Fletcher hits, shakes off `too short' tag

Profile: The Rams' colorful middle linebacker is a Pro Bowl alternate in only his second NFL season, not bad for small-college player who wasn't drafted and got a tryout via videotape.

Super Bowl XXXIV

January 30, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA -- His face is the face of the Super Bowl, all smiling and happy-go-lucky off the field, all snarling and spit-in-your-eye on it.

St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil says it all the time -- London Fletcher is the Kurt Warner of the Rams' defense, another undrafted small-college player with a seemingly fictional career path.

Division I basketball at St. Francis (Pa.).

Division III football at John Carroll.

Pro Bowl alternate at middle linebacker in his second season.

No wonder Charley Armey, Rams vice president of player personnel, says he's even prouder of discovering Fletcher than he is of finding Warner, who was merely the MVP of the NFL this season.

Warner, at least, looks the part, checking in at 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds. Fletcher makes the Ravens' Ray Lewis look oversized, and some once thought that Lewis too small to play middle linebacker.

Lewis is listed at 6-1, 240. Fletcher is about the same weight, but 3 inches shorter. When the Rams listed him at 6 feet, he asked the team's public-relations staff to correct the error.

"I'm slightly below 5 feet 10 -- 5-9 3/4, 5-8, whatever you want to call it," Fletcher said.

What difference does it make?

Fletcher, 24, led the Rams with 138 tackles in the regular season despite playing only 63 percent of the team's defensive snaps (he is removed in the nickel defense).

He has since added 20 tackles and a sack in the Rams' two playoff victories, and today, he will assume the responsibility of dragging down Tennessee's 6-3, 240-pound running back, Eddie George.

Fear not, Fletcher is the same type of player as Lewis, an emotional leader who flies sideline-to-sideline making plays.

He's also emerging as one of the game's more colorful figures, a trash talker who draws personal-foul penalties out of opponents and calls himself "Dot Com" because he's always "online with opposing offenses."

"Sometimes, I think he's going to hyperventilate," said Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr. "He gets in the huddle, and he's like a junkyard dog. He's like another coach. You forget he's only in his second year. You want to tell the guy to shut up. But you can't. He might bite you or something."

Fletcher admits to carrying a chip on his shoulder, because he was not drafted, and starting a fight early in his first minicamp simply to announce his arrival.

How many times has he heard that he's too short?

"Probably every day," Fletcher said. "I don't look at it as a negative. I use things like that as motivation. I keep all kinds of articles with people saying I can't do this, can't do that. I use anything negative written about me as a positive."

And he's more than happy to cite examples.

"One magazine -- ESPN Magazine -- said that if London Fletcher starts at middle linebacker by Halloween, we'll buy him a car," Fletcher said. "I'm still waiting on my car. I want a Ram-blue Mercedes Benz 600."

His rise from obscurity is inspiring enough.

His family history makes his tale even poignant.

Fletcher's mother, Linda, has struggled with drug addiction for a decade. His sister, Kecia, was raped and murdered when he was 12. They, too, are part of his motivation.

"He's an odds-beater. He's an underdog," Rams defensive end Kevin Carter said. "He's a guy who wasn't supposed to make it -- and did."

Fletcher, a Cleveland native, was a basketball point guard who actually played against the Rams' 6-7, 320-pound Orlando Pace in high school.

He earned a full scholarship to St. Francis but soured on the sport and transferred to non-scholarship John Carroll in Cleveland, where he once had 29 tackles in a game.

One of his teammates was the son of Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian.

And still, no one noticed.

Even after Fletcher ran 40 yards in 4.38 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, Armey said that "nobody would give him the time of day," fearing he was too short.

So, how did Armey discover Fletcher?

From a tape Fletcher sent him.

"Anytime I get a tape of any player, I look at it," Armey said. "I look at it from their perspective. This is their dream. I may look at a thousand of these tapes every year. I may keep only four or five so I can explore them all, but I look at them all."

What did he see in Fletcher?

"The first thing I thought was that this guy would be a great special teams player," Armey said. "When I signed him, I told him that I hoped he could make our team as a special teams player. What I liked about him was that he said, `I'll be back next year as your starting middle linebacker.' "

Sure enough, it happened.

And now Fletcher is starting in the Super Bowl.

"I talk to children at risk and tell them my story so they can understand that the problems are going through are not unique to them," Fletcher said. "If they can see me overcome my problems, can look at Kurt Warner and other guys, then I feel like I've done my job."

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