had planned for me."
Today, he is one of only three Redskins players to have won a Super Bowl. Blache, who wants his own ring, also wants to send Fletcher to Hawaii. "Flat-out, one of my goals is to get him to the Pro Bowl," Blache said.
John Carroll recently gave Fletcher more validation, electing him to its Hall of Fame, one that also includes Don Shula. That's why Moran, his former coach, came to Washington, where he taped an interview with Fletcher, the kid he first saw playing one-on-one basketball at Cleveland State University as a young middle school teen-ager in a troubled household.
When he was 11, Fletcher's sister, Kecia Robinson, was murdered in Cleveland. His mother, Linda, was deep in the Cleveland drug scene during Fletcher's teenage years, though she righted herself to again become a guiding force for him until her death two years ago of a heart attack at 53.
His brother, Edward Robinson, has been incarcerated since 1999 on charges of drug trafficking, and is expected to be freed next month.
Fletcher, asked how any player with such personal and physical odds against him is able to survive in the NFL for more than a decade, thought for a minute, and repeated the words, "11 years."
"Nobody knows the plans the Lord has for you," he finally said. "They looked at me as a long shot. But I looked at myself as a sure shot."