Keith Fitzhugh chose operating trains over a shot at a Super Bowl.
The free-agent safety turned down an offer to join the New York Jets to remain a conductor with Norfolk Southern Railroad and stay on track financially while helping support his parents in Atlanta.
”I’ve got something now where I know every two weeks I’m getting a paycheck,” Fitzhugh told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday night. ”That’s what helps out the most right now. I don’t knock the Jets at all. I highly appreciate them.”
Jets coach Rex Ryan said the team was looking to sign a safety after Jim Leonhard was lost for the season last week with a broken shin and James Ihedigbo suffered a leg injury in New York’s 45-3 loss to New England on Monday night. New York has only two safeties – Eric Smith and Brodney Pool – listed on its roster.
The 24-year-old Fitzhugh, who had stints in camp with the Jets the past two years, was contacted by the team but declined New York’s offer to return.
”You don’t hear this too often and some people might think it’s not a good idea,” Fitzhugh said. ”Some people might think it is. I don’t know. I just have to look out for what’s best for me and my family.”
Fitzhugh’s decision was first reported by The Star-Ledger of Newark.
”To sacrifice what he did for his family is the most unselfish thing I’ve heard by a player in sports,” said Daniel Rose, Fitzhugh’s agent. ”It’s really impressive.”
Fitzhugh’s father, Keith Sr., is disabled and unable to work, while his mother, Meltonia, has been struggling to make ends meet.
”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 said. ”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 went undrafted after an outstanding career at Mississippi State and signed last year with the Jets as a free agent. He was later cut and signed to the practice squad before Baltimore signed him last December. He re-signed with the Jets in the offseason.
”I was released three times. That’s a lot,” he said. ”I just don’t want to give up what I have now and say that I’m there for a couple of weeks and then I’m released again. Then, what am I going to do? It’s really tough. It’s the nature of the business.”
Fitzhugh, who keeps in touch with a few former Jets teammates, has been working for Norfolk Southern Railroad for three months.
”I don’t want to let them down or run from them because I got a shot for a couple of weeks,” he said. ”I just feel that that’s not right at the moment. I’m looking more long-term in life right now than the short-term.”
Fitzhugh said he has been blessed to work with his two childhood passions: football and trains. He also keeps close watch on his former team, to see if he still recognizes the defensive schemes Ryan is running.
”It’s tough because I would love to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go out there and get it again,’ but it’s about a risk,” he said. ”Is it the end of my NFL career forever? I don’t know. This is what I need to do right now.”