By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008
For several hours a day the week before last, London Fletcher engaged in a frantic race to heal his sprained left foot. It was pointless to believe he could rid the foot of the pain that shot through it every time his heel touched the ground. But the hope was that he might be able to put just enough weight on it by last Sunday afternoon to play against the New York Giants. This meant submitting to every medical innovation known to promote the healing of sprained appendages, including but not limited to: shocks of electricity, hand-held lasers, a compression boot and an agonizing exercise of picking up marbles with his toes and dropping them into a nearby cup.
After six days of such torture, it was hard to know how well the procedures had worked. His foot still hurt. Yet the Redskins' linebacker was able to at least hobble like an arthritic old man onto the FedEx Field grass, pronounce himself fit enough to play and then spend the next four hours hurtling his body at Giants ballcarriers.
"When the ball is snapped, often you don't have time to think about what is bothering you," he said later.
Then last Monday morning, with the nerves in his foot alive with alarm once more, Fletcher resumed his barrage of treatments up to tonight's suddenly very critical game against the Baltimore Ravens. This time, he said, the pain was not as severe as it was in the days before the Giants game. Not that anyone doubts he will play tonight even if it were. London Fletcher always plays.Some Near Misses
He has played in every game of his NFL career, a string of 172 straight over 11 seasons. His current run of 131 consecutive starts dating from the 10th week of his third season is the sixth longest for an active player.
A few years ago, as a member of the Buffalo Bills, he had pulled a hamstring severely enough that it looked as if he would be unable to play one week. The realization devastated him so much that he nearly broke down in tears on the drive from his house to the team hotel the night before the game. The next day, he played the entire game.
But why push himself like this? At 33, Fletcher has reached an age where players look for days of rest, hoping to nurse injuries, avoiding contact enough to get to the point where the dull haze of pain will finally go away. Players have stayed out of games for injuries significantly less serious than Fletcher's. It is not as if he is barely clinging to his job. He might be the most important player on this Washington team. Nor does he need the money, having already earned more than $25 million. Many players in his position have retired rather than put their bodies through the Sundays of pain and the weeks of treatments.
"But I think that's the way he's always survived," Greg Blache, the Redskins' defensive coordinator, said of his linebacker, who although listed generously at 5 feet 10, might be one of the smallest players at his position in the NFL. "He's learned to play the game one way."
On a rainy day last week, Fletcher sat in a room at Redskins Park and contemplated the question of why it is so important to him to play in every game. He laughed and looked at the desk before him, then offered that he loved to be on the field because he craved the companionship of his fellow players. He loved to play alongside them, he loved to help them win, he said.
Yet all football players say they look forward to playing alongside their teammates. And they all love to win. There has to be something more, something bigger.
The old motivations aren't there anymore. Back in 1998 when he was a tiny, unknown linebacker from John Carroll University in Ohio trying to make the St. Louis Rams, he burned to hear people say he couldn't play. After the Rams won the Super Bowl in January 2000, he listened to every word of apology, filed it away and promised to remember.
But he has been playing for more than a decade now, starting every game. It's hard to carry that anger over the years. He wants something more.
"I want to play the perfect game," he finally said.Making the Grade
During the season, coaches grade each player on every play in the previous game, taking note of the way the player completed the task he would have been assigned in each situation. Almost never is anyone graded perfectly.
A few years back, a Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach named Tom Lovat gave a perfect score one week to the team's star left tackle, Walter Jones. When he tabulated the results and realized what he had done, Lovat was stunned. In three decades of coaching, he had never seen a player earn a perfect score. It is that rare.
Once, Fletcher came close. It was years ago when he played for the Rams and Lovie Smith, the team's defensive coordinator at the time, handed out the scores. Fletcher received a minus for one play -- an opponent's run when he ran around the back of the play instead of the front. It didn't matter that the ballcarrier was stopped and Fletcher had made the right decision every other play that game; Smith was a tough grader.
"I can see London saying that," Blache said. "I can see him chasing the perfect game. He tries to live the perfect life. He gets so upset when he makes a mistake on something. He is so hard on himself."
The Redskins' coaches see him as so necessary in his two seasons here that Blache can hardly remember the time when he didn't understand the value of a linebacker who is so small that some people mistake him for a cornerback. Blache had watched Fletcher play for the Rams and later the Bills and thought he was a decent player, but never one on the level of Brian Urlacher, whom he had coached in Chicago. It wasn't until Fletcher arrived and fought to get in on every tackle despite being outsized and fought to play in every game despite whatever aches nagged at his legs and back, that he grasped the player's importance.
Even now it is a shock to most football people when they learn Fletcher has more tackles than any player in the NFL this decade. By quite a bit, in fact -- his 1,211 tackles are 44 more than the player with the second most, Dallas's Zach Thomas. Urlacher and Baltimore's Ray Lewis, whom his Redskins play tonight, are almost 200 behind.
"He tends to fly under the radar a lot and I can't tell you exactly why," Blache said. "I don't know if it's a height thing or a hype thing or what."
Now, Blache leans on him the way Gregg Williams, last year's assistant head coach-defense, depended on Fletcher to help translate his theories to the players and pull the team together. With the season falling apart and the team's offense gone cold, they need Fletcher as much as ever.
Blache's defense is designed to rely heavily upon the linebackers. Often they must make the tackles on runs and help out more than ever on short passes. But as the season has worn on, the two linebackers on either side of Fletcher have been beaten up. Rocky McIntosh is practically playing on one leg, while Marcus Washington has been out with an ankle injury, replaced by a second-year player in H.B. Blades, who is still learning the NFL.
And while Blache constantly tells Fletcher he trusts him to make the right calls and to help either McIntosh or Blades whenever they get into trouble, he sometimes has to pull Fletcher away and remind him not to do too much. This is the temptation the player has. He pushes so hard, trying to take on so many things that his own performance occasionally suffers.
"You're not at your best when you are putting the weight of the world on your shoulders," Blache tells him.
When this happens -- and it has happened more than once this fall -- Fletcher nods. He understands.
Still, he worries. This is something his coaches over the years have noticed. The all-consuming quest to be perfect, to show he can do every single thing right, leads him to fret when he makes mistakes. He takes personally another linebacker's failure to be in the right place. This he sees as his fault. When too many of his teammates make mistakes, he admits he won't sleep well the night after the game -- which is why he is so obsessed with his own performance and why he is forever chasing the perfect grade from a coach. And it is why he can still remember every detail of the play that day years ago with the Rams when he received a minus from Smith for pursuing the ballcarrier from the back instead of the front.
It is also how he knew the moment he ran from the back instead of the front that he had done the wrong thing. And that even if the play did work out in the Rams' favor, he nonetheless was bothered the rest of the day by the nagging knowledge that his choice could have led to disaster.
Two weeks ago, with his foot aching, Fletcher, a religious man, asked two teammates to pray over the foot. They obliged. He was becoming anxious. There was a certain professional pride in playing every game of his career, of having a streak of 131 straight starts over 11 seasons. This, too, was part of the perfection.
Then one night, his wife, Charne, watched him working a home treatment on his foot for one of the half-dozen times that week and she said, "It might not be in the Lord's plan to let you play this week."
Fletcher stopped. He had pushed so hard in his chase of perfection, his careful building of his streak that he never pondered how they would collide with his religious beliefs.
"She kind of set me straight," he said. "I had to humble myself a bit."
The streak was forgotten. He made up his mind. He would play last Sunday only if he really, truly could. He wouldn't lie. He wouldn't push something he couldn't do.
Not that it mattered as the game grew closer and the field almost seemed to call to him. He pulled on his uniform, tied his shoes, ran across the wet grass and filed the ensuing pain somewhere else in his mind. He would pay for this on Monday with another week of treatments five times a day. But it was worth it.
He wasn't about to miss a football game.