By Mike Wise
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Most of London's Brigade -- the 16 kids from McFarland Middle School mentored and sponsored by an NFL veteran -- climbed the escalator of the Capitol visitor's center last week with their tour group.
"Hey, it's Nancy Pelosi," London Fletcher said, stopping everyone to pay respect.
"Hi," the House speaker said, smiling, walking briskly, oblivious she was waving to the middle linebacker of the Washington Redskins and the children who make up his District-based foundation.
"Aw, she looks busy," he said, moving on.
When you are 5 feet 10 in a 6-2-and-over profession, it's easy to be overlooked.
When Sports Illustrated calls you the "best player never to be selected to the Pro Bowl," it's easy to forget no player in the NFL has more tackles this decade.
Or that your ability to read schemes and convey the coarse language of a defensive coordinator such as Gregg Williams or Greg Blache might be a main reason a defense ranked 31st in the league vaulted back into the top 10 after your arrival.
People are already raising pitchforks around here, demanding to know whether Jim Zorn has "lost the locker room" -- as if it's some inanimate object easily found by a GPS.
We're asking the wrong question.
As long as he hasn't lost London Fletcher, the rare leader in a place few others seem to be auditioning for the job, the coach hasn't lost the locker room. If Zorn has Fletcher, this team has a shot to rebound from its abysmal 1-2 start that features a loss to the Detroit Lions.
As he has for much of his career -- from a Super Bowl in St. Louis, on to Buffalo and now Washington -- Fletcher connects the divide between a collection of individual millionaires and an authentic team with a common bond.
No one else had the gumption to admit, during one of the franchise's most tumultuous and scrutinized starts, "we're not a great team," as Fletcher did Monday. He added that the Redskins have not been a great team in the two-plus seasons he has been in Washington.
And people listened -- listened as if they were rookie investors in the presence of an old-school money manager.
On the field, Clinton Portis is respected as a stone-cold competitor. Albert Haynesworth is respected for his ability to shed three blockers at once. Chris Cooley is respected as a beer truck with a broken parking brake after he catches the ball.
London Fletcher is respected.
Teammates always figure if a guy that small and compact can have the closing speed of a rat trap, if a man who moves like a fire hydrant on wheels can drop much bigger players the way he dropped Brandon Jacobs in the opener against the Giants -- really, if a Division III undrafted rookie somehow found a way to escape the temptations of East Cleveland and the perceptions of others to last 12 years in a kill-or-be-cut league -- well, they'd better be able to, too.
Twelve years later, it is impossible to find a better combination of old-head sage and sanctioned violence in Ashburn.
Jim Zorn needs London Fletcher more than he needs Jason Campbell right now.
Fletcher brings teams together. He brings people together.
"To be honest, when I was a kid, I didn't even think about being in the NFL," he said, walking behind the children whose mouths were agape as they climbed the steps toward the grand sight of the Capitol rotunda, whose ornately painted ceiling is 29 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty.
"I thought I wanted to be a politician."
And? "I took my first political science class in freshman year of college and it was tough. Tough to stay awake."
"Who knows, I might have been on a different career path. But God had a bigger plan. He knew I'd eventually wind up at the Capitol."
Of the 25 kids who are sponsored by the foundation, 16 of whom walked through the old Supreme Court room where the Dred Scott and Amistad decisions were handed down, about 20 were roughly the same age as London's sister, Kecia Robinson, when she was murdered in Cleveland when she was just 11.
Kids such as 13-year-old Ediliza Ledesma, whose name is encircled by a heart on her nametag, who called London "awesome." Jair Burnett, the 11-year-old boy who at 5-9 already looks the 34-year-old linebacker in the eye.
When 10-year-old Jaylen Williams asked the tour guide, "Why didn't Senator Edward Kennedy lay in state?" Fletcher looked as proud as he was of LaRon Landry coming up to stop the run.
Fletcher's mother, Linda, was deep in the city's drug scene during his teenage years. But rehab brought her back into his life, where she nurtured London until her death from a heart attack more than two years ago. She was 53.
His brother, Edward Robinson, was incarcerated since 1999 on charges of drug trafficking and was released this year.
Asked if there was a defining moment in his life when he felt a calling to lead and help others, Fletcher quietly nodded. He said attending a funeral at the age of 19 shook him to the core.
Relatives and friends of Ross Collins cried and mourned that day in 1994. He was not Fletcher's grandfather or great uncle; Ross Collins was his 16-year-old cousin, claimed by the same thing still claiming young, black Americans: guns and drugs.
"Just my background, the poverty we faced, realizing there are a lot of things you need you can't have, I knew I had to do something to effect change other than just play football," Fletcher said. "When you see the people who helped you, caring about people becomes something fundamental in your life. You really do realize: You need others to make it in this world."
It's a good message from London Fletcher, no? -- whether you feel inspired to enlighten children to a world they never imagined was a couple of miles from their front doors, or are simply trying to hold a hurting team of adults together.