Lockout has Fitzhugh content with career switch
Some people called Keith Fitzhugh crazy. Others praised him for
his admirable decision.
Turning down the Jets for trains? Yep, and he’d do it again in a
”I’m so happy,” the free-agent defensive back recently told
The Associated Press from his home in Atlanta. ”It turned out just
right for me.”
It sure did, especially with NFL players locked out and in a
bitter labor dispute with the owners. He has a secure job and a
steady income, things he might not have if he had put his football
dreams ahead of taking care of his parents.
Fitzhugh gained national attention last December when he
declined an offer to join the New York Jets to remain a conductor
with Norfolk Southern Railroad and stay on track financially. His
parents needed him, he said, and he couldn’t let them down. The
decision landed the 24-year-old former Mississippi State star a
guest spot on ”The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and national
television interviews with ABC and CNN, among several others.
”It was really a blessing because when I played football and
was giving it my all, I never got the opportunity to do the things
I got to do when I was just trying to do the right thing,” he
said. ”Never. Not one time. Going out to L.A., going on Jay Leno
and going on all these major networks, I feel like I was the
hottest non-football-playing football player in the world.”
And, he was. Not that he couldn’t play, though. Fitzhugh simply
chose not to.
”I really didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal, to
be honest,” he said. ”It kind of blew me away.”
Fitzhugh ponders what would have happened if he had left the job
with Norfolk Southern, and knows his decision appears awfully smart
”I have a lot of buddies out there and they’re ready to go back
out and play,” he said. ”In a way, I could be like, ‘Ha!’ and be
laughing at them, but these are my buddies and what if the shoes
were on the other foot? What if I had went and the Jets signed me?
I would’ve been sitting around and wouldn’t have known what was
Not only that, but get this: Some of his friends in the NFL have
even asked him during the lockout if he might be able to get them
”They’re like, ‘Hey, Keith, if this doesn’t work out for me
…’ and I just tell them, ‘Just go ahead and apply, just like I
did,”’ he said. ”No big-name guys, but guys who are straddling
that line like I was. When they hear about what I do, it’s kind of
exciting to them, too, because you turn into a kid all over again.
You’re riding a train that has 4,000 or 5,000 horsepower and you
really can get into the thrill of it. It’s a fun job, man.”
But, he acknowledges, so is football. That’s what made his
choice so difficult.
Jets coach Rex Ryan wanted Fitzhugh to help with New York’s
banged-up secondary, likely on the practice squad, after safety Jim
Leonhard broke a leg and backup James Ihedigbo sprained an ankle.
The Jets also called defensive back Emanuel Cook with the idea that
he and Fitzhugh, both of whom had spent time with the team in
previous camps, could compete for a spot on the active roster.
Cook said yes, and joined the team. Fitzhugh declined, and was
back on the railroad.
”It was really tough,” Fitzhugh said. ”I can tell you this, I
really teared up and cried because I wanted to go and do it, but I
thought, ‘Keith, this might not be your best decision to go out
there and leave this job you already have.”’
Fitzhugh spoke to Ryan a few weeks later and explained his
decision, telling him he couldn’t just leave the security of a
full-time job, not when he needed to help take care of his mother,
Meltonia, and his father, Keith Sr., who’s disabled and can’t
”He said, ‘Hey kid, I’m proud of you,”’ Fitzhugh recalled Ryan
telling him. ”He understood.”
Not that it was easy watching the Jets advance to the AFC
championship game as the ‘what-ifs’ crept in.
”I was sitting there just shaking my head,” he said. ”At the
same time, I was thinking deep inside, ‘You know what, Keith? You
made the best decision for you and your family and who says you
would’ve been there with them anyway?’ That’s what I had to keep
telling myself, that there wasn’t anything guaranteed.”
Fitzhugh has been working at Norfolk Southern since last
September and has become a full conductor, often working on the
main line from Atlanta to Chattanooga and delivering freight – not
”A lot of people think you just give tickets out and collect
them from people,” he said. ”It’s not like that at all. I’m
learning that 80 percent of everything we touch everyday, it comes
off the railroad tracks because everything is shipped.”
Fitzhugh always dreamed of two things as a kid: football and
trains. And, he hasn’t completely shut the door on the NFL.
Fitzhugh said he has spoken to officials at Norfolk Southern, who
have told him they could give him a leave of absence if a similar
situation came up again.
”I’m still young and I keep my body in shape,” he said. ”I
don’t know if the opportunity will ever come with this lockout, but
I can’t say yay or nay. You never know who might call me and give
me an opportunity.”
In the meantime, he’ll just keep working on the railroad – and
doing what he always believed was the right thing.
”A lot of people might say, ‘Oh, he’s had his 15 minutes of
fame and he’s a one-hit wonder,”’ Fitzhugh said. ”Yeah, cool, but
that’s not a slap in the face to me. It was a blessing and happened
to fall this way, the right way.”