“My philosophy: The other 21 guys on the field are as gifted as you are, so what makes you stand out?”
-Michael Fletcher, Oregon safety (1995 – 1999)
In 1995 following the magical Rose Bowl season, Oregon would gain a player who would change the course of safeties roaming the Oregon secondary. Compton, California native Michael Fletcher came to Eugene with a hard-hitting approach at the safety position and fearless tenacity on special teams that led to his tough play and hard-hits (which I, as a young fan at the time, called “Fletcherisms”).
After a redshirt year, Fletcher (a.k.a “Fletch,” as he was known by his teammates) wreaked havoc on opponents from 1996-1999 both as an enforcer roaming the secondary as well as special teams coverage and returning kicks and punts. A very successful career led to earning multiple Pac-10 player of the week awards, first-team All-Pac-10 honors & Oregon’s team MVP as a senior in 1999; and was followed by a lengthy career in the CFL.
Now retired from the CFL, Fletcher is a football coach, teacher, and loving father. I caught up with Michael Fletcher to find out more about his playing days, what he misses about the game, and his favorite memories as a Duck.
Q: WHAT MADE YOU COME TO OREGON?
I was committed to Colorado–I was a big Buffs fan at the time. They had won the national title a few years before and had quite a team. I had signed, but took a trip to Oregon to explore other options after their coach (Bill McCartney) resigned following the 1994 season. When I went to visit Oregon, the basketball team upset #1 UCLA, and the spirit was huge around town. That along with the atmosphere of passionate fans in Eugene–I felt at home more than anything. Coach Aliotti and Coach Brooks were great (but honest about wanting to leave for the Rams.) I felt this place wasn’t too far from home; I liked the facilities (at that time before major upgrades) and it felt like the right fit, so I had to pull the trigger.
Funny part about the entire thing was that I did get to play for Aliotti after all the last year there (after he left before my first year). He thought I’d be a ‘Kenny Wheaton’ type of guy (rugged, all over, ability to cover the entire field). Aliotti frequently stayed in close contact, like when we went to Arizona and the Rams came to play the Cardinals; he and Rich Brooks came to see our game. Opportunity presented itself to play for him that last year there when he returned. The coaches all looked out for me throughout my career (Pellum and Aliotti, especially.)
[Note: During Oregon's 1994 trip to #5 USC, Fletcher was on a USC recruiting visit when he first witnessed Oregon in person. Seeing them pull off the upset and spirit of the team played a big role in Fletcher's decision to come to Oregon.]
Q: WHEN WAS YOUR FIRST GAME? WHAT POSITION WERE YOU? DID YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO BE PLAYING THAT DAY OR WAS IT SPRUNG ON YOU ALL OF A SUDDEN?
August 31, 1996 at Fresno State! I was scheduled to start, and began my first game as a redshirt freshman at strong safety. A lot sticks out from that game, especially that it was the first NCAA Overtime Game in history (regular season). They were a good team with Jeff Tedford as Offensive Coordinator and they had Michael Pittman at RB (who gave Oregon trouble all night.) I was sitting in a huddle with Reggie (Jordan) and Kenny (Wheaton,) they were Oregon vets having played in the Rose Bowl/Cotton Bowl and other big games.
They let me know it was my time; I felt accepted and it WAS my time! I felt I was ready at that moment when they accepted me, I was in it for a reason. There were four other freshman guys in the defensive huddle (me, Peter Sirmon, Buddy Smith & Brandon McLemore). It was so hot that night, I just hoped I’d make it through! Going into OT too, more than anything, I just hoped I’d have enough juice to make it through. They had me running around and all over, that was like the first test whether or not I could manage. I think a lot of the struggle that night (and all year) had to do with our third coordinators (both offensive and defensive) in as many years. All of that was like a transition, you still have old players used to different systems, and new guys not knowing what’s going on.
Q: WHAT IS THE TRANSITION LIKE FROM HIGH SCHOOL TO COLLEGE, ESPECIALLY WHEN CHANGING POSITIONS, AND HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO ACCLIMATE?
First of all, you must make it mentally. You’ve gotta be ready to accept what’s about to happen and be excited, a lot of guys just show up. I was excited, ready, and hungry. I think more than anything, you’ve got to have confidence and preparation on your side. Coming off the Rose Bowl year, they had lost two All-Americans in the secondary unit (Chad Cota & Herman O’Berry,) but still had a strong defensive backfield.
I put no pressure on myself, I just came in ready and prepared. You want to be accepted by your peers early on and try not to be an outcast. You want to fit into the locker room; that wasn’t hard as I just sat back and listened, spoke when I was called on, then stepped on the field. I had a tough time adjusting at first, but I acclimated. Coach Charlie Waters held me out at first (probably to see what my will was like.) Every other freshman got to do drills except me; but I stood there and watched in preparation. That made veterans take will to that – seeing I got to go through drills but not make plays, seeing that I am very observant and would watch everything that happened. I wanted to pick up skills from veterans and learn who Alex (Molden)/Kenny (Wheaton) etc. are, and learn from them. I would stay after practice, working on the skill of back-peddling. I constantly worked with guys who stayed out with me (Alex, Kenny, Isaac Walker, etc.), it was a learning process.
Going whole first year (1995) without playing was different. The year before, I rushed for 2,000 and passed for 1,500; so to sit on the sidelines was different. Waters had me penciled in for a CB spot, and was going to burn my redshirt midway through 1995, but it didn’t happen. I probably would have moved to a safety spot under him. But, I got a kick out of practices. I loved every minute of it, one of my proudest moments from that year was not missing one rep on scout team. I got to go against starting wide receivers every day (Cristin McLemore, Dameron Ricketts, Damon Griffin, etc.), and that experience was priceless. Not taking one rep off all the way through to the Cotton Bowl, I take pride in earning scout team player of the week 6-7 times that year. Greatness starts BEFORE you get out on the field. You’ve got to be a great person and work like one; I challenged myself to do so every day.
Q: WHAT IS THE MINDSET LIKE OF PLAYING SAFETY (GIVEN IT’S A “HYBRID POSITION” IN THAT YOU HAVE TO BE PART LINEBACKER AND CORNER)?
I think for me, personally, it was a blessing. Every athlete is different in skill level/approach, but I was just meant for it. It was really a position that had my name written all over it. Kudos to (then-secondary coach) Bob Gregory, and (1998 defensive coordinator) Bob Foster for introducing the Rover position at Oregon. Starting in 1998, they put me in as the Rover.
Instead of the traditional Strong Safety, the Rover is a much more versatile position. #1, my biggest attribute was my athleticism/versatility. Being recruited as an “Athlete” from high school, I wanted to be just that, use my athletic talent. This position prepared me to do that. As for preparing, to me, this position was ‘gift wrapped!’ I was a high school QB; so offense was what I was used to. When prepping for games, being the Rover allowed me to be a QB again in college to roam the field. I knew the weaknesses of opposing teams, especially QB since I was one myself. You get a cornerback or safety position, you are restricted to what you have to do.
By moving me to Rover, I was sitting in the middle of the defense and could move all around and chase the football, I still get a kick out of it. I still keep in close contact with Coach Allioti and company. When we talk, they still say they’re looking for a Michael Fletcher! We had a great deal of good safeties after me (Keith Lewis, TJ Ward, JD Nelson, etc.) but they look for me! That’s really something to feel good about. Given that I could understand their QB’s viewpoint from a preparation standpoint made a huge difference.
Q: HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT BEING UNDER SO MANY DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS DURING YOUR CAREER HAVING TO LEARN NEW SCHEMES?
I learned a lot from all the coaches (four defensive coordinators in five years). I learned Oregon’s defensive schemes from Coach Charlie Waters, but he left due to a family tragedy. Rich Stubler’s change (to a Canadian Football style) put me in the box, I learned aggression from Stubler. I learned everything from each defense. Coach Foster’s taught me blocking. It was good, I survived all three of those guys, and it broadened my horizons. Coach Aliotti (who recruited me) returned in 1999 for my senior season, by then I was ready for anything.
[Note: As a sophomore in 1997, Fletcher proved that starting is overrated; ranking fifth among all defenders with 56 tackles while starting only the final two games. In the Las Vegas Bowl, Oregon played like one of the top defenders in the country while slowing the Air Force powerful offensive attack to a crawl, including Fletcher's nine stops in a huge 41-13 upset.]
“I was always the first off the bus. (opening day 1998) I ended up going up the new stairs to the Mo Center, and I thought why not walk through the Mo Center. Akili (Smith) and KP (Kevin Parker) were behind me, they saw me going that way, and they followed me, and everyone else followed them. The crowd opened up a path for us and cheered.”
-Michael Fletcher, on how he accidentally created the now traditional team walk through the Mo Center before home games.
Q: TALK ABOUT THE MENTAL APPROACH IN FILM STUDY.
I was a film junkie. The first thing I did to prepare: I was taught to break down distance and downs. Monday was my “first down day,” Tuesday “second-down day,” Wednesday “third-down day,” etc. Break down what they want to do on downs, distance, in the red zone, at the 50 yard-line, etc. I learned about their formations, and what their personnel wants to do. You play the percentages, so I studied their top 80%. You play against a team, but I’m playing a mind game. You gotta read each player, be in HIS head, and think like he thinks. I was able to conduct player-only meetings, get together as groups, know tidbits/nooks/crannies, and how they want to execute. My thing was “let’s be aware of every position,” that’s how I broke down film from a defensive standpoint.
My philosophy: The other 21 guys on the field are as gifted as you are, so what makes you stand out?
Against USC in 1998, R.J. Soward (their star at the time) came up empty as we read every play. This was all due to proper preparation. It frustrates them when you know their plays, and you can play fast or slow them down. NOW, I can use my gifts physically, no worries, because I know what’s about to happen. When you must guess, you can’t be who you are. Preparation during the week will have you ready for each test on Saturday.
Q: WHAT SORT OF MENTALITY DID YOU HAVE TO BECOME KNOWN AS THE GUY THAT NEVER CALLED FOR A FAIR CATCH ON PUNTS? WITH GUYS FLYING AT YOU, WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO BE SO AGGRESSIVE?
First thing you’ve gotta realize about being a punt returner, guys are flying down at you out of control a lot of the time. Knowing that, I relied 99% off of instincts. I knew that if I caught the ball, I’d make the first guy miss. As a punt returner, it is my job to return kicks, it’s in the position. I’d tell Bellotti and guys, ‘if you want a fair catcher, I’m not your guy!’ Knowing how important field position was, it was my goal to get 10 yards (scoring chances go up each first down). That (10 yards on standard drive) is a first down in football, I wanted to get a first down to put less pressure and stress on the team in general and the coordinator.
From a selfish standpoint, growing up in offense–that was my only chance to get the ball. Part of it was to show that I belonged on offense, I was used to it. The other stat I got to see — when I did get 10+ yards on a return, how many times did we score? To look at numbers and how many times we scored matters.
[Note: As a freshman, Fletcher worked his way into the mix of special teams, where he would go on to excel as a star. Oregon speedster Pat Johnson had been handling kickoff/punt returns for the majority of his career. However, Fletcher's talent and speed earned him the right to share various punt return time with Johnson, returning 11 punts. Following the graduation of Pat Johnson after the 1997 season, Fletcher was the full-time specialist from 1998-1999. San Jose State and Washington State fell victim to "Fletcherisms" as Fletch had two returned punts for 70 and 61 yards for touchdowns to help start the 1998 season 5-0. Fletcher would reach his goal of 10 yards per punt return, averaging 11.6 yards a return and finishing his career with three punt returns for touchdowns and 1,085 yards.]
Q: WHAT ARE YOUR FUNNIEST MEMORIES AS A DUCK?
Funniest moment I ever had happened my freshman year, in the first home game against Illinois. I’m redshirting, and they’re on the sideline all fired up. It was late in the 4th; they were down in the east end zone pinned deep (the defensive stand where Jaiya Figueras forced a fumble for a touchdown). I was on the 35 yard-line watching the field, the crowd was going wild, and I looked over and I saw (team mate) Paul Driver dead asleep!!!!! The fact that he could sleep at a moment like that with a roaring crowd and intense moment was unreal!
There were plenty of other great times, especially locker room moments. I loved teasing Peter Sirmon. Our lockers were next to each other, so I would always tease him about being one day older than him, that made me older and wiser! I would do impersonations of (Strength & Conditioning Coach) Jimmy Radcliffe, they called me “Little Rad!” Never ending memories!
Q: WHAT ARE YOUR HAPPIEST MEMORIES FROM YOUR TIME AS A DUCK?
I think more than anything, probably leaving Autzen Stadium with the 14-game wining streak – leaving the lasting memory with the fans, culminating with the 1999 Civil War was the icing in the cake. Our incoming class took the torch from the Rose Bowl team and passed it on with great success. Though we didn’t win the Pac-10, we made everyone proud, and the Sun Bowl victory was huge. To be victorious in the All-Green was a huge accomplishment. I remember when the home streak started in 1997 against Utah. In that stretch of time, there were so many exciting comeback victories; most were nail-biters. Just to be a part of that “never say die” team, “the cardiac kids” team (as that era was known as) was very exciting. To take the baton from the Rose Bowl team and pass it to next generation was a great way to cap my career (and everyone’s from my class). I think of all those total team victories and all the rush we got from them all was the best part.
Also, having the fans involved was huge. We’re the only NCAA team I can think of who had fans consistently rush the field like basketball fans rush a court, that’s what made us unique. The players get the same rush fans do; and the fans running on the field, enjoying the victories with us was special. My fondest memories are getting to share it with fans who are so passionate. All you’ve got in Eugene is the Ducks; so they take it very seriously. Being hands-on with the players is important to every fan, and it is just as special to a player as well to know you mean that much to their town.
[Note: Fletcher and the Oregon defense shut down the high-powered Oregon State offensive attack in the Civil War, holding the powerful Ken Simonton to only 63 yards on 24 carries in Fletcher's final home game as a Duck. Oregon went on to the Sun Bowl to face a difficult Minnesota team. Oregon put together a terrific game and came out on top 24-20 following an outstanding defensive stand by Fletcher and company. Oregon would finish second place because they didn't play Pac-10 Champion Stanford that year, but would be the only Pac-10 team to win a bowl in 1999, and would finish 9-3 as the only nationally ranked team from the Pac-10. As icing on the cake for Fletcher, he would be crowned with the Hoffman Award--Oregon's Most Valuable Player of 1999.]
Q: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SINGLE PLAY YOU MADE IN YOUR CAREER?
The hit against Stanford on Coy Wire. It was early in the game, that really just turned the tide of the whole game as we went on to score from there and never looked back. I never heard a crowd scream louder for one play in my career! I ran into him, closed my eyes, threw everything I had into him, and you just knew that he hit the turf with the back of his head.
You know what it reminded me of? Say you’re crossing street, traffic is coming, you drop your wallet, traffic is coming at you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Coy looked up, saw me coming. He looked so helpless, and then he was just flattened. It ballooned from there.
Q: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE GAME FROM YOUR CAREER?
Probably the 1999 USC (triple-overtime) game. That was another crazy game, a game we had no business winning. We were up, they stormed back and appeared to take control, but we ended up with momentum and we put it together every chance we had. We fought through adversity, backups relieved injured players, we never gave up, etc. When you’re able to establish yourself physically, that’s huge!
Q: WHAT ARE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS FROM YOUR CAREER?
Cherished Memory: Two moments tied into each other for me.
1. Showing up in the locker room at Cal (November, 1999) after my mom passed away. After missing practice and meeting the team down there; the outpouring of support from the guys in the locker room was huge. Some guys didn’t know that I was going to show. I took it as any other game, that we need to focus on the game like it was any other.
2. Peers voted me team MVP at the banquet a couple weeks later. Those two moments tie together. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be known for what I did, but to know people really appreciate you for what you do is special. When you’re a defender, you’ve got to do things the hard way in a different fashion. Being a true captain, guys appreciating what I did and the way I played was huge (especially at a time like that). I was going to be there every week, a guy to count on play in and play out.
Q: WHAT DO FANS BEST REMEMBER YOU FOR TODAY?
I think it would have to be me being a gritty, hard-hitting player and a fearless punt returner, but mostly a guy who was a winner for Oregon. More than anything, I was the guy who got the crowd into the game! I was always raising up my arms to get the crowd into it, getting everyone fired up and ready to go, etc.
People bring up the Stanford hit the most, and the sack/strip/return against Cade McNown and UCLA. Everything I do and everywhere I go, I am reminded of football. To still be known and remembered by peers is very satisfying to me. I remember doing a photo shoot a few years ago, Troy Polamalu (who was in high school in Oregon at the time) even told me he wanted to be like me (a hard-hitting safety). That is a huge compliment knowing Troy (now a huge NFL star) idolized and wanted to be like me.
Q: ANY SPECIAL GOALS YOU HAVE YOUR FUTURE?
I dream about coaching for Oregon someday. That is definitely something I’d still love to do. Currently I’m coaching high school ball at my alma-mater, but I would love to do the same at my college and be at Oregon someday. I have had the opportunity to coach at my high school that I went through as a player. To go back and coach at Oregon would be icing on cake.
Something you may not know about Michael Fletcher:
For more than a decade now, Oregon fans have enjoyed a very special tradition of waiting in the indoor Moshofsky Center for the team to walk through on game day. Every home game at Autzen Stadium, fans pack the Moshofsky Center several hours before kickoff to greet the team as they arrive. A little known fact is that Michael Fletcher started the tradition, completely on accident.
In 1998, The University of Oregon Athletic Department celebrated the grand opening of the Ed Moshofsky Indoor Practice Facility. Aside from being an indoor practice facility for the team, the Mo Center was designed to be used for fans on gameday. To begin the 1998 season, the team arrived at the stadium with Fletcher the first one off the bus. Fletcher explains the first walk through the Moshofsky:
“We got off the bus for the first game against Michigan State; I was always the first off the bus. Getting off the bus, we would walk around the south side to go into the Cas Center locker room (before the Moshofsky center was there). I ended up going up the new stairs to the Mo Center, and I thought why not walk through the Mo Center. Akili (Smith) and KP (Kevin Parker) were behind me, they saw me going that way, and they followed me, and everyone else followed them. The crowd opened up a path for us and cheered. Then, (two weeks later) they were ready for us against San Jose State, I remember getting off the bus for the game against San Jose, Bellotti was like “let’s do it again!” But it all started on accident!
It got bigger, soon the band went through there with us to play the fight song, and the cheerleaders joined too, but I started the walk! It became a superstitious thing – we keep winning and we keep doing it that way. To me, that was equivalent to the guys putting earphones on to prepare themselves for a game, that was what that walk-through was for me. Seeing a couple of thousand fans before each game, cheerleaders, the band, it gets you hyped and ready to go.”
To this day, it remains a unique tradition at Oregon for fans to greet their team upon arrival in parade-like fashion. The Oregon band and cheerleaders wait at the entry of the Moshofsky Center as the team arrives on the bus, and fans clear a path for the team to walk through the Moshofksy Center through cheering fans to welcome their team for a great game to come.
A very special thanks to Michael Fletcher for accidentally beginning this one-of-a-kind tradition!
MICHAEL FLETCHER TODAY
Following a very successful career as a Duck, Michael Fletcher graduated from Oregon and continued his football career in Canada. For nine years, Fletch was a force in the CFL, winning two Grey Cups with the Toronto Argonauts. Following his retirement, Fletcher and family returned to Southern California where he returned to Paramount High School (his alma mater) to teach and continue his career in football as a coach. Aside from football, Fletcher lives with his wife Brandi and three children in the Los Angeles area. A true success story, Fletcher proved that one can take talent a long ways with hard work, heart, passion, and determination.
For a breakdown of Michael Fletcher’s stats during his time at Oregon, check the following link: