For an instant, the iron man is certain that he will vomit. It is a blast-furnace early summer afternoon, and London Fletcher, a 38-year-old Redskins linebacker with flecks of gray in his goatee and a wife and three children under his roof, is balanced precariously on the figurative fence that separates what a man wants from what a man needs. He has been working out in a public park in his adopted hometown, bear-crawl sprinting in the sand on a faux beach volleyball court while wearing a 16-pound weighted vest. He is tethered to a chain link fence by a thick elastic band that cruelly yanks Fletcher backward as he tries to reach the small yellow cone that marks the end of each repetition. A pair of young women jog past on a nearby path. A man walks a wheezing yellow lab. A skinny young boy and his father watch from a picnic table, trying to identify the muscled figure staggering around in the distance. Fletcher stands upright, haltingly sucks air into his lungs and then bends at the waist, fingers digging into his thighs for support and shoulders heaving in the hazy sunlight. "Watch out," he says, pressing the back of his hand against his mouth. The nausea passes, leaving behind a grim smile.
Ever so slowly, Fletcher slogs back toward the fence for another pull on the line, the rope falling slack and dragging behind him. This is a drill, but it is more than that; it is also a football game in the mind. Those hellacious short, desperate sprints are plays, four-second explosions of energy designed to approximate what happens after the ball is snapped. The walk back to the fence—no more than 40 seconds—mimics the restorative interval between plays. "That's when I'm trying to slow my heart rate down," says Fletcher. That's when the defensive call for the upcoming play chimes out of his helmet receiver, and that's when he turns to decode the offense that is lining up across from him. Again Fletcher bursts forward on all fours, clawing with his hands and driving with his legs as sand flies and falls across his back. Another play. He rises again, grimacing. "Whooo, tough," he says. There is scarcely a sound in the park. It is impossibly distant from the roar of Sunday's NFL coliseums, just an old man by himself, squeezing another day from his football life.
London Fletcher has played in 240 straight games, a 15-year run that began when he was an undrafted, undersized (5'9", 245 pounds) rookie from a D-III college; lasted through four years with the Rams, five with the Bills and six with the Redskins; and is tied for the fourth-longest streak, excluding those of kickers and punters, in NFL history. If Fletcher plays in Washington's opener, against the Eagles on Monday night, Sept. 9—when those restorative intervals between plays, it should be noted, are certain to be far shorter against Chip Kelly's no-huddle madness—he will pass the recently retired Ronde Barber. Two games after that he could equal Bill Romanowski, who retired in 2004 and is the highest-ranked linebacker on this list, and move into third place among position players. (Brett Favre is at the top, with 299 consecutive games, followed by two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jim Marshall, who started 282 straight games for the Vikings from 1960 to '79.)
Fletcher's continued ascendance is not a given, though. Last season his streak was imperiled nearly every week. Physical decline, sometimes sudden and precipitous, is the one certainty for every player in the world's most violent sport. Fletcher has just forestalled it far longer than most.
In the Redskins' first exhibition game of 2012, last August in Buffalo, Fletcher was closing in to break up a pass when a teammate with the same intention drilled him on the side of his helmet. Fletcher dropped to the ground, and his head bounced off the artificial turf. He suffered a concussion that was never publicly disclosed. It was the worst head injury he remembers since he was a junior at John Carroll University in 1996 and staggered out of a postgame shower nauseated and disoriented.
He has suffered many concussions in the intervening years. Single digits?
"Probably not," Fletcher says emphatically. "I've been playing a long time."
After the Buffalo concussion he sat out one exhibition game and played sparingly in another before starting the season opener and six subsequent games. All the while he was fighting balance issues that would not subside but were not disclosed until Oct. 25, three days before a Week 8 game against Pittsburgh. "Something just wasn't right," says Fletcher. "I passed the concussion test way back in [training] camp, but something was wrong with my balance. I saw every specialist you can imagine." Doctors eventually determined that the concussion had left Fletcher with tightness in his upper neck muscles that was affecting his central nervous system. A regimen that included manual strengthening, flexibility and stabilization alleviated the symptoms.
Fletcher is deeply aware that a long career's worth of head blows could extract a price later in his life. "I've seen the situation some guys are in," he says, "but this is what I signed up for." His son, Steele, age five, plays flag football, and London will not discourage him from playing the tackle version.
After Fletcher's balance issues were resolved last fall, other problems arose almost immediately. First it was his right hamstring, then his left ankle and right elbow. He practiced only occasionally in September and October and hardly at all later in the season, yet his teammates craved his presence. "He turned over a Gatorade cooler and sat behind the defense making calls," says Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, "and he drove me crazy trying to take reps."
Before each of the last eight games of the regular season and before the Redskins' playoff loss at Seattle, Fletcher took a nerve-blocking injection to dull the pain in his left ankle. This, too, he had done before. In 2000 with the Rams, it was cortisone for a dodgy foot ligament; in '08 with Washington, lidocaine in his left foot for bone chips that kept him in a walking boot until hours before kickoff on several Sundays. In all cases, he says the decision was his alone. "Nobody made me do it," says Fletcher. "I asked the questions I needed to, and then, when I was convinced I wasn't putting myself at risk, I did it. It's not fun, but I couldn't imagine myself not being out there on Sunday."
And when he is out there, he is all in, even by the high standards of NFL players. "Everybody talks about how they get after it, but how many guys can say they gave everything they had on every play?" says former linebacker Mike Jones, who played alongside Fletcher in St. Louis from 1998 to 2000 and is now the coach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. "Almost none. It's a trait few guys have. London has it."
Fletcher underwent two off-season surgeries, in March to clean out bone chips in his left ankle and in April to relieve impingement on a nerve in his right elbow. Remarkably, they were the first surgeries of his career. Fletcher pronounced himself "full-go" in May, and Redskins coaches were chasing him off the field at the June mini-camp in an effort to save him for the autumn.
In mid-June, Fletcher moved out of the Reston, Va., condo where he lives during the season (and during mandatory off-season workouts) and returned to Charlotte, where he and his family settled four years ago. London and his wife, Charné, have three children: Steele and his sisters Paige, six, and Brooke, three. In Charlotte, London dived into the solitary six-week training regimen that expresses his spirit and connects him to a past that is unlike any other player's in NFL history. The routine includes four weekly weightlifting sessions in his basement gym and five "field" workouts that involve the sand-pit bear crawl and several other torturous drills.
Fletcher played out a five-year, $25 million contract with the Redskins that ended in 2011, and before the '12 season he signed a two-year, $10.75 million deal. His home is palatial. He could work out in luxury in Phoenix or San Diego with dozens of other NFL players, but instead he packs up his Range Rover with sleds and ropes and resistance bands and drives alone to suffer under the sun. It's "that Division III mind-set," he says, nodding to his alma mater, John Carroll in University Heights, Ohio. But it is much more than that: memories of a dangerous and tragic childhood in Cleveland and of a circuitous path from D-I basketball to D-III football to a rookie training camp in St. Louis at which the coaches tried to cut him every day but he wouldn't let them. Fletcher was never supposed to play a day in the NFL, so he is forever validating his presence.
"Fletch hasn't let go of that free-agent mentality," says Takeo Spikes, who was the second linebacker picked in the 1998 draft (which ignored Fletcher altogether) and played alongside Fletcher from 2003 to '06 in Buffalo. "He had to work for everything in his life, so he's still got the chip on his shoulder."
Fletcher sits in the back of his SUV, feet dangling off the tailgate, sand caked to the sweat on his gigantic legs. The work brings out his love for game week, however distant it is at the moment. "When I'm not playing football," he says, "I'm thinking about playing football, the new chess matches for every opponent." He pauses and looks up, old and young at the same time. Then he says, "I don't have any hobbies, man."
They lived in a two-family home at 1316-18 Giddings Rd., in the Superior section east of downtown, but there were never only two families in the house. London and his four siblings (he is in the middle) lived with their mother, Linda Fletcher, on the second floor. His grandparents lived below, and an aunt and her four children lived above in what was intended to be the attic. Sometimes the population of the house swelled to 15 or more, with cousins and other children taken in by their grandmother. London was born in 1975 and grew up in the '80s, when the crack epidemic overran the neighborhood.
"To be where he is now, from where we were then," says his cousin Asu Robinson, now 41 and the owner of a Cleveland barbershop, "is phenomenal. There's not one person in our family he hasn't helped, either financially or spiritually. None of us can thank him enough."
As a toddler, London destroyed one of his grandmother's glass-top tables and was nicknamed Bam, after The Flintstones' Bamm-Bamm Rubble. That's what his relatives and Cleveland friends still call him. (NFL teammates call him Fletch.)
On Jan. 14, 1987, when London was 11, the body of his sister Kecia Robinson-Clark, 17, was found near a set of railroad tracks. Cleveland police determined that Kecia had been sexually assaulted and classified her death as a homicide. No suspect was arrested, and the case remains open. "She was out on the streets from about age 13," says London, "doing things young girls shouldn't be doing." Kecia's death broke Linda Fletcher, who was suddenly absent from the home, often chasing drugs. (Robinson says there were other family deaths around that time, including a young cousin who was killed and an aunt who committed suicide.)
London, who had been an A student, began getting D's. One evening he was driven home from a recreation center by the center's director, Tim Isaac, who had become his mentor. "We pulled up in front of the house, and just as London was getting out, we heard gunshots," says Isaac, now 56. "London looked at me and said, 'Yeah, that's my hood,' like he was proud or tough or something. I said, 'Don't ever let me hear you talk like that again.' "
London played on Isaac's AAU basketball team, a point guard built like a bowling ball, and like so many other boys with his background, he was guided upward by sports. In eighth grade he was spotted by Mike Moran, then the basketball coach at St. Joseph High (now Villa Angela--St. Joseph), while he was playing hoops with collegians at Cleveland State. London applied for admission to St. Joseph but was rejected as a freshman because his grades had turned so poor. "The priest in admissions told London, 'Get your grades back up,' " says Moran. "He went right back to straight A's the next year."
London's sixth-grade public school class had been "adopted" by the fledgling I Have a Dream Foundation, which promised tuition support to inner-city schoolchildren who earned admission to college. London's benefactors, philanthropist Leonard Schwartz and his wife, Charlotte Kramer, allowed him to use part of his bequest to help pay for St. Joseph, a parochial school. He was a two-year starter at point guard and helped the Vikings win two state titles. He also joined the football team as a senior, and one hellacious season at running back earned him college recruiting attention. But London was committed to basketball and signed a scholarship offer with Saint Francis College in Loretto, Pa., a village with a population of 1,232.
Fletcher stormed into this unglamorous backwater of D-I hoops truly caught between two sports. He barely averaged 11 minutes a game and still managed to foul out twice. At 5'9" and 220 pounds, he was a punishing physical force. Halfway through his freshman season the team's trainer went to coach Tom McConnell and said, "We're soft. Too many guys in the training room." McConnell looked at the injury list: Knee bruise; cause, collision with London Fletcher. Thigh contusion; cause, collision with London Fletcher. During one practice Fletcher and a teammate attacked the rim for an offensive rebound, and together they shattered the backboard. "That wasn't just me," says Fletcher, but in Loretto they will always remember the glass on the floor as his.
By the fall of his sophomore year, in 1994, Fletcher had left Saint Francis and moved back to Cleveland. His mother had continued to struggle with drug addiction; his older brother was in and out of jail; and his sisters were in need of a man in the home. "So much going on," says Fletcher. "Saint Francis was what I needed at the time. Peace and quiet. Dealing with my mother was really affecting me. But after a year and a half, I had to go back."
Fletcher's athletic career could have ended there. He was 20 years old and had played one year of college basketball and one year of high school football. But upon returning home he called Moran, his high school coach, who had become the basketball coach at D-III John Carroll, a small Jesuit university in this suburb nine miles east of downtown Cleveland. Fletcher wanted to play for Moran. He was admitted as a transfer and joined the Blue Streaks for the second half of the 1994--95 season. "London won't want me to say this," says Moran, "but he played basketball like he played football. He might as well have started every game with two fouls, because he was going to get them quickly."
In the fall of 1995, he joined the John Carroll football team. He played little, rusty from two years off, but the next season he was a D-III All-America, and as a senior in '97 he set a school record with 202 tackles in 12 games. "London was an example of a Division III athlete who was, literally, out of his league," says John Priestap, a teammate then and still a close friend of Fletcher's. "He had such an ability to close gaps and run down ballcarriers. He was completely, utterly dominant."
On an April weekend in 1998 Fletcher sat in the basement of Asu Robinson's apartment to watch the NFL draft. Since his graduation the previous December, Fletcher had been working full time at a desk job in relocation services while training himself. At a pro day at Kent State he ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, but that hadn't made him any taller. On draft day he took a notebook and wrote down the names of the 32 linebackers who were taken. Only the first two—No. 12 pick Keith Brooking and No. 13 Spikes—are still in the league, and 10 of the 32 played fewer than 16 games. Only five made a Pro Bowl.
After the draft, the Rams called Fletcher and offered to sign him as a free agent.
On one side of a conference table sat Rams personnel director Charlie Armey, fresh off his first NFL draft. On the other side was Fletcher, a free agent with no leverage.
"Why didn't you draft me?" asked Fletcher.
"Because at your height, we were pretty sure nobody else would, so we didn't have to," said Armey.
"O.K., I want a signing bonus," said Fletcher.
"Undrafted free agents don't get signing bonuses," said Armey. "It's not negotiable."
Fletcher stewed before finally snatching up the pen. "I'm gonna sign this contract," he said, "and next year I'm coming back for some more money." His salary was the league minimum, $158,000.
Last spring Fletcher walked a street near his Reston condo and remembered the exchange. "What was I thinking?" he shouted. "I'm an inner-city guy; I want to show how tough I am. But I had no choice."
Fletcher made the Rams as a reserve linebacker and special teams player. He started the final game of the regular season and made eight tackles. "It was the best the position had been played all year," says Dick Vermeil, then the Rams' coach. "When it came time to evaluate players for the next season, I said, 'London Fletcher is our middle linebacker.' "
That next Rams team won the Super Bowl, and Fletcher had 66 unassisted tackles, second on the roster. He played two more years in St. Louis—going to another Super Bowl, in which the Rams lost to the Patriots—before defensive coordinator Lovie Smith determined in 2002 that Fletcher couldn't handle the duties required of a Tampa Two Mike linebacker. So Fletcher signed with the Bills for five years and $17.1 million.
Five years, 730 total tackles, the third most in the NFL over that time, behind only linebackers Zach Thomas of the Dolphins and Donnie Edwards of the Chargers. Fletcher played with a stellar array of defensive teammates, including Spikes, Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy, Aaron Schobel, Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield. Yet the Bills won just 35 of 80 games and never made the playoffs. With that record, says Fletcher, "people don't even realize you're in the league. No playoffs, no national games. Everybody forgets about you."
Yet it was in Buffalo that Fletcher fully transitioned from an unlikely pro to a pro's pro, a locker room force and film-study freak whose talents and personality were respected inside the game in ways that fans and media couldn't see. Spikes recalls one interaction: "We had [6'3", 295-pound nosetackle] Sam Adams, and his M.O. was that if he did not want to be blocked, he would not be blocked. But Sam was moody; some days he did not want to practice. So one day he doesn't come off the ball, and Fletch just jumps on Sam and says, 'You are gonna practice right now.' And they were about to fight. Fletch was the father figure, the coordinator."
During those Buffalo years, Fletcher was married (2002) and divorced ('04). He got his mother clean, moved her to an apartment in Buffalo and then, on June 4, 2006, took the phone call reporting that she had died of a heart attack. Six days later he married Charné Page in Cleveland, and two days after that he buried his mother.
Fletcher was approaching 32 when he signed with the Redskins in the spring of 2007. He continued to accumulate tackles (almost 95 solos a year from '07 through '11) and, slowly, to gather the props that had eluded him for most of his career. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl in '09. (Three more followed.) Yet his team still struggled; in those first five years the Redskins went 32--48 and made just one playoff appearance, a loss to the Seahawks.
Fletcher seemed destined to run out his career by slowly breaking down while in the employ of a faded franchise. The fading abruptly halted in 2012, when the Redskins drafted Robert Griffin III, who would lead the franchise to its first playoff appearance since that defeat in Seattle. Yet, cruelly, the breaking down continued. Griffin aggravated a knee injury in January, in another playoff loss to the Seahawks, and required reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile Fletcher, fighting off the effects of that concussion and taking all those needles, sat out just 67 of the Redskins' 1,186 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He played every snap in 14 of Washington's 17 games. "I played," Fletcher says, "and I played extremely well."
That's not necessarily true. His 78 solo tackles were his lowest total since the NFL officially began charting solos in 2001, though his 139 total tackles were in line with his career average of just over 140. According to Pro Football Focus, Fletcher's 21 missed tackles were the most by any inside linebacker in the NFL. He was targeted 95 times on pass attempts, 15 more than any other inside linebacker. He allowed a respectable 70.1% completions, 15th best among 53 interior linebackers in the league, and the QB rating for passes into his area was 87.1, 12th best in the NFL.
Yet Fletcher is more than his measurables. Much like Ray Lewis, the inside linebacker with whom he is most often compared, he has a combination of every-down tenacity and intellectual sophistication that carries significant value. "First of all, he plays harder than anyone on the field," says Redskins nosetackle Barry Cofield. "Second, he's always calling out [the offense's] plays, presnap, and he's right a lot more often than he's wrong." (Spikes says, "He did that in Buffalo too; Patrick Willis is the most physically gifted linebacker I've ever played with, but Fletch has the highest knowledge of the game, by far.")
Perry Riley, a fourth-year inside linebacker who plays alongside Fletcher in the Redskins' 3--4 set, says, "When I first came here, I had no idea how to watch game film. Fletch taught me how to watch how the quarterback moves his hands, how the running backs take their stance. And he knows what plays are coming. He calls them out. Plus he plays with a passion and practices with a passion. You want to follow him." The Redskins' defense ranked fifth in the NFL against the run, but 30th against the pass. They did not draft an inside linebacker but signed veteran free agent Nick Barnett early in training camp. Still, Barnett is 32 and coming off knee arthroscopy. He didn't practice until Aug. 12. It's clear the Redskins are hoping that Fletcher has one more productive year in him.
If he doesn't, it won't be for lack of effort. He spends at least three days a week getting chiropractic and ART (active release technique) treatment and another three days undergoing trigger-point dry needling, in which long, slender needles are inserted into muscles at designated "trigger points" to reduce the tightness and spasms that follow injuries. After a summer needling session, physical therapist Rich Banton pulled up Fletcher's spinal X-rays on a computer screen. "Great height between the vertebrae, very little arthritis," said Banton. "This does not look like a 38-year-old football player." Fletcher is also a devotee of hot-and-ice contrast baths, which prevent swelling and alleviate soreness, even on game day. And his weight seldom moves more than three or four pounds in a calendar year.
On a June afternoon Fletcher walked out of a physical therapy session in the Washington suburbs and climbed into his Mercedes sedan. The end is both very near and far away, the pull of Sunday still strong. "Those 60 minutes every week with my team and my teammates," he says, "that's what I love." It is unspoken, but that's also what he needs.
Fletcher has suffered many concussions over the years. Single digits? "Probably not," he says emphatically. "I've been playing a long time."
"London played basketball like he played football," recalls one coach. "He might as well have started every game with two fouls; he was going to get them quickly."
"I'm gonna sign," Fletcher, the undrafted free agent, said. "Next year I'm coming back for more money."
Old? Fletcher doesn't see it that way. The linebacker riffs on being 38 at SI.com/NFL
Photograph by MANNY FLORES/ICON SMI
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MAN OF STEELE Fletcher's son, 5, will play tackle football one day, if he wants to—Dad's cool with that, despite the beating he's taken on and (by his own will) off the field.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT The heart of the Redskins has journeyed from (below, from left) Saint Francis, where he began as a point guard, to St. Louis, where he won a ring, and to Buffalo, where he started to make a name for himself.
COURTESY OF ST. FRANCIS UNIVERSITY (BASKETBALL)
[See caption above]
RICH KANE (RAMS)
[See caption above]
MARK KONEZNY/WIREIMAGE.COM (BILLS)
[See caption above]
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SI.COM)
EVAN HABEEB/USA TODAY SPORTS
LAUNCH, AIR Even at 38, Fletcher remains a menace to such opponents as Ravens running back Bernard Pierce.