The winding career of Ryan Fitzpatrick looked to trail off after the 2013 season. He’d just wrapped up a season with the Tennessee Titans a year after being cut from the Buffalo Bills. He began questioning the longevity of his career as he drove back to Nashville, from his home in Gilbert, Arizona.
Nick Hale, one of Fitzpatrick’s former high school football teammates, was along for the ride and asked his longtime friend if he would be happy with his NFL career if he never played another game.
“Yeah. Absolutely I’d be happy with my career,” Fitzpatrick told Hale. “When I got drafted, I just wanted a jersey. Once they gave me the jerseys, like, I was just hoping that they kept me on the team.
“I could probably move my family one more time,” he continued. “I’ll probably retire after that.”
That moment is currently only the halfway mark in Fitzpatrick’s surprising NFL career. He has since played one season with the Houston Texans, two fiery seasons with the New York Jets, two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and now heads into his second year with the Miami Dolphins.
“I definitely thought that was probably closer to the tail end of my career than the midpoint,” Fitzpatrick says now. “But it’s worked out well.”
Fitzpatrick knows the 2020 season will be different. The Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa in the first round, and Fitzpatrick has already called the young quarterback to offer his intellect. With all that experience, all that knowledge built up over his career, Fitzpatrick doesn’t want it to go to waste. He wants the young QBs in Miami to learn the good and bad from him.
“I’ve made enough mistakes for all of them combined in their careers,” Fitzpatrick says. “I’d love for them to learn from me rather than to go out and make the same mistakes.”
An uncertain future
Fitzpatrick was never the biggest, never the fastest or never the most powerful player on the field. His drive, however, has kept him in the league. And that mentality helped him navigate an uncertain career and kept him in the NFL for much longer than anyone expected.
“My career has been so different than most guys,” Fitzpatrick says now, looking back on his pro football journey that began in 2005. “I’ve kind of bounced around and always, one way or another, ended up in the starting lineup. So I would say my career has been very unique.”
Fitzpatrick knows Tagovailoa is waiting in the wings to start once he’s healthy, and that breeds a new level of uncertainty. He doesn’t know what the 2020 season will bring, nor does he know what will happen afterward. The only thing he knows is he doesn’t want to stop playing yet.
“I love playing football. I love being around the guys and the competitiveness of it,” he says. "So that is a long-winded way of saying I still don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Fighting to the top
Perseverance epitomizes Fitzpatrick’s career. He battled to take the starting job in high school, pushed himself to the top of Harvard’s depth chart and went from a backup to starter at every stop in his NFL career.
A lot of that mentality, Fitzpatrick says, comes from his childhood in a household of four boys. Everything was a competition — sports in the backyard, throwing rocks at mailboxes, eating at the dinner table. Nothing was handed to him. If he didn’t work hard, he couldn’t win.
He used that to conquer his first obstacle as a junior at Highland High School in his hometown of Gilbert, Arizona, where he had to beat out a bigger, stronger-armed quarterback from Utah named Trey Warner. Even though Warner looked like the better prospect on paper, Highland head coach Mike Reardon gave Fitzpatrick a chance to start by flipping a coin before the first game of the season. Each player would play a half before Reardon picked a full-time starter.
Fitzpatrick told Reardon he’d play the first half after winning a coin toss, and he proved almost immediately he was the young man for the job. He threw a touchdown on the first play of the game and led Highland to a 14-point lead at halftime. Reardon said he knew Fitzpatrick would be Highland’s season-long starter soon after Warner entered the game.
“It was always ingrained in me to outwork the next guy,” Fitzpatrick says. “And that was one of the first moments probably for me where that was what I needed to do and wanted to do.”
The nickname “FitzMagic” may have been born in Buffalo, but his high school teammates and coaches argue it began in Gilbert. Reardon watched Fitzpatrick “turn chicken [expletive] into chicken salad” with wild throws and epic comebacks at Highland. One time, as Reardon recalls, Fitzpatrick rolled to the outside hashmark on the right side of the field in a game against Highland’s biggest rival, Hamilton, and threw a 25-yard pass to the opposite hashmark for a first down.
“I was standing next to my defensive coordinator,” Reardon says, “and we just took a look at each other and went, ‘Holy [expletive]. That was an NFL pass.’ ”
Some of it is innate competitiveness that Fitzpatrick continues to attribute to his upbringing, but it’s also his calming demeanor in the face of adversity, something that gets lost when defining his football career. He pulled off the “greatest comeback in Harvard football history,” according to Harvard head coach Tim Murphy, as a senior against Brown.
Fitzpatrick didn’t think the Crimson were losing even when Harvard trailed Brown by 21 points in the second game of the 2004 season. He came out in the second half, led four consecutive scoring drives and won a wild 35-34 game that ignited a 10-0 season.
From seventh-round pick to NFL starter
That identity carried into the NFL quickly, too. The Rams thrust Fitzpatrick into a Week 12 game against the Texans seven months after taking him 250th overall in the NFL draft. Fitzpatrick walked into a huddle after the Rams’ first two quarterbacks were injured and delivered an electric debut. The Rams scored 30 points after halftime behind Fitzpatrick, including a 56-yard winning touchdown pass to Kevin Curtis in overtime.
“That’s when you knew he could play in the league and was going to last,” says Steve Fairchild, the Rams’ offensive coordinator from 2003-05.
Fitzpatrick’s career waned almost as quickly as it waxed — he played two more games over the next two seasons — but he came into his own when he signed with the Bills in 2009. He took the starting job for good in 2010, where the legend of “FitzMagic” rose to prominence. Fitzpatrick signed a six-year, $59 million contract extension midway through the 2011 season after leading the Bills to a 4-2 start that included a wild five-touchdown-drive second half against the Oakland Raiders and an epic comeback to break a 15-game losing streak against the New England Patriots.
The lows of an NFL career hit as quickly as the highs. After a couple of bad Fitzpatrick performances led to a second consecutive 6-10 season, the Bills cut him. It was hard to leave Buffalo after four seasons — Fitzpatrick says it truly felt like home for him — and uproot his family again, but the strength of his family fueled his longevity.
He met his wife, Liza, at Harvard, asked her to marry him in a McDonald’s parking lot and now raises seven children with her — all of whom were born in a different city. Moving so many times is hard, he says, but Liza always saw every new city, new house, new community as an adventure for their family.
“I would never, ever trade it for anybody else’s career,” Fitzpatrick says, “I have enjoyed every single step of the journey that I’ve been on.”
Fitzpatrick’s career didn’t spark again until the Jets traded for him in 2015 to back up Geno Smith. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall had massive reservations about Fitzpatrick and worried the Jets would be terrible if they had to play Fitzpatrick over Smith.
“He looked so bad, it was unbelievable,” Marshall says. “I remember looking at him like, ‘Why’s this guy in the NFL? We are in trouble if Geno goes down.’ ”
But when defensive end IK Enemkpali punched Smith in the jaw in the locker room, Fitzpatrick once again became a starter in one of the strangest ascents of all time.
“Everyone in organization’s like, ‘Our season’s over,’ ” Marshall says, recalling the incident.
Fitzpatrick says he hated the way he earned the job but knew he needed to make the most of the opportunity to prolong his career. Behind Fitzpatrick’s leadership, the Jets finished 10-6 that season and were a whisper away from the playoffs.
“From the very first words he spoke as our starter when he stepped in the huddle, it was confidence,” Marshall says. “It was, ‘Guys, we're going to be OK, we're going to be more than OK.’ And the chemistry immediately started to form.”
‘I love roller coasters’
Fitzpatrick’s time with the Jets ended poorly — a lengthy contract holdout in 2016 ruined the offseason chemistry for the offense, according to Marshall — and New York didn’t re-sign Fitzpatrick after a 5-11 season. But much like he always did, Fitzpatrick rebounded once more with the Buccaneers.
In his second season in Tampa Bay, he put up three consecutive 400-yard passing games and touted one of the best postgame outfits in recent memory when he wore DeSean Jackson’s clothes to the podium.
“Just another loop in the roller coaster, you know?” Fitzpatrick says. “But I love roller coasters. They’re a lot more fun when they’re not just straight ahead — when they've got speed and some dips and some loops.”
Fitzpatrick never played the role of franchise quarterback so far in his career. And at 37 years old, he knows the mentor role starts now with Tagovailoa. But Fitzpatrick’s career still has few moments of glory left in his 16th season.
“Who knows, you know?” Fitzpatrick says. “Who knows?”
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