Fletcher mixes football present with hockey past

Fletcher mixes football present with hockey past
October 25, 2013, 6:00 pm
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FOXBORO -- Dane Fletcher's journey to the NFL is not your typical Friday night lights kind of drama.

"I started skating, I think, when I was three and a half, four-years-old."  

Yes, skating.

"Right after that I started playing."

Playing hockey, of course. He might have been five by then. And he was in love.

"I went out skating with my buddy one day, just on a little pond, and the minute I did it it was game, set, match for me," the Patriots linebacker grinned.

Even now, more than two decades later, Fletcher recalls the day with a glint in his eye.

Last Wednesday he stood stoically before the media hoard and talked about football. He spoke about the challenges New England will face in visiting the Jets. He rued the season-ending injury to defensive captain and fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo. He promised every other guy in the position group would step up and get the job done.

He talked puck two days later. Fletcher always has an easy smile; when remembering his ice time, his whole face lights up.

"I ate, slept, breathed hockey my whole life. All throughout high school I'd wake up early in the morning, probably 5:30 in the morning, go to the rink, and just skate."

The 6-2, 240-pounder played defense, as he does now in football. He liked the pressure, he liked taking risks. He enjoyed dishing out hits and could handle taking them.

Eventually, Fletcher got hooked up with the Junior A Ice Dogs in his home town of Bozeman, Montana, and played goalie.

It was a serious commitment but he was self-motivated. He grew up pitching hay on his parents' 100-acre farm in Bozeman. He also helped man the grill at Burger Bob's, a local joint owned by his father.

When time allowed.

"I skated with [the Ice Dogs] until like 11 o'clock, I got to school around 11:30, then I'd go to school until 3:30. Right after that I'd head back to the rink and skate until, some nights, 10 o'clock. I just dug it."

Something snapped his senior year.

"I wanted it so bad‚" he trailed off, remembering. "It stressed me out too much. So I fell back and did something I loved again; I played football."

The transition was hardly fluid. Fletcher had played football before, but didn't start a game until his last year of high school.

"It's just not the same. A football team is so big. You relate to a lot of guys, and you're friends with everyone and you get along, but it's not like you're just family. It's not like you just hang out every weekend with the whole team, because you can't. There's too many guys."

Always the rink rat.

"They didn't take me seriously. And I didn't really take football seriously," he admitted. "I would just leave football practice and go play hockey instead, anyway."

"I knew what I wanted -- I wanted to go pro in hockey or football. But I also wanted to go to college right away. And I saw what direction hockey was taking me. I'd have to play Junior A at least another year after high school, then go to college possibly and see where that took me."

Impatience for college actually didn't hurt. Fletcher went full-bore on football and started racking up tackles. All-State linebacker honors won him a partial scholarship to Montana State.

Much like with the Patriots, he cashed in early work on special teams for opportunities on defense. That's when his career took off. As a senior defensive end for the Bobcats, Fletcher's 67 tackles and seven sacks earned him the titles of unanimous First-Team All-Star and defensive MVP in the Big Sky Conference.

Fletcher went undrafted in 2010, but not unnoticed; Bill Belichick and the Patriots came calling. He was one of only two undrafted rookies to make the opening day roster that year.

"It's kind of crazy," he reflected. "I'm not saying I would have gone pro in hockey, but if I were to look at my chances in hockey compared to football, I'd say my chances would have been higher in hockey."

A moot point after four years in the NFL  

Though it's interesting to consider the twists, turns, and gaping potholes Fletcher has encountered since choosing the football path.

In 2011, he played in all six of New England's first games before getting derailed by a thumb injury that kept him out the next six. But when he returned, he came back and started five games. Fletcher appeared poised for a breakout the following year. He came into the preseason bigger and stronger. Not only did he want to stay, he wanted to start.

Unfortunately, Fletcher tore the ACL in his left knee while covering a punt in the first quarter of New England's first exhibition game. The entire 2012 season was lost.

Did it strike him then that the road he chose was more difficult than expected?

"Shoot, I think right off the bat, I think the first month I was like, 'What?' I've never been out for a season so it was really different to me," he admitted. "After that I just flipped my mindset and made it the best I could and just tried to get better at things I could get better at."

He got back up.

Fletcher was a full-go for the offseason program, for OTA's, and training camp. There were just 11 defensive snaps under his belt through the first six weeks, but that number could rise significantly in the wake of Mayo's season-ending injury. He nearly doubled his season total by playing seven snaps last Sunday against the Jets.

He has his coach's confidence.

Wednesday, the same Wednesday Fletcher entertained a crowd of reporters at his locker, Belichick sang the former farm boy's praises.

"I couldn't say enough good things about Dane. Really, he worked very hard last year during the season in his rehab to put himself in position to be ready to go this year.

"I think his overall understanding and experience in our defensive system has helped him, it's helped us and he's a more versatile player as well as more productive player in the positions that he does play, but he also plays more of them."

"Dane has really not only stepped up his performance but also he's given us good leadership and communication on the field. He's really done a good job for us this year. It's been a lot of hard work on his end and I think it's really paid off."

Not bad for a rink rat.

"I miss the sport. I love it," Fletcher said. "When the time comes, when football goes over, I'm going to go back and play it again."