At shortly past noon on a late spring afternoon, London Fletcher trudged up a long set of stairs from the team locker room at Redskins' Park in Ashburn, Va., a training complex next to a golf course half an hour west of the nation's capital. He had just completed the second of three days of minicamp leading to his 16th season as a middle linebacker in the NFL, the first (remarkably) that had included any surgery (two, it turns out); and now he met with me in the lobby of the building for an interview that would lead to the profile that appears in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated.
There had been no agreed upon logistics for the interview. I had told the Redskins media relations staff that I would like an hour or so with Fletcher. In truth, an hour wouldn't be nearly enough to peel back the layers on a man who had emerged from a challenging upbringing in Cleveland, played Division III football (and Division I basketball) and survived 240 consecutive games at the highest and most destructive level of the most violent game in the world. But with the explosion of media, especially media covering the NFL, no journalist requests hours upon hours. Ask for the minimum and take it from there. Fletcher is a grown man in charge of his own time. Sometimes the hour can turn into days; sometimes it turns into 40 minutes.
We walked into the parking lot and Fletcher instructed me to get into his Mercedes, and then we drove into the snarl of midday D.C. traffic. "I figured I would show you how I get myself ready to play every week,'' said Fletcher. "Does that sound good?''
That sounded fine. We stopped first at the office of Herndon, Va., chiropractor Hirad N. Bagy, where Fletcher is a regular visitor, especially during the season. Fletcher lay face down on a treatment table and Bagy, who works with all Washington sports teams, began a combination of Active Release Technique ( a form of soft tissue massage) and chiropractic adjustment. Fletcher is 38 and has played those 15 seasons with a 5-foot-9, 245-pound pit bull's body that takes unthinkable abuse and requires significant rebuilding on a daily basis. This rebuilding is as much Fletcher's job as his film study and weight and speed training. "Not many 38-year-old bodies are in tune like this,'' says Bagy, digging his fingers into Fletcher's oversized legs. "Half the battle is staying ahead of problems.'' Later in the day Fletcher would see physical therapist Rich Banton for a session of trigger-point dry needling, in which long, slender needles are inserted into muscle "trigger points,'' in an effort to reduce tightness and spasm. It's gruesome to watch, but also fascinating.
Which is the point. The immense popularity of the NFL is built on the three hours (give or take) that teams play games every weekend. For the players, especially an outlier like Fletcher, whose career has been longer than the vast majority of non-kickers in league history (he's already in the top 35 alltime, and only two linebackers, Clay Matthews Jr. and Bill Romanowski played more games), sustaining an NFL career is unending work.
So on that spring afternoon I watched Fletcher get his body massaged and adjusted and I watched as those long needles were sunk into his muscles. And I sat with Fletcher outside a suburban Starbucks and talked with him about the dots that connect a crack-addled Cleveland neighborhood to a Pro Bowl career and a $25 million NFL contract. We talked about concussions (of which he had numerous, including a bad one last preseason that wasn't publicly disclosed) and about pain-killing injections (he's also had a lot of those).
After five hours we arrived back in the parking lot next to my rental car and Fletcher said, "If you really want the whole total access, you've got to come to Charlotte.'' That's where Fletcher lives in the offseason, and where his family -- wife and three young children -- live year-round. Two weeks later I was in Fletcher's home, as he lifted weights alone in the basement and then trained alone in a beach volleyball sand pit in a Charlotte public park. And at the end of all this, Fletcher sat on the tailgate of his truck with sweat and sand in his salt-and-pepper goatee, a man nearly at the end but fully immersed in the moment.