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

heartbeat.

”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

now.

”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

going on.”

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

jobs.

”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

work.

”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

passengers.

”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.”