October 29, 02012
On opening day of 1997 a football team, one its legends, and fans of both were taught that fortune, not conditioning or force of will, will at any moment take an active role in determining one’s fate.
Jerry Rice had run the flanker reverse maybe 100 times in his career. But in the second quarter of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as Rice prepared to turn the corner, Warren Sapp got hold of his jersey and pulled him down to the turf. On his way down, Rice’s foot stuck in the turf, subjecting his knee to an insurmountable amount of torque. His ligaments were torn.
On the topic of conditioning, Rice was the most celebrated athlete of his era. The two mile horse trail in San Carlos had become the Bay Area’s Mecca for athletes of various ages, ability and status. It was there, on the red dirt, that Rice yearly revisited the compulsion that made him who he was.
But that day in Tampa shattered the myth that the most supremely conditioned athlete was immune from the basic tenets of humanity. A dedication to conditioning will earn you a great reputation among peers and fans. It will keep you sound in a cardiovascular way. But it won’t save you from bad luck. When your luck runs out, it’s time for common sense to make at least a cameo appearance.
Jets linebacker Bart Scott is the product of hard work and good fortune. He came up in Detroit’s east side, which, depending on your perspective, is either poor or downright apocalyptic.
Bart Scott didn’t play yesterday. He had played in 119 consecutive games. But a turf toe stopped him in his tracks. Scott had tried, for a few weeks to pretend it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the pain that did him in, he could stand that. Scott didn’t have the range he needed to be effective. Over time a chronic turf toe becomes a petrified version of a fleshy digit. Healthy toes provide balance. Without balance there is no stability.
Cal Ripken Jr. was known for that, stability, I mean. Ripken was tall, especially for a short stop. He had impossibly blue eyes and was clean cut in that obvious All- American way. In 1987, his dad, Cal Ripken, became manager of the Orioles, and his little brother, Billy, was his teammate. For a time the Ripken family made the Baltimore Orioles their own cottage industry.
Surely you know about Ripken’s streak. It lasted seventeen years and 2,632 games. He incurred all the injuries and maladies that accompany tossing one-self onto unforgiving infields and standing one’s ground in the face of unrepentant base runners going spikes high. Ripken played through and when he was done he took a victory lap. Then he gracefully retired where he was afforded the requisite respect and dignity.
Baseball is adorned by romantic qualities. Games aren’t contested under the pressure of a clock, games will be cancelled in bad weather, and all the best sports books all have baseball as its topic. There’s an adage that states “baseball is who we wish we were, but football is who we really are.” I’m not sure to whom that should be attributed, but I believe it to be true.
London Fletcher’s streak continued yesterday.
US PresswireRavens fans greet Cal Ripken, Jr. His 2, 632 consecutive game streak transcends sports.
It wasn’t like Ripken’s streak, because it was undertaken by a football player. More importantly it was undertaken by a football player who isn’t a quarterback. Brett Favre had a streak of 297 games, which is highly respectable. Anything done 297 times is worthy of honor, especially when a guy is asked to direct his offense and lead a team while dodging high speed traffic.
But a linebacker, one who goes headlong into the fray, taking on fullbacks, and guards and tackles who outweigh him by as much as hundred pounds is worthy of another honor, another distinction. London Fletcher knows that. So do his teammates, friends and coaches. Maybe that’s why no one tried to stop him, even though they should have.
On Sunday Redskins London Fletcher played in his 232nd consecutive game. Fletcher is 5-10, about 245 pounds, small for a linebacker. He wasn’t drafted out of John Carroll University because no front office staff will spend a pick on an undersized scrapper who hasn’t proven himself against the pro ready talent of the South Eastern Conference, or something similar.
In 1998, the St. Louis Rams made Fletcher an offer that is presented to all undrafted players. It’s an unspoken deal that if you’re even with someone who’s been hand-picked, then you’ll get the nod come decision time. Fletcher not only got the nod, but when the Rams took the field in Super Bowl XXXIV, Fletcher was a starting inside backer.
Fourteen years later, in a game against the Giants, Fletcher strained his hamstring. This happens, especially to aging linebackers. He had also suffered a concussion. This happens, too. The difference in this case was that Fletcher didn’t say exactly when the head injury had occurred. As we know, it’s no longer met with a shrug-of-the shoulders nonchalance. A concussion is for a football player what emphysema is for a smoker—both a product of his pursuit and precursor to his fate. Fletcher confessed that for two weeks he’d suffered from a lack of balance.
On a college campus the team doctor is dictator. A concussed player must sit for a week. But the pros are given a choice. After six hours of tests by a neurologist, Fletcher received clearance to play and he did. I support Fletcher’s right to choose, but maybe those who care about him should have talked him out of it.
Of course Fletcher will have hell to pay later. There’s the obvious—that the long term effects of head trauma will likely visit him in his middle years. Headaches, memory loss, slurred speech, loss of equilibrium, and limbs trembling like tuning forks are too often the lot of those who heed the call to perform—for team, for money, for pride, or for a place in history.
Who can blame them? Certainly not me. Nor can I judge them.
But those symptoms will likely be Fletcher’s reality ten, twelve, fifteen years from now because that’s the path Fletcher chose on Sunday. I wonder what the conversation will be then. Maybe he’ll sound like the great Earl Campbell, who in mumbled tones insists he has neither regret nor complaint, though at age 57 he uses a walker on his best days and a wheelchair on his worst.
I’d much rather think about Fletcher taking that victory lap around the field of his dreams.
It would be really cool if he does it with a clear head and without a limp.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @AlanGrant_NFL