Redskins' Fletcher thrilled to be experiencing first Pro Bowl

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; D03

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- How could Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo not feel a bit uncomfortable? Here he was, voted to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, waltzing onto the team while 12-year veteran London Fletcher, part teammate and part mentor, once again was bypassed, and once again made plain his disappointment.

Orakpo, however, never experienced the awkwardness that seemed certain to accompany the honor of being the only Redskin named when Pro Bowl rosters were announced in late December.

"The thing that made it comfortable is, he praised me," Orakpo, 23, said. "He said I deserved it, that I had a tremendous season."

Partly out of gratitude, and partly out of wanting a buddy with him at Sunday's game at Miami's Sun Life Stadium, Orakpo had his cellphone in hand during the overtime of the NFC championship game Sunday between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints.

As soon as the New Orleans secured the game with an overtime field goal, ensuring that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma would be forced to skip the Pro Bowl and Fletcher, 34--finally -- would get his long-awaited shot, Orakpo fired a text message to Fletcher.

"See you in Miami," he wrote.

"I didn't want to be the lone representative," Orakpo said with a smile Wednesday after the NFC's first morning workout, "since the Cowboys got like eight or 10 guys here."

Actually, Orakpo said, Fletcher's presence meant more than that. Orakpo noted that when he arrived to Washington as the 13th overall draft pick in April's draft, he was moved off his natural defensive end position to outside linebacker. He made a smooth enough transition to tie for the team lead in sacks with 11. Fletcher provided critical help, he said.

"He helped me tremendously, just learning the linebacker position," Orakpo said. "He taught me a lot about the game."

Told of Orakpo's words, Fletcher grinned.

"With the pass-rush stuff, I let him do his thing," Fletcher said. "I can't tell him one thing about rushing the quarterback."

Wednesday's opening practice at a South Florida high school featured no pads, no contact and at one point, overturned garbage cans as offensive lineman. In short, nobody seemed very taxed, and Orakpo seemed eager to get off the field once practice was over.

"Everybody's hanging on the beach," he said. "They got out there at the hotel a nice setup, tiki bars. . . . I'm going to get on the Jet Ski later on."

Fletcher, meantime, was the last player off the field. He did interview after interview, beaming a bright smile and displaying no interest in rushing a moment he has long awaited. After failing to make the Pro Bowl despite never missing a game and leading the NFL in tackles over the last decade, Fletcher intended to revel in every moment, and he wasn't going to let the lateness of the invitation mar his enjoyment.

Asked how he felt about the diminished quality of each team's roster with more selected players unavailable or skipping the game than in recent years, Fletcher rejected the question's premise.

"You have to understand, the guys here are still elite players," said Fletcher, one of three finalists for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. "Every year, guys who are initially voted in aren't necessarily better than the guys that weren't voted in. You gotta understand that."

Fletcher said he even preferred having the game in Miami the week before the Super Bowl rather than in Hawaii the week after, as it has been held prior to this one for the last 30 years.

"I have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old," Fletcher said. "That flight to Hawaii would not have been the best for them. . . . Having them here is great. I don't care where [the game] is played."

Fletcher said he was so excited to make the trip to Miami he didn't sleep for two nights after the Saints secured their Super Bowl bid. Yet once he arrived, he wanted to make sure he was rested enough to take it all in. While many players hit the town after arriving Tuesday night, Fletcher went to bed early.

Orakpo, meantime, checked out what he described as "the tiki-bar deal."

Though they may go separate ways off the field, Fletcher and Orakpo will be deeply connected at Sun Life Stadium.

"He's a pup," Fletcher said. "He's a great young kid. He came in with the right attitude and you respect that. You appreciate the way he plays the game. I'm very happy he made the Pro Bowl, and now to be here with him as teammates is very special."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company