FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Football and Dane Fletcher didn’t seem like the best match.
Hockey was his first choice. He didn’t get drafted in the NFL. He spent all last season on injured reserve with the New England Patriots after hurting his knee in the first quarter of the first exhibition game.
There were times when the light at the end of his long rehabilitation tunnel seemed pretty dim.
“It always seems like that,” Fletcher said. “Finally, I see the light and it’s exciting just to get back on the field again.”
Healthy once more, the second-string middle linebacker will play in his third exhibition game Thursday night against the Lions in Detroit. And he has a better idea of what to look for after having plenty of time to study film while recovering from surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“I just dedicated myself to stay positive, stay motivated and take as much as you possibly can out of it when you’re not on the field,” Fletcher said. “I probably learned a lot more about the game than I probably would have known if I was out on the field.”
Fletcher isn’t about to replace Brandon Spikes as the starting middle linebacker. But he could contribute on passing downs since Spikes specializes in stopping the run. Fletcher also is a solid special teams player — and it was on special teams that he sustained his injury.
It happened against the New Orleans Saints on Aug. 9, 2012 as he was running to cover a punt.
“I knew right away,” Fletcher said. “Now I’m so focused on the now and I’m just excited.”
In this year’s opening exhibition game, Fletcher played 37 snaps on defense, the second most of any Patriots linebacker, in a 31-22 win over the Eagles in Philadelphia.
He had four tackles on the night. Last week, he was on the field for only 12 snaps in a 25-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but made three tackles.
“While everybody else was playing, he was working hard in the weight room and rehabbing,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “Fortunately for this year, the injury occurred early last year so he had almost a full calendar year to rehab it.”
But hockey was Fletcher’s main sport before college. He even played for the Bozeman Icedogs of the American West Hockey League in his home town. Then he snared a football scholarship to Montana State and turned into a star defensive end as a senior.
“A Montana kid, I’m sure, growing up in the country and killing ox or moose or whatever he was doing to eat dinner,” Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said with a smile, “I’m sure that makes him pretty tough.”
Fletcher was bypassed in the 2010 draft. A few days later, the Patriots signed him and started converting him to linebacker.
He has 51 tackles in 23 games over two seasons but he’s still adjusting to that position.
“I feel like I’ve been doing well and (there’s) always room to improve,” he said.
Being overlooked by all 32 teams in the draft may have motivated him.
That same snub drove Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington, who was undrafted out of Hofstra in 2008 but tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions in 2011.
“It’s just a natural chip just placed on your shoulder as far as not being overlooked, not really getting this opportunity you always felt like you deserved,” Arrington said. “It’s one of those things that make you work harder to prove yourself.”
Fletcher is doing that. And he isn’t worrying about his surgically repaired knee anymore.
“It was a big milestone after that first preseason game just to prove to myself that I’ve still got it,” he said. “I forgot how much I loved the game.”