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Updated: 10/11/10 10:57 p.m.
Last week, New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott was asked if he’d hesitate to put a big hit on the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback during the teams’ game the following Sunday.
“No not at all,” the loquacious Scott said. “I don’t know, he’s a pretty smart guy. I don’t want him to hit me with a book.”
It’s a perception Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 gets a lot these days. And unsurprisingly so. Harvard graduates go on to become a lot of things–Nobel Prize winners, investment bankers, actors, journalists, even US Presidents–but NFL quarterback is not usually one of them.
Fitzpatrick, for his part, is well aware of this fact. For even he admits that he never expected to make it this far. But all of a sudden, here he is–five years after graduation, the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
“I never imagined even playing in the NFL,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an e-mail. “It seemed like a pipe dream.”
After receiving no Division-IA scholarship offers coming out of high school, Fitzpatrick’s skepticism was understandable. That didn’t change much after his first two collegiate seasons, in which Fitzpatrick earned only five total starts. But after a sophomore campaign in which Fitzpatrick threw eight touchdowns with no interceptions and rushed for 523 yards, things began to change.
The junior earned the starting job at quarterback in the 2003 season and finished with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in just seven games. He completed over 60 percent of his passes and rushed for over 400 yards and five touchdowns. That was when his coach saw something in him that Fitzpatrick hadn’t yet seen in himself.
“I took him after his junior year, [and] I said, ‘Fitzy, I think you can play in the NFL,’” Tim Murphy said. “And he was like, ‘really?’”
Murphy told his quarterback to go work at the Peyton Manning Passing Academy, a football offensive skills camp for high school students. Fitzpatrick–who already had a finance internship lined up–was initially hesitant, but Murphy convinced him by explaining that all the elite major college quarterbacks in the country would be there.
“I want you to go down there, because I want you to be around them for three days, and when you are, you’re going to realize you’re as good as any one of them,” Murphy told Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick obliged and found out his coach was right.
“He came back, and I said, ‘How’d it go?’” Murphy remembered. “And he goes, ‘Good.’ He’s very understated, which I love. I said, ‘Well, was it what I said it would be?’ And he says, ‘Yup.’ And it finally dawned on him that yeah, he could do this. And I think that motivated him, showed him that the ceiling was different than he maybe thought it was.”
Fitzpatrick put the skills he learned at the Manning camp to good use his senior season at Harvard, winning Ivy League Player of the Year. He threw for nearly 1,200 yards, 13 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and he ranked second on the team with 448 rushing yards. The quarterback also finished his career as Harvard’s all-time leader with 6,271 total yards while leading the Crimson to an undefeated 10-0 season and an Ivy League title.
After those successes, it was no longer just Murphy who believed in Fitzpatrick; NFL scouts were starting to take notice too. The Arizona native earned invites to two senior bowls (the East-West Shrine Bowl and the Hula Bowl), as well as the NFL Combine.
It was at the combine in Indianapolis where Fitzpatrick became the talk of the NFL world after a report surfaced on NFL.com that he had scored a perfect score on the Wonderlic test–a 12-minute, 50-question exam given to NFL prospects to test their learning aptitude. Fitzpatrick later admitted that he had left a question blank, meaning he could not have scored a perfect 50 and leaving former Harvard punter Pat McInally ’75 as the only player to ever ace the test. But The Wall Street Journal later reported that Fitzpatrick had scored a still-exceptional 48 while completing the test in a record nine minutes.
On draft day, Fitzpatrick hoped the intelligence and talent he displayed at the combine would lead to a team taking a chance on him. After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, with six picks remaining in the draft, the St. Louis Rams finally called his name in the 7th round, the 250th selection overall. Thanks to his coach’s motivation, Fitzpatrick had become the first Harvard player since Isaiah Kacyvenski ’00 to be drafted and the only one since.
“Coach Murphy has always been my biggest believer,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Long before I thought I had a chance to play at the next level, he would tell me that I was going to. He gave me the confidence to know that I could do it.”
Upon arriving in the NFL, Fitzpatrick continued to surprise people. After making the Rams as a third string quarterback, Fitzpatrick was called upon to replace injured starter Jamie Martin in the second quarter of a November game against the Houston Texans. Fitzpatrick led the Rams back from a 24-3 halftime deficit to a 33-27 overtime win, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. That made him one of only five players to throw for 300 yards in his NFL debut, one of them being the Manning whose skills camp he had attended two years earlier.
Fitzpatrick played in three more games that year before being traded to the Cincinnati Bengals. After starting quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a knee injury in 2008, Fitzpatrick was called upon again and had another impressive debut, leading the Bengals in passing and rushing in a loss to the Cleveland Browns. He ended up starting 12 more games that season, throwing for 1,905 yards with eight touchdowns and rushing for 304.
That performance earned Fitzpatrick a three-year deal with the Bills–signed in February 2009–that pays him over $2 million per season. He was expected to be a backup once again, but an injury to incumbent quarterback Trent Edwards gave Fitzpatrick another opportunity to play. After rallying the Bills to an October victory over the Jets, Fitzpatrick appeared in nine more games, finishing with nine touchdowns and a 5-5 record for a team that started 1-4.
Throughout his journey, Murphy was there, watching and rooting for him.
“You follow it with a source of pride, because he’s a guy not much was expected out of in the NFL,” Murphy said. “When they draft[ed] [him], he was just about the last pick in the draft. And everywhere he’s gone, he’s improved his position, and he’s given his team a chance to win. So he’s clearly a guy that is making his way in the NFL.”
As Fitzpatrick makes his way, he says he still hears friendly banter about his education from teammates and opponents.
“Whenever I go to a new team the jabs about being a Harvard guy are always more prevalent,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “This is mainly because people don’t know much about me other than being the Harvard guy that did well on his Wonderlic test. The more time I spend with people, the less the Harvard stuff comes up.”
Not that Fitzpatrick is embarrassed about his brain. Intelligence, he readily admits, is a big part of his game.
“I find the game mentally challenging and really enjoy the chess match that occurs every week between the offense and the opposing defense,” he wrote. “I feel like I have been a quick study in terms of picking up the different offensive schemes I have been exposed to. I think I offer a dependability and dedication that is very important to being successful.”
“Take the top 100 quarterbacks in the world, which would be the guys who play in that league,” Murphy added. “They all, without exception, can throw the football. Really have great arms and great this and that. And he has all those things, but his intangibles [were] off the charts from the first day he arrived here. It’s something we can take no credit for. His level of composure and poise is amazing...That’s what makes him special.”
Though Fitzpatrick’s smarts have always been recognized, his talent is finally turning some heads as well. This season, after two games of ineffectiveness, the Bills cut Edwards and handed the team over to Fitzpatrick. No longer was he just an injury-replacement backup; Fitzpatrick was now somebody’s full-time starter.
Early on, that decision has paid off for Buffalo. In his first game, Fitzpatrick provided a spark, throwing for two touchdowns in nearly helping the Bills upset the New England Patriots. In that contest, Fitzpatrick got to play in Foxboro, returning to the Boston area which had been his home for four years and to the city where his football journey truly began.
“Getting a chance to start at Foxboro was an awesome experience for me,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “I remember watching a practice in the stadium when Jamil Soriano [’03] was on the team and thinking how cool it was just to be there.”
In his second game, Fitzpatrick was even better, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for 74 yards against the Jets. And on Sunday, Fitzpatrick threw for three more touchdowns with no interceptions against the Jacksonville Jaguars, giving him a very good 7:3 touchdown: interception ratio on the season.
“This is an important year for me to continue to grow as a player and provide that I can consistently perform at a high level,” he added.
Through it all, Fitzpatrick’s wife, former Crimson soccer captain Liza Barber ’05, has been there by his side.
“I have to admit, the girl I left Harvard with was better than the degree,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Liza has been an amazing wife and someone I have been able to share this whole experience with from the very beginning. It is easy for me to stay grounded, because I have a wife that reminds me daily that she is the only college All-American in the household.”
Together, the couple has two sons, with another child coming in March.
“It’s great,” Murphy said. “Team Harvard.”
Team Harvard. Sounds more like something you’d hear at a math fair or a chess tournament than in a description of a pair of athletic stars. But of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, Ryan Fitzpatrick has never been one to fit the Harvard stereotype.
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