A Very Unusual (But Refreshing) Choice

By my count there are only 1696 positions on NFL active rosters. That may sound like a lot but it isn’t. Not at all. Consider that there are roughly 12,000-14,000 Division 1 college football players every year. If you do the math, you can see that very, very few college football players make an NFL team.

I say all that to help you understand the remarkable decision made by Keith Fitzhugh. Keith played football at Mississippi State and although he wasn’t drafted by an NFL team he was signed by the N. Y. Jets. Over the course of the next several months he was cut by the Jets, picked up by the Baltimore Ravens, cut by the Ravens, resigned with the Jets only to be cut again.

Keith Fitzhugh was obviously on the bubble–right on the edge of being good enough to make a team. Before you diminish his chances, remember that Kurt Warner was in the same position. He was signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent but wasn’t deemed good enough to make the team. After being cut by the Packers, Warner signed on with the Iowa Barnstormers in the Arena Football League. You probably know that Warner eventually signed with the St. Louis Rams, won a Superbowl, and was received countless awards including the being named the league MVP.

So although Keith Fitzhugh was struggling to make a team right out of college, that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t ever make it in the NFL. Maybe he’d be the next Kurt Warner. All this sets up the decision that Keith Fitzhugh had to make in the first week of December.

Jim Leonard, the Jets’ safety and “quarterback” of the defense, suffered a season ending injury in a practice leading up to the teams biggest game of the year–a Monday night match-up against their rival the New England Patriots. With very little time and fewer options the Jets called up Keith Fitzhugh, a guy they had cut twice, and asked him if he’d like to come back once more and play the last few games of the season.

If you were the 24 year old Fitzhugh who had dreamed for playing in the NFL and had come so close before, what would you do? Given the time crunch the team was in, they gave him 30 minutes to decide. When he called them back he said, “No thanks.”

It’s not that he wouldn’t have loved the chance to play again, it’s just that he felt that he couldn’t leave his parents. His dad is disabled and unable to work because of a leg injury and his mother doesn’t get around like she used to. It’s becoming more difficult for her to care for herself and her husband. After being released by the Jets in September, Fitzhugh had gotten a job with the Norfolk Southern Railroad and is on track to be becoming an engineer. Unlike the NFL, it offers a steady paycheck which he can use to help his family.

“I know the Jets have a great opportunity of making the Super Bowl, and that’s one dream that every child has is to play sports and make it to the Super Bowl or get to the World Series,” Fitzhugh told The Associated Press. “But, there’s a time when you have to think, ‘Hey, you’ve only got one mom and dad.’ They won’t be here forever, and while they’re here, you’ve got to cherish that time.”

Fitzhugh’s decision drew this response from Jets’ coach Rex Ryan…

“That’s one of the reasons why we wanted that kid. He’s a tough guy. He’s a guy with a lot of character. He’s just a really outstanding young man. The decision that he made was a tough one for him, but I admire his decision.”

When we debate whether athletes should be role models, the discussion usually focuses on the stars. Maybe we’d have better luck if we championed the stories of people like Keith Fitzhugh who set aside his own personal ambition to serve others.

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