London Fletcher: What I owe Vermeil, Rams for my career
There are 102 preliminary candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2019, and you can probably name three of the four individuals in their first years of eligibility: Ed Reed, Tony Gonzalez and Champ Bailey.
But the fourth? Maybe not. It's former linebacker London Fletcher, and he's not only deserving of Hall-of-Fame consideration; he's more qualified than a lot of the candidates on the list.
Fletcher, who admitted he's "extremely humbled," "flattered" and "honored" to be among the group, was an undersized linebacker (he was 5-10, 242 pounds) from a Division-III program (John Carroll University) who wasn't drafted in 1998, yet who wound up starting on the Super Bowl St. Louis Rams.
Playing with what he termed "a chip on my shoulder," Fletcher would stay in the league 16 seasons, star for the Rams, Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, amass over 2,000 career tackles and win a Super Bowl, get named to four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams, set an NFL record for most consecutive starts by a linebacker (215) and become one of only five players in league history to play in over 250 consecutive games.
So how did he go from an unknown to one of the best linebackers in NFL history? Answer: He never stopped working to improve himself, never missed a game and never stopped finding the ball -- with a string of double-digit seasons of 100 or more tackles that is nothing short of remarkable.
"I proved I belonged," Fletcher said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast. "Those first eight years (in the NFL) it was like I was always feeling I was always being overlooked … Regardless of what I did on that football field, I wasn't getting my true justification or accolades coming my way.
"There was some point where I was like: I don't know what else I can do. I literally was perplexed to garner the All-Pros and the Pro Bowls. When you looked at the numbers. the production, the team success, the defensive success, it was just like ... I don't know what else to do.
"I felt like that Division-III label was always over my head and that undrafted label was always hanging over my head. It's something to be proud of, but it was also looked at sometimes as something people used as a negative, too."
Fortunately for Fletcher, his first head coach -- the Rams' Dick Vermeil -- did not. He didn't care about Fletcher's size or his resume. He simply wanted the best players he could find on his team. So he gave Fletcher an opportunity to play, and, by the end of his rookie season, had him in his starting lineup.
"Once I got an opportunity," Fletcher said, "I felt like I was going to run with it. I knew I could play football. It was just a matter of getting an opportunity in the right situation. And coach Vermeil was the right coach.
"He'd always given the underdogs a true shot. He didn't care where you were drafted, where you played college football or whether you were undrafted or anything… and this even dated back to his time as a head coach in Philadelphia.
"So it was the right situation. Once I got on the football field I didn't care where I was on the depth chart. I just went about my business every day, and I tried to play as hard as I can. My goal was just to make the practice squad initially.
"I can remember we scrimmaged the Colts (one summer), and (Hall-of-Famer) Jackie Slater came to me one day during the scrimmage. And he was like, 'Man, it's just glaring how fast you are on that football field … It just pops out how much faster you are than anybody else on this field.' And when Jackie Slater had said this it was like, 'Man, wow! Maybe I can do this.'
"It was just each day going about my business, putting me head down, and I made the team as an undrafted rookie and ended up being the Rookie of the Year for the Rams. 'Coach' gave me an opportunity going into my second year to compete for the starting job, and I won it. And the rest was history, I guess you can say."