After failing to hear his name in the 1998 NFL Draft, John Carroll linebacker
On the day of his signing, the national headlines revolved around Paramount's agreement to make movies available on DVDs, the FCC assuring consumers that Y2k was unlikely to scramble phones, and K-Ci & JoJo's "All My Life" was the No. 1 song in the land.
It was a different world in 1998, and the NFL was working to capitalize on Major League Baseball's decline in popularity.
The league needed iconic performers like Fletcher to take the reins and lead the NFL to new heights. Fifteen years later, no one could have expected Fletcher to still be performing at a Pro Bowl level.
Asked if he would have been shocked as a 23-year-old to know he would still be starting at 38, he said: "No, not really. I’m a pretty confident guy."
Fletcher has played for eight head coaches, seven defensive coordinators and adjusted to myriad rule changes to defensive players.
Now that he has finally gotten due credit late in his career, Fletcher attributes his success to things largely out of his control.
"First and foremost, being blessed with good health. There have been a lot of great players who barring injuries would’ve had long careers," he said. "Just a sense of responsibility; I take my job seriously, and not focusing on not letting my teammates down.
"I use that in my preparation, and knowing guys responsibilities. I help them try to make plays, and accountability as well."
Good health is part of the equation, but it is Fletcher's desire that is unsurpassed.
Of the nearly 3,000 players currently on an NFL roster, only 11 remain that began their careers in the 1990s. Of those 11, only three others play on defense (Charles Woodson, Antoine Winfield, Champ Bailey).
Several other iconic defenders hung up their cleats this offseason, with defensive back Ronde Barber, linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher--who actually began his career in 2000--calling it a career.
While these players will be forever linked to longevity and greatness, Fletcher is unwilling to reminisce while there is still work to be done.
"No, I haven’t talked to those guys yet. I know they are enjoying retired life," Fletcher said. "Ray [Lewis] had a 17-year career, Ronde [Barber] had a 16-year career, and Brian [Urlacher] had a 13-year career.
With Barber's retirement, Fletcher now owns sole possession of the consecutive games played streak among active players (240).
With no other linebacker ever enduring such punishment without missing a single game in his career, Fletcher said he rarely thinks about the streak; only about his teammates and his desire to compete.
"The media brings [the streak] up more than I think about it. It’s not something I get caught up in," he said matter-of-factly. "Obviously I was aware of it, especially the last couple of years that Ronde and I were tied for consecutive games played.
"I’m happy for him. I’ve watched Ronde for pretty much his whole career being the great player he is, and playing those games consecutively, I can appreciate it. The preparation to be out there week in and week out, and not just be out there but play well--I can appreciate it."
Appreciation aside, Fletcher is rehabilitating from his first surgery in the NFL, an offseason prcedure to clean up his bothersome ankle from last season.
While the injury process may have kept Fletcher from doing his typical offseason routine, he is embracing the work to prepare his body for the 2013 season.
"I’ve been working hard with the training staff, the strength and conditioning staff, preparing myself for the long grind of the season," he said. "When I get out there and compete against the offense in an 11-on-11 situation, there is no restriction to on me, I’ll do everything."
As for any offseason adjustments to the defense? Don't think you can't teach this old dog new tricks.
"We are focused on tweaking some things, seeing how certain things work. This is the time to try new things," he said. "It’s really about getting better each and every day. That’s what our focus is.
"We aren’t going to win the division right away. We don’t play a game for another three or four months. So really, all we need to focus on is how can we improve each and every day in the classroom, and on the field and go from there."