FOXBOROUGH — It was exactly one year to the day.
On Aug. 9, 2012, Dane Fletcher fell to the turf while covering a punt in the first quarter of the Patriots’ first preseason game, against the Saints. He knew almost immediately: He’d torn his left anterior cruciate ligament. His season, which was to be his third in the NFL, was over.
On Aug. 9, 2013, Fletcher was back on the field, this time against the Eagles, covering the opening kickoff.
He survived. And that’s when he realized he was back.
“It was a big milestone after that first preseason game, just to prove to myself that I’ve still got it,” Fletcher said after practice this week. “I went out and did exactly what I wanted. I always want to do more, but I felt comfortable out there, I moved around in space, I wasn’t worried about people taking out my knees, and that was the main thing I got out of it.”
He played 37 snaps on defense against the Eagles and was credited with three tackles, plus a tackle on special teams.
In the cramped visitors’ locker room at Lincoln Financial Field that night, Fletcher said the previous 365 days had marked the longest year of his life.
“It was. It’s good to be past it, it’s good to be back on the field and having fun again. I’m enjoying myself,” Fletcher said.
Undrafted out of Montana State in 2010, Fletcher came to the Patriots as a defensive end, but was quickly pegged as a prospective linebacker. After being listed as inactive for the first three games of his rookie season, Fletcher played in the remaining 13 and New England’s playoff game.
In 2011, he missed six games because of injury but made five starts.
He was slated to play a big role again last year, but it ended before it ever really began.
“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 after the year of surgery, recovery, and rehab. “I look at everything with two sides, and in a way I learned a lot more about the game than I probably would have known if I was out on the field, so that’s what I took out of it.”
Being able to take a step back, he explained, meant he had no choice but to pay closer attention in the classroom, watching more film and really learning more about what offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are trying to do, and how he can try to stop them.
One of Fletcher’s focuses has been to improve in pass coverage.
His approach and comeback have impressed many within the organization; Bill Belichick spoke highly of the 26-year-old this week, as did linebacker Rob Ninkovich, and Fletcher was one of 10 players recognized by the strength and conditioning staff as an offseason award winner for his dedication and improvement during the workout program.
Belichick indicated Fletcher might be a better player now than he was a year ago.
“Dane has worked really hard. He worked hard last season, after the surgery — while everybody else was playing, he was working hard in the weight room and rehabbing. He had a full spring [of workouts and OTA participation],” Belichick said. “I think he’s moving well. I think his play has improved. I think he has a lot of confidence in his physical ability and he hasn’t missed anything.
“He’s been out there all spring, all training camp. He’s had a big role for us in the kicking game. He’s played well, definitely, so I think he’s had a real good comeback from that injury.”
Ninkovich believes Fletcher is physically stronger than ever, and was surprised during their offseason workouts when Fletcher was keeping up with him in the weight room.
“He worked really hard to get back to where he was when he got hurt,” Ninkovich said. “It’s just a reflection of his character — hard-working kid that really loves the game, so he puts a lot of effort in, not only during the season, but definitely in the offseason to not only be big and strong and fast but mentally to get the game down.
“Every year he plays, he’s improving. Last year with not having the year playing, it was definitely a tough year for him. I’ve been there . . . he’s come back and he’s doing well for us.
Ninkovich tore an ACL during his rookie season when he was with New Orleans. He noted that everyone assumes a player who suffers the injury these days will be just fine, but he knows it’s not a simple procedure.
“It’s not that easy. You have to have the surgery and the rehab time and it’s one of those things: What you put in you’ll get out,” Ninkovich said. “[Fletcher] was the guy putting in all the time and working hard to get his knee back and he’s back and playing well.”
He joked that perhaps Fletcher’s upbringing in Montana, “growing up in the country and killing ox and moose or whatever he was doing to eat dinner made him pretty tough as well.”
Learning more about his position wasn’t the only thing Fletcher learned during the longest year of his life.
“I forgot how much I love the game, really,” he said. “It gets demanding and stressful, and just to step on the game field again, it was just so much fun. Now I’m having fun with it again. For a minute there, it was more of a job, but now I’m taking away what it was back in high school, back in the old days, just getting back on the field with my buddies.”