Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick Has Nick Saban's Mind in an NFL Star's BodyNovember 2, 2017
When Minkah Fitzpatrick was in the ninth grade, long before he became the most versatile asset on the most imposing defense in college football, his high school coach began to worry about whether he'd make it much longer in this sport. It had nothing to do with a lack of talent, because Fitzpatrick was one of the best athletes to ever play for Rich Hansen in his nearly three decades as the head football coach at St. Peter's Preparatory School in New Jersey. Rather, Hansen wondered if Fitzpatrick, even as a 13-year-old, was so pathologically competitive that he didn't understand how to accept his own mistakes.
One weekend during a game in Boston, Fitzpatrick, playing cornerback, drew the assignment of guarding a star receiver who was nearly four years older than him. When Fitzpatrick got beat on the play, he fell into a frustrated rage. Hansen had to talk him down, tell him that part of being a defensive back was the ability to put his failures behind him immediately. Getting beat as a cornerback, Hansen told him, is simply part of the process, and mastering the process would require patience and perseverance. Fitzpatrick reminded Hansen of a kid who was so relentless that he'd tip over the pieces of a board game if he was losing.
This was nothing new for Fitzpatrick's parents, who were so accustomed to their son's meticulous nature that they got a little bit frustrated with Hansen at first for not understanding where their son was coming from. This was a kid who, when he was in the sixth grade, refused to join his Pop Warner teammates as they played in a pool at Disney World, where they were preparing for a national championship game.
"We shouldn't be doing this right now," he said. "We're going to be tired. We should be focusing on the game."
But by his freshman year in high school, something else was weighing on Fitzpatrick: He was dealing with his own guilt, born of the knowledge that his parents had taken extra jobs to pay for his private school tuition after Hurricane Sandy had destroyed his family's house just as his freshman year at St. Peter's was about to begin.
He was a brilliant talent in search of the right person who could channel his talent at the college level—someone who could understand and relate to his Fitzpatrick's own nearly impossible expectations for himself. When the recruiting letters began flooding in after his freshman year, he began speaking with dozens of coaches, including Alabama's Nick Saban, a former college defensive back himself who doesn't do much recruiting in New Jersey but made an exception for Fitzpatrick.
"You guys think so much alike," his parents told him.
"No, I don't," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm nothing like him."
It's become clear by now, midway through Fitzpatrick's junior season at Alabama, that he and Saban are spiritual cousins. Fitzpatrick is the intellectual soul of Saban's defense, the closest thing Saban has to a proxy on the field. Fitzpatrick can play every position in Alabama's defensive backfield, and he generally knows the complete mechanics of Saban's defense, whatever the formation.
Scouts are nearly unanimous that Fitzpatrick—barring any unforeseen issues at the combine—will almost certainly be picked somewhere near the top of the first round of the NFL draft next spring. NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah recently compared him to a bigger iteration of Arizona Cardinals cornerback Tyrann Mathieu—the difference being that, unlike Mathieu, who entered the league after being dismissed from the team at LSU, Fitzpatrick, a devout Christian, has an almost comically sterling reputation among his coaches and teammates. (The closest thing to a vice may be his desire to occasionally play the video game Grand Theft Auto.)
"I don't see any flaws in the guy," an NFL scout tells B/R. "He's probably a top-10 guy. He can play all the positions, he's aggressive, he's a student of the game and he's already acting like a professional athlete."
When Saban speaks of his own capital-p Process at Alabama, and the notion that preparation and work should be valued over outcome, he might as well be speaking of Fitzpatrick, who embodies that "process" as much—if not more—than anyone who's ever played for him. It may be why Fitzpatrick is even being talked of as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender.
"He's the kind of guy that's very easy to talk to," Saban says. "He's just a very easy guy to like. You like being around him. He's certainly one of those guys that make it fun to coach."
Fitzpatrick's teammates insist he's the only player on this year's team who can regularly break through his coach's famously hardened countenance, the only one who can get him to smile and laugh on a regular basis. And the irony is that Fitzpatrick makes his coach so joyful in large part because he shares Saban's utter lack of contentment with the status quo.
His teammates speak of him in near-reverent tones, claiming he works so relentlessly it makes them want to work harder. And whatever spare time he has, he often spends it watching film and studying. This summer, when his teammate and former roommate, running back Damien Harris, actively tried to keep up with him and be first in line during conditioning drills, Fitzpatrick often wound up ahead of him.
"I thought Derrick Henry (who won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama in 2015) was one of the hardest workers I've ever seen," Harris says. "And he is, but then I watched Minkah. To me, Minkah is the standard of this program."
When Hansen, Fitzpatrick's high school coach, wants his players to tap into their own self-motivation—when he wants them to focus on the day-to-day details that often get lost amid the drudgery of a football season—he asks them to Fitzpatrick-ize themselves, to emulate Fitzpatrick's near-monastic sense of focus.
"I just don't like clutter," Fitzpatrick says. "I like seeing the clear image of things. Even dealing with people. I don't mind being around a whole bunch of people, but when there's a whole bunch of nonsense going on around me, I need to see a sense of purpose around something. I don't want to be somewhere and not getting anything done."
It explains why Fitzpatrick rarely goes out to party, and why Hansen tells every pro scout who calls looking for Fitzpatrick's red flags the same thing: This kid doesn't have any red flags. Every little decision matters to him, and that's because he's seen how much his life can change in a single moment.
The moment Fitzpatrick realized Hurricane Sandy was no ordinary storm was when he woke up the day after, looked out at the backyard of his family's home in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and thought the pool had broken.
It was late October 2012, and Fitzpatrick had just begun his freshman year at St. Peter's. He and his family were waiting out Sandy, a hurricane turned superstorm, as it crept up the East Coast and into New Jersey, where it would flood the piers of the Jersey Shore and creep into the subway tunnels of New York City. There were trees and power lines down, but there hadn't been any major flooding, so when Fitzpatrick glanced outside at the above-ground pool, he thought it had merely sprung a leak. He told his mother, Melissa, and they went to check out. It turned out the pool was fine, but the Fitzpatricks' house was not. Water from a nearby river was pouring in from under a high fence in the backyard.
Minkah climbed the fence and saw the water level creeping up. Eventually, the fence broke, and the contents of that river—water, debris, snakes, even an otter—began flowing through. The fire department arrived soon after, and the Fitzpatricks were told to move everything they could from their basement upstairs. The foundation of the house had collapsed on one side, and it would soon be condemned. They stayed in a shelter for a week, and Fitzpatrick went to stay at Hansen's house for a couple of weeks while the rest of his family moved in to his grandmother's basement. Minkah soon joined them. He and his parents and his three sisters and one brother slept in one room on the mattresses they'd salvaged from the house. They had no flood insurance because nothing like this had ever happened in New Jersey before.
With a house to rebuild and Minkah's tuition to pay, the bills began to accumulate. Several times, they were late with their payments to St. Peter's, and Hansen helped work out arrangements with the school's administration. His father, a truck mechanic who is also an athletic trainer and had training as a plumber, took on every side job he could, while his mother took a job working in a newspaper distribution warehouse in the evenings.
It wasn't long after the storm that Fitzpatrick's parents considered taking Minkah out of St. Peter's and enrolling him in public school. There were more important things to worry about, his mother insisted, and Minkah wondered it, too—if he should get a job to help the family, if he was hurting them more than helping by staying at St. Peter's.
"It's very difficult, as a parent who tries to plan out everything for your children, to be in a situation where you have to ask for help," Melissa Fitzpatrick says. "It was actually embarrassing to accept help."
Eventually his parents, Fitzpatrick says, "saw the big picture" and refused to let him quit. Hansen insists that no matter how bad it got, he and the school were willing to find a way to accommodate them financially, but it was a years-long struggle for Fitzpatrick and his parents, and it ate at both their savings and their pride.
Other students at St. Peter's had homes damaged by Sandy, but "Minkah's situation was definitely the worst," Hansen says. So they developed a laborious routine in order to make it work: Every morning before school and the workday, Minkah Sr. would drop his son off at the Golden Bagels near the Shop Rite on Route 9 so Hansen could drive him to school. Once there, Minkah would spend his mornings and his lunch hour in what was known as the "peanut butter room," the place at St. Peter's where kids who couldn't afford to pay for their own meals would congregate.
He was reluctant to ask his parents for lunch money; they were already doing enough. Some days, he'd scrape together five dollars for the cafeteria special—two slices of pizza and a soda—but most days, at a prep school where Melissa says certain kids "wore ties that are worth more than some people's entire wardrobe," Minkah subsisted on free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Minkah went to football practice after school, and then Hansen would drive him home, and he'd either help his dad work on a Mack truck engine or they'd work on the house together. There was no time to hang out with his friends, no time to go to prom. Some nights, it was so cold that Fitzpatrick would be underneath the truck, his eyes watering from lying down, and the tears would literally stick to his cheeks. They'd work until well after midnight, eat something, head to sleep, and begin the day again at 5 a.m.
"Definitely made me grow up quick, for sure," Fitzpatrick says. "You never really think, like, you're gonna lose everything, you know what I'm saying? You might lose a person in your life. You might lose certain things. But what about when you lose everything, every aspect—your house, your car, your clothes?"
"It made us respect and appreciate the hustle," says Minkah Sr., Fitzpatrick's father. "You're gonna go through hard times. Just don't take anything for granted."
Fitzpatrick somehow had to remain focused on himself, on his own goals, on classes and recruiting and the little details of his life. And in that mindset, he is simpatico with his head coach.
In October of this year, a few days before Alabama played at Texas A&M, a reporter asked Saban whether the team would do anything specific to assist the victims of Hurricane Harvey in nearby Houston that week. And Saban told a colorful and well-worn anecdote about his own youth—about how, after he broke up with his girlfriend and began taking it out on the customers at the family's gas station, his father told him he'd be out of a job and up for a whupping if he didn't shape up immediately. The point, Saban said, is that "if we don't go out there and play a good game, then we're going to have all the problems that we had with the hurricane, and we're going to have the problem that we lost."
Fitzpatrick and Hansen would talk on those rides to and from St. Peter's—about school, about football, about Fitzpatrick's future. Hansen had never seen a player with Fitzpatrick's versatility or his natural ability to understand the flow of the game. He played running back, cornerback, safety and wide receiver, and he returned kicks and punts.
"The kid could do everything," Hansen said, "and most of it was because he was so smart on the field. The only thing he can't do is play basketball."
But Hansen also told him that he worried about Fitzpatrick getting lost at Alabama, at a school so far from home, at a place that could have its pick of virtually any player in the country.
"I can't protect you at Alabama," Hansen told him more than once. "You're going to be out on an island. You'd better be the best player there."
Fitzpatrick would stare back at his coach and respond the same way every time.
"Then I will be," he said.
"You gotta have big balls to go to Alabama coming out of New Jersey," the NFL scout says of Fitzpatrick, who, along with cornerback Anthony Averett, is one of only two players from the state on Alabama's current roster. "It's a whole different culture down there. He's definitely a competitive kid."
Fitzpatrick was so serious about maintaining that focus that when his teammates vowed to take a week off from training after winning the state championship in his senior season at St. Peter's, Fitzpatrick said to himself, I'm going to Alabama. I can't take any days off. It's not dissimilar to a now-mythic tale told about Saban in a GQ profile a few years ago, when a friend of Saban's claimed he complained about how winning a national championship had set him back a week in recruiting.
"They're both never really satisfied," Averett says. "They like things in order, like things a certain way. Minkah always understands where he's coming from or why he thinks that way."
Fitzpatrick was named a freshman All-American in 2015, but that was only the beginning of his learning process. He had come to Alabama in large part because he didn't want to be comfortable with things, because he wanted to absorb new things and struggle until he mastered them.
Midway through his sophomore season, injuries forced him to move from cornerback to safety, and he spent weeks breaking down film with Saban before and after practice. He had tried memorizing the entire playbook his freshman year before realizing that wouldn't work, so he went about trying to absorb things more conceptually. Instead, he took a more holistic view of how each mechanism and unit of Saban's defense related to the other.
Now, he can react almost entirely from instinct. A few weeks ago, when his view was screened from the play signals coming from the sideline, he looked at the way his teammates were lined up and figured it out on his own. When reporters asked him to explain a key interception in a recent win over Texas A&M, Fitzpatrick issued the most detailed explanation imaginable about how he'd baited A&M into throwing an interception by reading the play, the route and the quarterback's eyes.
There are moments now in practice where Fitzpatrick serves as Saban's extra set of eyes, where Fitzpatrick says he winds up "giving a little different look to the Process," perhaps even improving on it. Sometimes he notices someone lined up wrong and tells his coach about it; it's his job to shout out signals and exhort his teammates to be in the right place at all times. Sometimes it's more.
When the Tide gave up 23 points to Colorado State early in the year, one of Fitzpatrick's teammates suggested a "come-to-Jesus" meeting might be in order. While that meeting never took place, it was up to Fitzpatrick to take the lead in setting things straight.
There is a burden on Saban's defense, and everyone feels it. At a recent walkthrough, the Tide were going over some concepts Fitzpatrick knew by heart, so he kept his mouth shut. Saban did not. Where are you, Minkah? he asked, in so many choice words, because they both recognize there's no room for either of them ever to let down, not even for a moment.
They keep those failures and lapses close, Saban and Fitzpatrick, even if they rarely mention them. And Hansen has noticed a changed Fitzpatrick, one who has grown up.
After watching that loss to Deshaun Watson and Clemson from the stands last January, Hansen went to console Fitzpatrick and realized he had learned to control his emotions. It was still there, inside him, that raging need to perfect his own process, but Fitzpatrick had learned to channel it properly. He learned it from his family, from an experience that would forever change his worldview.
And he learned it, at least in part, from a coach who turned out to be a lot like him after all.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author, most recently, of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.