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RAMS' FLETCHER RISES ABOVE TROUBLED PAST

London Fletcher didn't set any records for assists, or steals or anything else back when he was a point guard, but by Sunday night he may be the most famous basketball player produced by St. Francis College of Loretto, Pa., since Maurice Stokes, the great All-American of the '50s.

When he returned to his hometown, Cleveland, and changed sports, he was a dominating player at John Carroll but it was Division III football and it got lost in obscurity. By Sunday night, however, he may be the school's most famous football player since Don Shula; its most famous graduate since Tim Russert.

That's what the Super Bowl, which attracts the eyes of a billion people throughout the globe, can do for an athlete's notoriety.

Little more than a year ago, Fletcher was an anonymous rookie, a munchkin bobbing around the Rams' bench among giants. St. Louis was going nowhere, already sure of last place in the NFC West. The last game of the season meant zilch. Why not play a hammered-down nonentity at middle linebacker in a nothing game? Everyone thought he was too small at 5-foot-10 ("Actually," he admits, "that's what they listed me at, but I'm really 5-9 1/2 ; maybe 5-8 something."). Give him his shot, then move on to someone else.

"In that game," says his teammate, D'Marco Farr, "he was the Tasmanian Devil."

"He was all over the place," confirms Dick Vermeil, his head coach. "He made 16 tackles."

There would be no moving on to someone else. By opening day, 1999, London Fletcher, ex-basketball player, Division III long shot, non-stop munchkin, was the Rams' starting middle linebacker.

It sounds almost theatrical. In fact, Fletcher's life could have been something out of the theater, a tragedy if he had allowed it. He didn't.

"I had a full scholarship to St. Francis and I loved the school," says the 24-year-old who came from the hard-scrabble city streets. "It's in a little town in the hills, as far as you can get from the urban scene. My basketball coach, Tom McConnell, was a father figure to me. It's just what I needed at the time."

Things change and so did Fletcher's life.

"My circumstances became different," he says. "Basketball was no longer my interest. I needed to go home to Cleveland."

Interviewers gently press for details. Painfully, they come out. His sister, Kecia, was raped and murdered at age 12. His mother is a drug addict. Fletcher, naturally bubbly and upbeat, is suddenly quiet as he recounts what was happening back in Cleveland. His eyes become misted as he thinks about things he usually tries to banish from his mind.

After he collects himself, Fletcher reveals that "I often think about my sister, wondering what her life would be today. My mom is inside me."

This young player refuses to allow the bad times to corrode his life. He ticks off the names of people who have affirmatively affected him, role models and tutors -- his teachers and coaches at Villa Angelus-St. Joseph's High school in Cleveland, teachers at St. Francis, the coaches and faculty at John Carroll, especially his father.

He's always refused to be bitter about his life.

"What happened to my mom and my sister I've used as inspiration," he explains. "I played only one year of football in high school, but I really got to love the game in college. I might not have been seen by NFL scouts if I didn't have one game where I made 29 tackles."

Still, he wasn't drafted, something that still rankles him. "I try to take it out on every offensive guy I play against," he says, laughing.

Fletcher has a good grasp of NFL history. He knows Hall of Famer Mike Singletary was a dominant middle linebacker despite his 5-11 stature. "Remember those pictures of him with his eyes so wide open, taking in everything the offense had to throw at him?" he asks. He knows that Sam Mills was a Division III graduate about the same size he is and not only survived but starred at middle linebacker for a decade in the NFL.

He knows about incentives, too. ESPN the Magazine said in its preseason prediction about the Rams that "if London Fletcher is the starting linebacker by Halloween, we'll buy him a car."

"Where's my Mercedes 600?" asks London.

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