The National Football League has changed drastically since 1998. The Houston Texans were still years away from creation, the Tennessee Titans were still the Oilers and the Arizona Cardinals were still misplace in the NFC East.
One thing that hadn’t change until the end of the 2012 season–inside linebackers London Fletcher and Ray Lewis patrolling the center of their respective defensive units.
While the two gladiators are widely regarded as some of the greatest of the modern era, their approach to the game is/was polar opposite.
Lewis decided to hang up his cleats after tasting Super Bowl success again in February, leaving Fletcher as one of the few remaining legends who began playing professionally before the turn of the century. On Wednesday, Fletcher said he might follow him into the land of retirement following the season.
While the debate rages on as to which player is consider “the better” of the two, I instead wanted to take a look at their backgrounds.
Here’s what my research led to:
Ray Lewis was known for his fiery passion and aggressiveness. He spent the majority of his career in the media spotlight, dating back to his high school days at Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Florida. It was there where his legacy grew on the gridiron, becoming a high school All-American as his personality meshed perfectly with the glamour of the Sunshine State.
After receiving his diploma from Kathleen, he decided to stay close to home and signed a letter of intent to play at the University of Miami. At Miami, Lewis quickly shone bright under the glitz of the Orange Bowl, working his way into the starting lineup his freshman year before consummating his collegiate career with back-to-back All-American honors.
Fletcher, on the other hand, is known for his calming presence and prowess to get to the football, no matter if its in the hands of the quarterback or tucked away by a playmaker. His work-ethic embodies the blue-collar attitude of Ohioans. After thriving on the field at Villa Angel-St. Joseph’s High School in Ohio, he spent time on the St. Francis (Pa.) University basketball team before ultimately landing at Divison III John Carroll University to purse a football career once again.
At John Carroll, Fletcher blossomed as he racked up tackles at a record-setting pace. He collected an astonishing 29 in a game against fellow Buckeye State rival Ohio Northern University his senior year. When it was all said and done, he collected a school-record 202 tackles his senior season and was named the Football Gazette Linebacker of the Year for Divison III.
Lewis’s next stop towards legend status was the 1996 NFL Draft. The media swarmed him as he received a plethora of coverage in the days leading up to the draft. He was the top rated inside linebacker, but doubters questioned whether his stature would hinder his prospect of a successful career at the professional level. After hearing the names of 25 others called before his, the Baltimore Ravens selected Lewis with the 26th pick.
After his marvelous career at John Carroll, Fletcher hoped to be selected early in the 1998 NFL Draft, but knew the reality of being an undersized, D-III student-athlete. He steered away from the copious amount of media attention that others in his position received and opted to let his play on the field speak for itself. After the Ravens selected Cam Qualye with the 241st pick, thought, the draft concluded without Fletcher finding a professional home.
On April 28, 1998, the St. Louis Rams signed Fletcher as an undrafted free agent.
Fletcher battled for a roster spot in St. Louis and after showing a penchant of being a “tackling machine” and made the Rams active roster. Among the teammates he battled for playing time was seventh round selection Jason Chorak. Fletcher outperformed his fellow NFL newcomer, playing every game that season. Chorak saw limited action before announcing his retirement after just one season.
During his introductory season to the NFL, Lewis quickly graduated from the ranks of rookie as the tenderfooted Hurricane accumulated a team-high 110 tackles. The following year planted Lewis among the best players in the league, as he terrorized opposing offenses to the tune of a career-high 183 tackles.
The ultimate prize for an NFL player is the opportunity to call the Lombardi Trophy their own. The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of football excellence. Winning the big game signifies your placement among the greatest players in league history. Many have spent decades coming up short of the grand prize, but Fletcher tasted success early.
In only his second season, Fletcher’s workman attitude rubbed off on the Rams, as he was inserted into the starting lineup Week 1 against who else–Ray Lewis. Fletcher was a key contributor to a Rams defense that took the field often as their colleagues on the other side of the ball earned the reputation as one of the most menacing offenses in league history and were dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf”. In the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl appearance, Fletcher helped stopped the Tennessee Titans just short of a possible game-tying drive; claiming victory for the first time in a Super Bowl.
The next season, the Rams were unable to reclaim a second consecutive crown as the Raven’s earned their first Super Bowl. Lewis was a catalyst in the dismantling of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. During that season, Lewis racked up 108 tackles, three sacks, six passes defensed, three fumbles recovered, and one interception. After holding the Giants to a measly seven points, the Ravens’ vocal leader was named MVP.
As the shining careers of both will continued to be compared side-by-side, take a look at their career numbers (Fletcher’s numbers as of Week 15):
- Lewis-1,336 tackles (972 solo), 41.5 sacks, 67 passes defensed, 31 interceptions, three touchdowns, 17 forced fumbles, 13 Pro Bowl selections, and two Super Bowl victories.
- Fletcher-2,033 tackles (1,389 solo), 39 sacks, 90 passes defensed, 23 interceptions, two touchdowns, 28 forced fumbles, four Pro Bowl selections, and a Super Bowl victory.
While Lewis’s flashiness was embodied in his pregame dance, Fletcher’s string of 213 consecutive starts represents his mentality to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
No matter the path that each man has taken/took through their days on the gridiron, there is no doubt that each has become a legend that will live on in linebacker lore.
Tags: LondonFletcher, ray lewis, washington redskins
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