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This offseason we will count down various topics from Monday through Friday, bringing you the top five of the important and definitely some not so important issues in college football. It's the Doc Five, every week until we will thankfully have actual games to discuss.
GREATEST COLLEGE PLAYERS WITH QUIETEST NFL CAREERS
NO. 5, PAT FITZGERALD
Sometimes a player's college legacy is defined by what he does, or doesn't do, in the NFL.
It isn't fair. A college great's exploits shouldn't be flushed because of a poor NFL career. In many ways college football and the NFL are two different games. That's why there are so many candidates for this Doc Five, which we're culling from 1980 on (We won't consider those who chose to pass on pro football – no Charlie Ward here – but those with the biggest gaps between college stardom and NFL success). There are way too many examples from generations ago to pare down to a list of five. It wasn't too uncommon many years ago for a player to turn down the NFL for a military career, some other career field or another football league. Four of the first five Heisman winners never played a down in the NFL.
But over the past three decades or so, the lack of a pro career has changed the perception of some college players who deserve better. Like Pat Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald is a memorable name in recent college football history because of the astounding success Northwestern had when he was its middle linebacker, but over the years he's probably become a little underrated. The Bronko Nagurski Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award were each established in the early 1990s to go to the defensive player of the year in college football. The only two-time winner of the Nagurski Award is Pat Fitzgerald. The only two-time winners of the Bednarik Award are Paul Posluszny and ... Pat Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was a great college player, one of the most decorated defensive players of of the past 20 years and a College Football Hall of Fame inductee. He also never played a down in the NFL.
Fitzgerald was signed by the Dallas Cowboys and cut before his rookie season started. He worked out for the New Orleans Saints, and then-coach Mike Ditka got him started on the coaching path. Here's how Fitzgerald explained the exchange to ThePigskinProject.com:
"I know I ran poorly, and Coach Ditka was here with the Bears when we had our run and all that stuff," Fitzgerald told the site,"and he put his arm around me and said 'I know you had a great career at Northwestern, but I think it might be time you want to think about using that degree.' And that statement resonated with me, I mean here’s somebody I had the utmost respect for, I thought 'Maybe he’s right.'
"So I came back home, I came up and saw Coach Barnett, and we sat down, and I said, 'I just got a sour taste in my mouth right now, and I kind of feel like I’m beating my head against a wall. I’m a great football player, I’m not a great athlete, I had my shot, it didn’t work, I got cut right there at the end, and I’ve got this taste in my mouth from football that I just don’t like.'"
We all know this wasn't a sad ending. Fitzgerald eventually came back to Northwestern as head coach and has built the Wildcats into a very solid program.
Back in the day, he was also one of the few players in college football history to win major awards in back-to-back years. Think of all the great defensive players in college football over the last 20 years – none of them can match Fitzgerald's accomplishment of consecutive Nagurski Awards.
Fitzgerald wasn't athletic enough to play linebacker in the NFL. That doesn't change that he was an all-time great college linebacker, even if his lack of a NFL career has obscured that a bit.