- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

London Fletcher saw a lot — far too much — before he turned 13.

His sister raped and murdered. His grandmother dead in his arms. His brother put behind bars for a lifetime.

Joining the thug life on Cleveland’s East Side would have been easy. But Fletcher didn’t pick up a gun or a knife to avenge any wounds. He picked up a basketball and a football. He drew strength from his upbeat nature, his religious faith and his love of competition and sports.

Settling scores would happen on the court or the field, not on the drug-infested streets.

“I looked at the choices that my sister made and decided I wanted to do something different, something to bring a smile to my mom’s face because I knew how hurt she was,” Fletcher said. “My brother has been in federal prison for eight years. I saw the consequences of his choices when I was young and knew I didn’t want to go that route.”

Asu Robinson knew, even as they grew up together in their grandparents’ house, his younger cousin would be an athlete.

London was a strong little dude,” said Robinson, now a barber. “When he was 3 or 4, he kept standing on my grandmother’s glass cocktail tables and breaking them. London always wanted to play sports. He would always have a ball in his hand.”

Fletcher, the Washington Redskins’ new middle linebacker, always hated to lose, too.

“I’ve always been driven,” Fletcher said. “Those situations in my family added fuel to the fire that was already there. There was a toughness built into you from an early age in my neighborhood. We used to play tackle football on the concrete. You weren’t going to get a lot of babying at home, either. If you were crying, you wouldn’t get a lot of hugging. You’d get, ‘When are you going to stop all that crying?’ ”

At 12, Fletcher met Tim Isaac, who still is the director of the EJ Kovacic Recreation Center in Cleveland.

“London was so stocky, defined and muscular. He had too much weight to play tackle football with his age group,” Isaac said. “I didn’t want a 12-year-old playing with 16-year-olds, so he played flag football. London was a quarterback, fast and explosive with a strong arm. You could watch him with his peers and see how they listened to him.

“London excelled at football, but he loved basketball. Not only was he a very good player, basketball gave him an outlet for what was going on in his life. He could shoot around and get some solitude.”

Robinson recalled a teenage Fletcher “telling me he wanted to be a pro for the family.”

“All the stuff he’s been through is enough to make any man lose his mind and want to commit crimes and do all types of crazy things,” Robinson said. “But London uses the Lord to stay focused.”

Indeed, when Fletcher is not focused on football or his immediate family — wife Charne, who he married last June soon after his recovering drug addict mother died at 53, and baby daughter Paige — he’s working toward ordination as a minister.

In the meantime, the 32-year-old Fletcher has a different flock to enlighten.

As he watched his previously formidable defense crumble last season, Redskins assistant head coach Gregg Williams knew it needed a transfusion of talent, leadership and fire. He also knew he could find all that in one player.

Williams, then head coach of the Bills, signed Fletcher to take charge of the Buffalo defense in 2001. As soon as the free-agent signing period began this March, Fletcher’s phone rang. Williams was calling. Within 24 hours, Fletcher signed a five-year, $25 million contract that included $10.5 million up front.

“Those types of things that we thought we were lacking from a communication standpoint or a quarterback standpoint on defense or maybe a leadership standpoint, we knew we didn’t have to worry about with [London],” Williams said.

Or about an adjustment period for the NFL’s leading tackler the past five years, who last season also led all linebackers in interceptions.

“I was only with Gregg for two years, but I played the system for four years because [Bills successor Jerry Gray] kept it,” Fletcher said. “I understand what Gregg is thinking in terms of his calls and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

With established veterans like end Phillip Daniels, tackle Cornelius Griffin and linebacker Marcus Washington still around, the Redskins don’t need Fletcher to be the only leader, even if that comes naturally.

“I love being the leader,” said Fletcher, captain of the Rams’ special teams as a rookie, an unheard-of honor. “That’s just the way I was made. But you can’t try to force your way on people.”

Though he has yet to play in a game that counts for the Redskins, Fletcher already is an extension of Williams on the field.

“One guy can be the catalyst, but we can’t blow it out of proportion and say that London’s going to swell up and take the whole other team on,” Williams said. “He’s got to do his job, and part of his job is trying to help make the other guys play up to their potential.”

Washington said Fletcher has been doing just that.

“London can line up a guy who’s not sure where to be,” he said. “Or if a guy doesn’t have a good mental day, London will talk to him afterward and say, ‘Let’s get together and go through this or that.’ ”

Fletcher was talented enough in basketball to play point guard for Division I St. Francis (Pa.) at 5-foot-10. Since his height precluded an NBA career but was less of an issue in football, he transferred back home to play at Division III John Carroll, where he set school records for tackles.

Remarkably agile, Fletcher remains a tackling machine. He set a Rams record with 193 stops in 2000 and a Bills record with 209 in 2002. He averaged 171 tackles in his eight years as a starter and has never missed a game.

“I do enjoy proving doubters wrong,” Fletcher said. “People have always doubted me because of my height, where I went to college and now because I’m 32. The last time I checked, the holes were open [side to side] not [up and down]. If I was 6-1, would that make me a better player? And if I was 6-1, I would probably be in the NBA playing point guard and there would probably be some other challenge.”

One Fletcher no doubt would meet.

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