Minkah Fitzpatrick: It Just Matters More
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Minkah Fitzpatrick has always been a little different than his peers. Different in ways that aren’t easily detectable by the naked eye. Unique in aspects that have benefitted him throughout every stage of his young life.
Oh, Fitzpatrick is an elite athlete, which became evident to his family at a very early age. But his unbridled success—on and off grass—has had more to do with his overall makeup and intangibles than any number that’s gauged by a stopwatch or a measuring tape. Fitzpatrick is a deep thinker, a renaissance man of sorts. Combine his acumen and heart with the athleticism of a next-level DB and you’ve got the ingredients of the 23rd recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award.
It could be argued that there are two distinct Minkahs. On Saturdays in Tuscaloosa, Fitzpatrick has been a flashy playmaker out of the Alabama secondary for the past three seasons. He is artistic in his movement and influential with his play. The New Jersey native is a bona fide star on the most decorated and dominant defense in all of college football. Out of pads and minus a helmet, though, he’s decidedly more subdued, even shrinking from a spotlight better suited for a more gregarious teammate. Fitzpatrick is a big man on campus. Just don’t try to suggest it to him.
“Minkah does not seek the spotlight,” offers his mom, Melissa Fitzpatrick. “He’s generally shy and reserved, but a relaxed and calming effect comes over him whenever he steps onto the field. From my perspective, Minkah is just a really good son who’s been determined to reach his goals at all times. Plus, his faith is deeply rooted, which has always given me comfort as a parent.”
Alabama is the premier program in college football, winners of five national championships over the last nine years. The poorly kept secret to head coach Nick Saban’s unparalleled decade-long success? He mines the nation for a certain type of blue-chipper who nuances top-tier ability with the drive and the character to excel on a campus that perennially expects titles. The Crimson Tide dynasty has been built on players like Fitzpatrick, a microcosm of Saban’s ideal student-athlete.
Fitzpatrick is disciplined, conscientious and ultra-competitive. He sweats the small details in the perpetual pursuit of his version of perfection. He understands the importance of preparation, from the practice field to the film room and gym room. He’s very serious about football. Sound familiar?
“Minkah is the ultimate teammate,” gushes Alabama teammate Damien Harris. “There just aren’t enough things you can say about his work ethic and the positivity he brings to every aspect of a program. When a situation gets harder, he gets better. It fuels him. You know, Minkah is going to be a great NFL player, and yet football could be the least successful thing he does in life. He’s that special.”
Fitzpatrick is an unequivocal extension of his coach. In many ways, he’s a Saban protégé and an all-time favorite of the legendary coach. The two share a special player-coach connection, a mutual respect and appreciation that requires no spoken words or public platitudes. They simply get one another, despite the multiple generations separating them. So tight are the pair that teammates refer to Fitzpatrick as “Saban’s son” for his knack for loosening up the famously stoic head coach.
“Coach Saban was so organized and so disciplined during the recruiting process,” states Mrs. Fitzpatrick. “But Minkah actually likes that environment of thoroughness, consistency and stability. He’s most comfortable in that kind of situation, so Alabama and Coach Saban made perfect sense to him three years ago.”
Fitzpatrick’s dedication and work ethic bears fruit on Saturdays and will continue to do so on Sundays now that he’s declared for the upcoming NFL Draft. Among defensive backs, he’s a unicorn. If he were a chess piece, he’d be the queen for his ability to impact the game in so many places and in so many different directions. In a game that covets versatility, few DBs can do so many things so well from the back end of a defense.
Where is Fitzpatrick most impactful for a D? It all depends on where he’s needed most. He can play high safety or cover a receiver in the slot with equal effectiveness. His resume includes stints at corner and nickel, and he’s even played some linebacker for the Tide. There are no limits to Fitzpatrick’s roles, another nod to his acumen, high football character and intense preparation.
“Minkah conducts himself like a coach,” adds Harris, with an unmistakable tone of reverence. “He was our defensive signal-caller, and his football IQ is so incredibly high. He understands coverages at such a deep level that it allows him to process information in an instant. Often times, right after we’d won a game, Minkah would already be reviewing our next opponent. I mean, how many players are doing that?”
What NFL scouts are learning about Fitzpatrick today, Bama fans have been witnessing for the past three autumns. As a run defender, he plays with a downhill frame of mind and the physicality that’s been customary under Saban over the last decade. He welcomes contact and is especially dangerous on the blitz. Against the pass, Fitzpatrick is smooth and instinctive, with the range of a centerfielder. He has quick feet, sinks his hips well and has great awareness in zone coverage. And as a playmaker, No. 29 is like having another offensive skill player on the field.
Fitzpatrick’s ball skills are impeccable. And when he gets the ball in his hands, he immediately morphs into a wide receiver or a punt returner. During his career, he picked off nine throws, returning a school-record four back for touchdowns. Bama has become synonymous with N.O.Ts (non-offensive touchdowns) in recent years, and Fitzpatrick has been the headliner of the unconventional scoring brigade in Tuscaloosa.
As a five-day old, a newborn Minkah Fitzpatrick took his first trip, ironically enough to Alabama, to visit with adoring members of his dad’s family. Two decades later, he left the state as one of the most decorated defensive backs in Tide history. Twice a national champion and twice an All-American, including in 2017, he might best be known as the living embodiment of Saban’s blueprint for excellence and Bama’s remarkable run to college football’s mountaintop.
Fitzpatrick will be missed at Alabama, by teammates, fans and the coaching staff. Young adults of his stature are exceptional, so the void will be noticed. But rest assured that wherever Fitzpatrick travels from here, he’ll continue to be inspirational, impactful and uncommonly contemplative in his approach to life.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.
Winner: CHUCK BEDNARIK AWARD – University of Alabama