For Redskins' Fletcher, a Stubborn Streak

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008; Page D01

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.

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