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Family over football
NEW JERSEY — Tuesday afternoon, Jets director of pro personnel Brendan Prophett phoned Keith Fitzhugh.
The team needed a safety, with Jim Leonhard lost for the season and James Ihedigbo injured in Monday night’s 45-3 loss at New England.
Fitzhugh would have been a good fit. He was an undrafted rookie in 2009, and knew the system from three stints with the Jets. But the 24-year-old did something few would do: He respectfully turned down the NFL, and a team in good position for a postseason bid.
“I know I haven’t won a Super Bowl; it would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Fitzhugh said by phone from Georgia Tuesday. “But you only get one mom and one dad. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
“I’d rather be there for my mom and dad than go for a Super Bowl chance.”
Fitzhugh has a stable job, with health benefits, as a conductor with Norfolk Southern railroad outside Atlanta. Work involves trips to Chattanooga, Tenn., and back, building trains in the yard or being on call through the night.
It’s important for him to have a steady stream of income — more often than not elusive in the NFL — because his father is disabled and cannot work. Keith Fitzhugh, Sr., has had hip replacements and bad knees, and struggles to walk. He has been unable to work since his son left to play football at Mississippi State.
Fitzhugh lives at home and helps support a family that is not big, but very close-knit, particularly since losing his younger sister, Brittany, to the West Nile Virus five years ago.
She was bitten by a mosquito when she was 11, and her condition slowly deteriorated as if she had multiple sclerosis: she began losing her vision and hair, developed lesions on the back of her brain and burst blood through her neck.
She passed away at age 14, the day before Fitzhugh played his first spring game at Mississippi State. “That’s why I’m so strong about being around family now,” Fitzhugh said.
“Life is short, and you never know what will happen. When I went through the period of time being unemployed, my family was there for me. I didn’t want to take a risk and lose everything again, especially when I have a great job like I do now.”
Fitzhugh told the Jets he was very thankful for the opportunity they extended. But to him, the risk was too great: he might only be on the roster for a couple of weeks, or even less, and as a result would give up the railroad job that can offer him long-term employment.
He knows well the uncertainty of professional football, calling the unemployment between stints with teams “lonely.” He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jets in May 2009, was waived in August and added to the practice squad in September.
In December of that year, he was signed to the Ravens’ active roster and spent the playoffs with them. Baltimore withdrew its tender offer to him this past spring, and he was unemployed until the Jets signed him during training camp. He was waived 11 days later.
That’s when he began working for Norfolk Southern.
Choosing to keep the steady job was a mature decision his mother, Meltonia Fitzhugh, left up to him but was moved by when he told her what he had done. She works as an office supervisor for a division of Nippon Express, a freight forwarder.
“He’s always been that kind of a kid,” said Meltonia Fitzhugh said. “If you would ever know him and were to meet him, he is that kind of kid. He tries to help everybody.
“It wouldn’t be just for me, he would do it for anybody. I take it as a blessing.”
Fitzhugh did not want to rule out ever playing in the NFL again. This opportunity didn’t make sense for him, and the Jets will look elsewhere, possibly at Emanuel Cook or Don Warren, who were in camp with them this year.
But Fitzhugh didn’t want to speak in absolutes.
He keeps in shape, citing Norfolk Southern’s wellness program for employees. Climbing up and down train cars is a workout, he said, and when he can’t get to a gym while traveling for work, he’ll do 100 push-ups and sit-ups or walk a few miles.
He started playing football when he was 8, and the NFL was a childhood dream. But he also says that he was like many young boys who love trains and hope one day to ride them.
In that sense, Meltonia Fitzhugh said, he has lived out both of his dreams. “The kid has more heart than anybody I know,” said Daniel Rose, his agent. “I don’t think this is the last you’ve heard of Keith Fitzhugh.”