Keith Fitzhugh was recently forced to relive his decision to reject the NFL to be a train conductor as his son, Keith Fitzhugh III, prepares to suit up for flag football. While the 34-year-old father of one knows he made the right decision to give up his NFL dreams, many fans still wonder why he gave up his chance when the Jets offered him a spot.
Keith Fitzhugh: Going Pro
Fitzhugh was an NFL prospect with dreams of going pro in 2009. He made it to Mississippi State after becoming an all-state cornerback at Lovejoy High School. He rejected offers from Notre Dame, USC, and Auburn. Instead, he hustled at Starkville for a chance at an NFL spot. It seemed a sure thing, too. He was a natural athlete and everyone on campus expected he’d be playing in sold-out stadiums pretty soon. Then, his name was notably absent during that year’s NFL Draft.
Keith Fitzhugh admitted that it was a depressing start to his career. He claimed he “worked from when I was 8 years old to almost 21 — 13 years of playing football,” to go pro. “That’s what I always dreamed to do. When my name wasn’t drafted, I was really hurt.”
That May, Fitzhugh was signed as a free agent for the Jets, though he was waived just three months later. In September, however, the Jets brought him back on their practice squad. There were twists, turns, and a whole lot of “ifs.” But Fitzhugh was determined to make it.
By December he had been moved to the Baltimore Ravens, getting shot to play real ball on their active roster. Though he went to the playoffs, it wasn’t the career-making journey he’d hoped. He didn’t play any snaps and by the following training camp, he was sent back over to the Jets. But it didn’t take long for them to waive him again.
“After the second time being cut from the Jets, that’s when I realized I had to look at my next step,” Fitzhugh explained of his choice to leave. “A lot of guys don’t have a backup plan. All they think about is football. I had to have a reality check with myself.”
He said: “I remember being in the house, being depressed, and my dad would pull me aside and say, ‘Son, you have to pick yourself up.’ I was sitting there depressed because that was all I knew. I had to say, ‘Hey, Keith, you need to go and be a man.’”
And that’s exactly what he did.
A New Path
Keith Fitzhugh decided to marry another passion: trains. According to the NFL prospect, trains were a huge part of his childhood. That love followed him into adulthood. He had a backup plan.
“Norfolk Southern used to run through the area I lived in, near McDonough, Georgia, and I used to see them all the time and I thought that looked like a really cool job,” Fitzhugh told reporters. “That was something I could see myself doing, driving — well, I didn’t know you drive it, but you operate it — a train. I would really want to do that. And that always stayed in my mind.”
While sounds of the NFL still blared in the background – the 2010 season had begun – Fitzhugh began his training as a train conductor for Norfolk Southern. He admitted that for him, that was his “Part 2.” He found a career that he loved and he could commit to long term. And one that could commit to him.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t more forks in the tracks. One’s Keith Fitzhugh would have to operate around.
While working as a train conductor for Norfolk Southern, Fitzhugh got the call he’d been wanting since he was 13 years old. He recalled that he had just gotten home from an overnight shift from Chattanooga, Tenn. His father tried to hand him the phone. “Son, I’ve got the Jets on the phone,” his father told him.
“I said, ‘Stop playing. I’m going to bed. I just had an overnight train ride. I’m going to lie down.’ And he said, ‘Son, I’m dead serious. The Jets are on the phone.’”
It seemed like all the roads had aligned. Jets safety Jim Leonhard had broken his leg. His backup, James Ihedigbo, sprained his ankle. The team had a 9-3 win record that season and were coming off an AFC title game appearance. The team needed a replacement. They wanted Fitzhugh.
But the decision was not cut and dry. The Jets prospect had a life, a career, and a family to support.
“They were excited, like, ‘Are you ready to come back on board?’” Fitzhugh explained. “And I was like, ‘Ahhh, I’m not coming back.’ And they were like, ‘Huh? What? What’s going on?’ I told them how my dad wasn’t doing so well and I had a great opportunity as a train conductor and I think it was best for me to spend time with my family and my dad and take this career path.”
Keith Fitzhugh had a different team to support. At the time, he was living with his parents, supporting them financially. His father had just had a hip and knee replacement and couldn’t work. Though the money would have been good – he could have made at least $20,000 a week with the NFL’s minimum salary – he knew nothing was long-term with the Jets. He’d experienced those ups and downs once before. He couldn’t take the risk.
“A lot of people didn’t know what was going on in my life,” Fitzhugh said of his decision. “And a lot of people don’t understand the dynamics of being in the NFL.” So instead of taking the risk, Fitzhugh made the rational, logical decision – to him at least. He decided to stick with his $32,000 per year job as a train conductor.
Fitzhugh’s agent, Daniel Rose, explained that his client “realized football was a business, and he [made sure he] didn’t get conned again. He was always a smart kid. He wasn’t gonna give up the railroad career with a company that treated him so well for a shot at a maybe.”
The Big Why
According to Keith Fitzhugh, “it was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life.” He admitted that “I’m very thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given and I still thank the Jets for calling me back to give me another chance. … But if I took that shot and got cut, who knows where I would be today?”
Ultimately, he decided that a stable career was the best thing for him and his family. His wife was shocked. His family was shocked. But everyone understood. He wanted to make sure his father, his family, and his future were taken care of.
“You don’t run across a lot of guys that got their future together when they’re 23, 24 years old,” former Jets cornerback Drew Coleman said. “He was a guy, football was important to him, but he knew he had a fallback plan. He was a guy who always knew, ‘I’m gonna play football as long as I can and give it everything I’ve got, but this is not gonna make or break my life.’ “
And for Fitzhugh, the most important thing was being home with his dad. “That year, being at home, I was able to spend it with my dad,” Fitzhugh admitted. “I couldn’t get back that time.”
A Decade Later
Now Keith Fitzhugh is reliving his journey through his son. His 6-year-old boy is training for flag football games and the NFL simultaneously. He once told his father that he would be a first-round draft pick. Fitzhugh hopes that’s true.
As for his career, “it’s been promotion after promotion. It’s been unbelievable,” according to his wife, Jessica. “It’s pretty much like validation that he made the right decision. The NFL is not the only way you can be successful.”
The family is now staying in Tampa, FL. Fitzhugh received another advancement with Road and Rail Services back in April. The train conductor has accepted his life and knows it was the best track towards the long-term success he wanted. And he’s doing something he’s passionate about while taking care of his family.
But does he ever dwell on the past? No, never.
“There was a little, ‘Oooh, I wish that was me out there,’ but I was still thankful for where I was,” Fitzhugh admitted. “I can’t tell you how much I’m very appreciative that I got the opportunity to do something that a lot of people in the world have never done, to play with the Jets and the Ravens and touch the field. I’m still thankful for that.” But he admitted that he was confident in his choice. And like with trains, there’s no going back.