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HARRIS: As RG3 heals, London Fletcher remains model of durability

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

RICHMOND — The Redskins are starting to work at their brand new training facility in Virginia's capital. All eyes, as perhaps they should be, are on quarterback Robert Griffin III. RG3, you may have heard, is coming back from major knee surgery. The fortunes of the Redskins in 2013 rest heavily on his ability to recapture the form that made him last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Following RG3 in Wednesday's news conference rotation was a man whose story may be just as good.

RG3 was 8 years old when London Fletcher played his first NFL game in 1998.

Fletcher is preparing for his 16th season. The next game he misses will be the first. Think about that — 240 games, at linebacker, where there is contact almost every play. And he's never missed a game. He hasn't missed a start from his second season forward.

"London's been amazing, just his whole career," RG3 said. "It's good to see a guy like that come out here time in, time out. I know I've [only] been here for a year, but guys that have been here for multiple years have seen him do it and it's truly amazing."

Dare we say it, it is almost Ripken-like. Sure, Cal Ripken Jr.'s record streak of 2,632 games is more than 10 times Fletcher's — but a shortstop doesn't have big, strong, fast men plowing into him on almost every snap.

To last that long in the NFL is amazing. To last that long in the NFL without missing a game is amazing to the 100th power.

"It's just something where you get up every day and go to work and don't think about it," Fletcher said. "That's pretty much how I go about my business. I don't think about the durability part until somebody brings it up. I do a lot of different things to keep myself feeling good."

There's luck involved, no question. One misstep can blow out a knee and put you out for the season. There are so many fluky ways to get injured. But a 15-year-record of durability isn't built on luck alone. The streak looked to be in real jeopardy last year because of a bum ankle (Fletcher had offseason surgery). Somehow, it didn't end.

"Genetics. God blessed me with some good genes," Fletcher said. "A little bit of dumb toughness, too, probably. It's a lot of different things. The main thing I look at is not wanting to let my teammates down. Being honest with myself and wanting to be out there on the football field with them. If I feel good enough to play, I play."

Fletcher isn't just taking up space, playing to keep a streak alive. He's never been considered a world-class linebacker along the lines of a Ray Lewis or a Brian Urlacher but he's also probably never been credited for being as good as he has been for so long. He turned 38 in May, but he's not slowing down. He was named second-team all-NFL by The Associated Press the past two seasons. Fletcher intercepted five passes last season, a career high.

"From a physical standpoint, obviously with 15 years of wear and tear there's a decline that goes with that," Fletcher said. "Mentally I think I'm as sharp and in tune with my game as I've ever been. Where the physical part has gone down, I've gained from a mental standpoint an understanding whether it is a line and a step here to the right or to the left or just different things that help me still continue to play at a high level."

It has to end sometime. Ripken eventually missed a game. Ronde Barber, who came in the same year as Fletcher and had the same 240-game streak, has retired. The NFL record of 352 by Jeff Feagles (a punter — should that even count?) is out of reach. Is 300, which would mean another four seasons and playing until he's 42?

Probably not going to happen. But let's not worry about the end. Let's enjoy Fletcher and his streak while he's still playing. He's in the last year of his contract, but that means nothing in terms of how long he'll continue to play. As he noted, coming into the league as an undrafted free agent he's always figured he's playing his last year.

He's just managed to repeat that final year 15 times and counting.

"Really, in the National Football League you're always on the last year of your contract for the most part," Fletcher said. "It's just the nature of the business. I've scratched and clawed my whole career.

"I'm focused on this season. That's pretty much it. The rest will take care of itself."

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