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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It Must Be A Really Nice Train

Running the option, Fitzhugh chooses railroad over NFL By ajc.com

Keith Fitzhugh pulled a misdirection play rarely seen in the NFL.
Former New York Jets player 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.
Bill Kostroun, AP Former New York Jets player 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.

On Tuesday, the New York Jets, after losing two safeties to injury in four days, called the former Lovejoy High School and Mississippi State standout and told him they needed him.

Contemplating the offer, Fitzhugh, 24, thought about the steady job he had landed three months ago, as a Norfolk Southern railroad conductor, a position he loves.

He thought about his family, about leaving behind his disabled father and hard-working mother.

He thought about the three times that NFL teams previously released him.

And Fitzhugh said no.

His decision ran contrary to what most out-of-work football players would have done.

"Normally in two hours they're on their way," said Daniel Rose, Fitzhugh's agent, of players offered an NFL reprieve. "The kids who aren't in the league right now will do anything. I've never heard of a story like this. He did what he had to do, and I'm proud of him."

Fitzhugh was given the option of taking a leave of absence from his railroad job and pursuing pro football again. For whatever reason, he still declined.

"It's an inspirational story, and we're very fortunate to have such a high-quality individual working for us," said Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern spokesman.

In May 2009, Fitzhugh was signed by the Jets as a free agent after playing for Mississippi State. The Jets cut him and signed him to their practice squad. He was signed by Baltimore as an active player in December, went with the Ravens to the playoffs and was cut in May. The Jets signed him during training camp and waived him 11 days later.

"It's tough when a team says they don't need you anymore," Fitzhugh said. "It's hard when all you know is football. It's a very stressful process. You get down on yourself. I've been through all that. Next year there might be a lockout and who knows how long that's going to be? I'd rather stay with a pretty secure job."
Each of his NFL paychecks would have been for $18,000, dwarfing his railroad salary, but Fitzhugh still wasn't willing to leave, or push aside, his new position.

"I have buddies with two degrees who can't find a job," he said.

Fitzugh's mother, Meltonia, an office supervisor for a freight forwarder, supported whatever decision he made.

"Everybody's been like, ‘You've got the greatest son,'" she said. "But he's always been that kind of kid. ... He just thinks it's his responsibility."

Fitzhugh lives in Lovejoy in the house he was raised. He's remains close to his parents and older brother, Toran. His father, Keith Fitzhugh Sr., has had hip replacements and struggles to get around. His sister, Brittany, died of West Nile virus when she was 14, the day before Fitzhugh played his first Mississippi State spring game.

"That's what really brought me and my family close together," Fitzhugh said of his sibling's death. "You just need to cherish the times you do have together."

While Fitzhugh thanked the Jets for providing another opportunity, he said his current job fulfilled another childhood dream.

"Just hearing the horns getting blown, how fast they were rolling, it always looked cool," Fitzhugh said of trains that rumbled along Tara Boulevard. "I was like, ‘Man, I want to get up there. I want to ride.'"

Fitzhugh is a trainee whose job involves switching cars, building trains in the yard and taking trips to Chattanooga and back. Norfolk Southern said he could be promoted to full conductor in nine to 12 months. He views the job as long-term.

"You can't play [football] when you're 40 or 50 or 60 years old," Fitzhugh said. "But you can get on a train and you can ride."

Fitzhugh won't be changing his mind any time soon, whether he wants to or not. After he turned them down, the Jets added safety Emanuel Cook to their roster.

Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.

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