Although University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban encourages his potential early exit draft choices to get the most relevant information, there are occasions in which a player’s decision is a mystery or, more rarely, a risky step. It’s rare —20 of the 30 players to leave Alabama early during Saban’s tenure have been first-round draft choices.
But of all those 20, there have only been a few that were more ready than Minkah Fitzpatrick.
There are no worlds left to conquer in college football for the two-time national champion and Thorpe Award winner. There is no doubt about his draft status. If we were using NBA parlance, Fitzpatrick would be a sure lottery pick. He is well-rounded off the field, mature and intelligent. It’s hard to pick the “greatest” Alabama defensive back ever from a list that includes Antonio Langham, George Teague, Landon Collins, Tommy Wilcox, Don McNeal and many, many more but all ballots with Fitzpatrick at the very top would have to be considered valid.
Certainty did not make Fitzpatrick’s farewell on Thursday any less emotional.
“We rebuilt our home, rebuilt our lives,” Fitzpatrick said as his parents, seated quietly in the back of the room, looked on. That home was lost when Hurricane Irène ripped through the New Jersey shore in 2011. Fitzpatrick’s mother took on two additional jobs so he could continue to attend private school and play football.
“We’re just a working-class family, and we just kept grinding for those three years,” Fitzpatrick said. “It all worked out. We dedicated ourselves to our faith. I attended one of the greatest universities in the world. I’ve been out of the country on a mission trip, spreading the gospel. I got coaching from the greatest secondary coach (Saban) in the game. And we won two national championships.”
Fitzpatrick says he will keep those priorities —family, faith and football —at the next level, and will approach the NFL with the same work ethic that made him an Alabama superstar.
“I’ll do my job, work hard,” he said. “Whether it’s an all-pro player in front of me, or someone like me just trying to make the team, I’ll go out and outwork them.”
The hard work that he leaves behind for Saban will be rebuilding the secondary. Fitzpatrick wasn’t the only star from the defensive backfield to announce an early departure on Thursday. Safety Ronnie Harrison will also leave Tuscaloosa a year before his eligibility expires. Walk-on wonder Levi Wallace, Tony Brown, Hootie Jones and Anthony Averett (who had a particularly good, if unsung finale against Georgia) have all finished their eligibility.
Sophomore Deionte Thompson came on as the season progressed. Fitzpatrick also listed other strong candidates.
“I can see a lot of guys stepping up,” he said. “Shyheim (Carter) played a lot in the national championship game. Jared Mayden, (Trevon) Diggs, Xavier McKinney — they’ll all do a great job.”
That is reassuring, but no matter how the new secondary takes shape, it may be a generation or more before Alabama sees another Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225