NEW YORK – Keith Fitzhugh’s phone rang off the hook around this time a year ago.
There were calls from Jay Leno’s people, reporters from CNN, ABC and too many others to keep track of. They all wanted the defensive back to tell them his story, how he made the curious choice of turning down the New York Jets to stay at his job on the railroad.
“Last year,” Fitzhugh said with a big laugh, “was extremely, extremely different.”
No kidding. He became a national celebrity for a decision he maintained “was just the right thing to do.” Whether people understood it or not, Fitzhugh has never had regrets.
“It’s not the end of the world if you don’t succeed in your first goal, which might be to be a professional athlete,” he told the Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Pittsburgh. “There’s still lots of opportunities to say you’ve succeeded at life.”
When safety Jim Leonhard went down for the season last December with an injury, the Jets contacted Fitzhugh to see if he’d be interested in joining the team, likely for its practice squad as New York made a playoff push. After thinking long and hard, Fitzhugh declined the invitation in favor of keeping his job at Norfolk Southern Railroad in Atlanta and caring for his parents.
Many praised him for a decision that some couldn’t fathom. Who could possibly turn down a chance at the NFL?
“I can smile about it now, because it really was the right decision,” he said. “Some people, they thought it was the wrong decision, but in my heart, I always knew it was the right one. You just don’t know what’s going to happen ever.”
Fitzhugh, a former Mississippi State standout, had spent a few camps with the Jets and coach Rex Ryan liked what he saw. Fitzhugh appreciated all that, but he wanted to stay on track financially and make sure his parents, Keith Sr. and Meltonia, were OK. It landed him a spot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and his story was all over the place.
Plenty has happened in the year since. The 25-year-old Fitzhugh earned a nice promotion to a management role at Norfolk Southern, relocated to Pittsburgh and married his college sweetheart, Jessica, on Thanksgiving. But, he also had to say goodbye to his father, who died of a heart attack in late October.
“It was really tough because I didn’t expect it all,” Fitzhugh said. “There’s not one day now that I look back – and everyone can say what they want to say about the choice I made – because I’m very thankful I had the opportunity for those 10 months to be with my dad. Really, that was priceless.
“No Super Bowl ring or anything else could compare to that.”