The price of surviving 15 seasons in the NFL isn't for the meek.
London Fletcher understands the pain-filled bargain better than most.
"I think players sometimes go running to the trainer a little too much," the Redskins linebacker said last week. "You get a hang nail, you go run to the trainer. You get a sprained finger, you go running to the trainer. So for me, I'm just of the mentality if you can go out and play, you don't need to run to the trainer about every little thing that's going on with you."
And for all the steps the NFL has taken to address football's wave of injured brains, no locker room poster or rule barring running backs from leading with the crown of their helmet or $30 million research pledge or public relations campaign pushing "Heads Up Football" or independent neurological consultants on sidelines or Standardized Concussion Assessment Tool 2 test has changed the culture that led Fletcher to cover up a concussion he sustained last preseason.
Want to succeed in the NFL? Don't leave the field. Forget about future consequences. Now is what matters.
In many ways, the 38-year-old Fletcher is an unlikely face for the warrior mentality that pervades the league. He's intelligent, well-spoken and as engaging as any person you'll meet. He started the London's Bridge Foundation to assist disadvantaged children and isn't shy in discussing his Christian faith.
You would think Fletcher, of all people, wouldn't be swept up in the hypermacho, tough-guy world where playing through injury is almost as exalted as producing in games. But much of football's good and bad is wrapped up in his meticulously maintained 5-foot-10, 245-pound frame.
In last year's preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, he suffered a concussion that didn't become public until an extended profile this month by Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden. Fletcher's head smacked the turf after a hit in the first half. Dizziness followed. He stayed in the game for a couple of plays, then finally left when his vision blurred.
Teams aren't required to report preseason injuries, and Fletcher wasn't about to volunteer the information.
"I'm an old-school player," he said. "I'm not going to tell an opponent about anything I got going on. It's just he way I am. You play football, you have things that bother you all the time."
That's how Fletcher scrapped his way from an undersized, undrafted no-name from Division III John Carroll College into a four-time Pro Bowler.
Coach Mike Shanahan called him old school, too. But there's little old school about Fletcher concealing the initial injury and covering up balance problems, even from the team, that lingered through much of the season. He still managed to start all 16 regular-season games and intercept five passes despite what appeared to be telltale post-concussion symptoms to anyone with even cursory experience with the injury.
The issue, eventually, was blamed on Fletcher's neck.
"You're concerned about your future. I'm seeing all these guys, former players, some of the deals that they got going on," Fletcher said. "You're wondering, 'Man, what's going on? Am I doing further damage to myself?'"
Sure, awareness of concussions jolted awake as more than 4,500 former players sue the league over head injuries, and study after study points to long-term consequences from head injuries. Mark Rypien uses a tape recorder to remember basic conversations. Stephen Davis' ears ring constantly. Clinton Portis is plagued by headaches. More than 300 former Redskins are among the plaintiffs.
"It's much different now in comparison to what it was," Shanahan said. "I remember a number of quarterbacks come to the sideline and you knew there was something wrong. They'd give him the old one-two-three finger test and they'd go back out there. Times have changed."
But the fundamental culture that kept banged-up players on the field decades ago hasn't changed. The players sound alike, from Len Hauss to Fletcher to Robert Griffin III. Only the generation changes. Leaving the field means putting your job up for grabs and, really, defeat.
Fletcher comes across as more enlightened than the average player about head injuries. Once he believed he had to lose consciousness to have a concussion; that's changed. He's heard about the troublesome studies, noticed the league's shift to confront the issue.
But every incentive exists to find a way to disguise or play through injury. Even a concussion. Without that attitude, surviving the NFL's ruthless world, much less 15 seasons, is impossible.
One minute Fletcher admitted to pondering the extended consequences of blows like the one that left him with the hidden concussion. In the next minute, the NFL's bottom-line reality interceded.
"I don't want to think about it too much because I'm also in the midst of the season," Fletcher said. "I don't think you can think about it too much."
But the price isn't one even Fletcher knows.
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