It was the day before the NFL draft last April and several of the future rookies gathered in a Dallas hotel for some interviews with reporters. Each got assigned to sit in a small room as cameras filed in and out. Derrius Guice snapped on some gum and spoke eagerly about “Fortnite.” Derwin James sat up straight and confidently explained how he’s the best athletic talent every time he takes the field. Then there was a lanky defensive back who didn’t say a lot.
“This will change my life,” Minkah Fitzpatrick said softly, “and change my family’s life.”
The launch to the life of a multi-millionaire – especially in a place like Miami – is hard for anyone to comprehend. It was especially drastic for Fitzpatrick, the first-round Miami Dolphin who spent lunch hour as a high schooler in the “peanut butter room,” the place designated for students who couldn’t afford their own meal. Fitzpatrick ate PB&J, which was prepared by school staff.
But that journey from struggle to riches is not really what Fitzpatrick wants to talk about. Rather he would like to describe the journey of his family, from a grandfather who was Muslim to a father who found Christianity to a son who has Hebrew tattooed on his fingers. That’s the path he embraces. An athlete’s faith doesn’t always get a lot of attention, for a variety of reasons. In the case of Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose name means “Justice,” you may not know his name without that faith.
Fitzpatrick can rattle off his favorite Bible passages: Hebrews 12:1, Romans 12:2, Micah 7:8. He lingers on the last one: “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” He explains: “There’s been times in my life when I had to do that. It speaks to me and applies to me.”
It was 2011 and he was a freshman in high school in Old Bridge, New Jersey. The force of Hurricane Irene pushed waters into his home. An electrical panel blew. He and his family had to sit in darkness. The house would be condemned. They would be homeless. Minkah, who slept on the bottom floor, lost all his clothes.
He says he found deeper understanding of faith only a few years before that, when he was about 11. His father, also named Minkah, wasn’t from a Christian household; he was raised Muslim. He wasn’t deeply observant but he refrained from eating pork and still does to this day. Meanwhile Minkah’s mother, Melissa, was raised Catholic. He says she nearly lost her own life giving birth to him.
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There were more trials. Melissa says she and Minkah Sr. were thrown out of their first apartment for their race. (They are an interracial couple.) That’s what pushed them to value home ownership, but even that would have unforeseen downsides.
Even before the storm hit in August 2011, Minkah Sr. was laid off from his job as a truck mechanic. So in a matter of months he had no job and no livable house. He took on multiple jobs so he could make ends meet. Minkah had immense football talent, but he seriously considered leaving his private school anyway. He borrowed clothes from St. Peter’s Prep’s lost and found, and spent evenings helping his dad with construction, rebuilding his house and life. Training would never seem so arduous after that.
“You see in a time like that what the foundation is, and how everything is the foundation,” he says. “Everything else can be gone in a second.”
He had his foundation and he took it with him to college, aware of what is staying and what is fleeting. Toward the end of his career at Alabama, right before last Christmas, he got his four siblings’ names tattooed on his fingers in Hebrew. He explains that is the language of the Old Testament, and a nod to Jerusalem, which is somewhere he has always wanted to visit. The history of his family and faith is right there, not as much for others to see, but for him to see.
When he was asked back in April what he loves most about football, Fitzpatrick said, “The platform it presents to influence people. When you have that platform, that stage, you have the responsibility to use it the right way. If people are struggling with certain things, I want to be that person they can look up to and say he got through something in his life, and so can I.”
As a rookie he has been better than solid, tops at his position in opposing passer rating (56.2) among first-year players, according to Pro Football Focus. He has played everywhere from free safety to the defensive line. He even played corner against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, despite little experience there, and allowed only one catch on three targets. His first career interception came against Tom Brady, the quarterback he’ll face again on Sunday when the New England Patriots visit Miami.
The temptations of fame and fortune? The lure of South Beach? He sees it. It’s easy to say none of that really appeals to him. But Fitzpatrick has been a mini-celebrity since his first days at Alabama.
“A lot of distractions, a lot of temptations can throw you off your course,” he says. “The path in front is the most important path. Anything that tries to pull you off that path is not necessary.”
The path for his family this Christmas is easy: his parents live in South Florida now. They will celebrate at home and at church; the same as always.
Back in that hotel in April, he said being drafted would “change my life and change my family.”
But the change happened long before.
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