FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Almost every year in Patriots training camp, there is one undrafted rookie who overcomes the odds to make the roster.
Inside linebacker Dane Fletcher, from Montana State, joined the list in 2010.
It is timely to highlight Fletcher’s underdog story as he played in his first career NFL game in the Patriots’ 41-14 victory over the Dolphins on Oct. 4. Fletcher was part of the “Big Four” special teams units -- kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return and punt coverage.
Fletcher hails from Bozeman, Mont., and sports were a big part of his life from an early age. He was a hockey goalie and baseball catcher, and he had no plans to play football in college until he had a big senior year at Bozeman High and was offered a scholarship to Montana State.
Fletcher shared his football journey with ESPNBoston.com:
When he first started playing football: “We called it the Lions League; it’s Pop Warner around here. I want to say I started in the fourth grade.”
What position he played and why he went out for football: “I’ve always been pretty aggressive. I played hockey as a kid and always liked contact. In baseball, I was the catcher so I could hit people. So I always liked wearing pads and contact, and football was the right fit for me. I always played linebacker.”
Playing at Bozeman High: “I didn’t have a crazy high school career in football. I really only started my senior year. I did well that year, named All-State, and racked up a lot of tackles. I really didn’t even see the field my junior year. I was really focused on hockey my whole life. Football was a backup plan, but when I got a scholarship out of high school I took that. It was my hometown and it seemed like a good deal.”
How hockey went from his being first love to being trumped by football: “I started playing when I was 4 and I was thinking that was what I wanted to do going into my senior year. But I got too stressed out and it was too much on my plate at that young of an age. Football was always something I did for fun. When I got on the football field, it wasn’t life or death. In hockey, I put the pressure on myself -- life or death -- because I felt like I needed to be that good every day. I think, maybe in a way, that’s why I played better at football because I came out with a hard-nosed attitude but not with that life-or-death approach. It’s still a game to me. I still enjoy it.”
Playing at Montana State: “There are so many memories from college. I had a blast and it couldn’t have worked out any better for me -- my hometown and all my teammates. On our bye weekend, I went home and hung out with the team back there. I feel like they are all my little brothers. They’re having a great year this year. I’m really proud of them all. We stay in touch. I talk to at least one of those guys every week and I still talk to my d-line coach every week.”
Football progression at Montana State: “I started off at linebacker a little bit and then they moved me to d-end. I found my little niche in the system, somewhere I could make a good position for myself. It worked out real well. As a sophomore, I came in as a starter and went from there.”
Top game that stands out from college: “One is the game I tore my ACL. The game before that, I played really well as a sophomore against Texas A&M and that sort of opened everybody’s eyes. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Entering the NFL as a rookie free agent: “I was thinking I might have a chance of getting drafted, but if I didn’t, I would come in with even more of a chip on my shoulder and earn a position. I feel like at almost any age level, I had to come in with a chip on my shoulder and earn a position at whatever I do, whether it’s hockey, football or baseball. That was the deal in high school too. I didn’t really play until my senior year because I was a smaller guy. Same with college. Too small as a freshman to play. Here I’m back to step one – undersized again, I guess. Now I’m just trying to prove myself.”
Why he chose to sign with New England: “Mainly, the fit for me, and the opportunity I could have. I really like the program as a whole. I talked to the scouts here and there, which was like any other team, and a lot of other teams tried to detour me from here, I guess. They said I could make more money somewhere else, with taxes and stuff. But it never really came down to money. That’s not really what I’m interested in. It’s the love of the game and I felt this was my best opportunity to make a team.”
Playing in his first NFL game: “I’m sure it’s crazy for anybody, playing in their first regular-season game. It was almost surreal. A Monday night game. Playing against Miami in Miami. But once the ball is kicked and the game starts, it’s just football. It’s just backyard football, like being in fifth grade again, on any field.”
Growing up in Bozeman: “I grew up on a farm. My parents own a restaurant and a bar. They were big on if I wasn’t playing sports that I would be working somewhere. I worked masonry. I had gotten cut from my baseball team my freshman year of high school. I was pretty upset by that. My parents said I had to get a job and it was masonry that summer. I worked 12-hour days out in the sun. That was probably the best thing that happened to me, because I learned that the real world is harsh and I had to stay in sports as long as I can. I still remind myself about how hard that is. This isn’t that tough compared to what some people do.”