CALL HIM MOBY DICK
This is an article from the Nov. 4, 1996 issue
There's something improbable about the gridiron career of
Northwestern senior linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, almost as
improbable as the Wildcats' string of come-from-behind victories
this season. In Fitzgerald's case the hard-to-believe stuff
started with the way his mother pushed him into the sport. As a
60-pound second-grader, Pat didn't take to football immediately,
but Flo Fitzgerald thought the game would instill a sense of
responsibility in her son. Every weekday she dropped him off at
a field near the family's home in Orland Park, Ill., so he could
participate in a league that allowed kids up to the sixth grade
to play if they didn't weigh more than 100 pounds. "I dreaded
going to practice," Pat says. "I remember coming home from
school and hoping my mother had forgotten about practice. But
sure enough, every time, she'd have my water jug ready and send
Says Flo, "He'd sit in the car, and there would be tears, but I
told him, 'Patrick, you have to get out there.'"
Fourteen years later he is still a bit undersized, at least for
a middle linebacker, but he's no longer hesitant about football.
His Northwestern teammates describe the 6'2", 235-pound
Fitzgerald not as a lilliputian but as a leviathan--"like Moby
Dick in a goldfish bowl," in the words of fellow linebacker Tim
Scharf, repeating the oft-used description of Fitzgerald's idol,
Dick Butkus. Fitzgerald suffered a broken left leg in the
penultimate regular-season game last fall and missed the Rose
Bowl, but still made first-team All-America, and he has come
back more dominating than ever. "He's a little bigger this year,
and I think even a step quicker," says Wildcats defensive
coordinator Ron Vanderlinden.
Indeed, there was Fitzgerald last Saturday, contributing a key
third-quarter interception and nine tackles in a 27-24 victory
over Illinois in which Adrian Autry scored the go-ahead
touchdown with 1:02 to play. Northwestern has now won its last
four games by a combined 10 points, overcoming fourth-quarter
deficits in three of those games, and Fitzgerald's play has
helped put the Wildcats (7-1, 5-0), last year's surprise Big Ten
champions, in position to repeat, with games remaining against
Penn State, Iowa and Purdue.
Perhaps no other player has better mirrored Northwestern's
dramatic rise than Fitzgerald. At the start of spring practice
in 1995, Vanderlinden had penciled him in as the second-string
middle linebacker. By season's end Fitzgerald had not only
become a starter but also emerged as the best player on a
defense that allowed the fewest points per game in the nation.
He ranked first in the conference in tackles per game (13) and,
in addition to the All-America honors, was named Big Ten
Defensive Player of the Year, no small feat in a conference that
included linebackers Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice of Illinois,
who were taken second and third, respectively, in last April's
While there is undeniably a Butkus-like ferocity to Fitzgerald's
game, his style is more brainy than barbarian. "He recognizes
what opponents are trying to do as quickly as anybody in the Big
Ten," says Minnesota offensive coordinator Bob DiBese.
"Sometimes you think he's guessing but that son-of-a-gun guesses
right a lot." Fitzgerald is tenacious, too, as he showed during
the Wildcats' 21-10 win over Penn State last fall. The Nittany
Lions ran a running play behind guard Jeff Hartings, who
freight-trained Fitzgerald. From his supine position, Fitzgerald
made the tackle. Astounded, Hartings, a first-round pick of the
Detroit Lions this year, pulled Fitzgerald up by his jersey and
asked, "How did you do that?"
Though Fitzgerald now has a vertical leap of 30 inches and can
bench-press 400 pounds, he was seen by most college recruiters
as too small and lacking in athletic gifts. Among the schools
that expressed a mild interest in him was Notre Dame. During the
fall of Fitzgerald's senior year at Sandburg High in Orland
Park, the Irish coaching staff invited him for an official
visit. But soon thereafter, one of the coaches called and asked
Fitzgerald if he would consider switching his visit to another
weekend. Sensing that he was not a priority, Fitzgerald said
that he would not switch dates and that he would get back in
touch with Notre Dame if he changed his mind. His father, Pat
Sr., who had been eavesdropping from the adjoining family room,
came storming into the kitchen, his Irish clearly up. "You did
what?" he bellowed. "What were you thinking?"
Pat Jr. turned his attention to Northwestern, which was two
years removed from a 2-9 season, and Georgia Tech, which was two
years removed from a national championship. "I just kept going
back and forth between the two schools," he says.
Wildcats coach Gary Barnett recalls the February afternoon in
1993 when he parked his rental car less than a block from the
home of a Louisville high school linebacker whose name he can no
longer recall. Before visiting that recruit, Barnett wanted to
check on the status of Fitzgerald, who had been undecided.
Barnett picked up his cellular phone and called an assistant he
had already phoned five times that day. This would be the last
call, Barnett vowed. If Fitzgerald still hadn't committed to
Northwestern, Barnett would give the Louisville prospect the
last scholarship the Wildcats had to offer. "He's coming," the
assistant said. With that, Barnett headed back to Evanston.
"That's how close Pat Fitzgerald came to not becoming a
Wildcat," Barnett says.
Barnett smiles wanly with the retelling of the story. "Do I feel
lucky that I didn't walk into the home of the kid from
Louisville and offer him a scholarship?" he asks. "Sure. But you
have to remember this: At the time it wasn't that big a deal.
While we were happy to get Fitz and expected him to be a
contributor, we had no idea how significant that contribution
would be. Who could have known?"
THE AMAZING MR. HARRIS
In the defense-challenged Western Athletic Conference, where
offensive statistics often invite skepticism, the numbers put up
by Wyoming wide receiver Marcus Harris demand respect. Harris is
averaging 132.8 receiving yards per game, third in the nation,
having caught 68 passes for 1,062 yards and 11 touchdowns for
the 8-0 Cowboys. He is on pace for 94 receptions and 1,460
receiving yards, which would make him the first receiver and
seventh player in Division I-A history to reach 1,400 yards
three times in his career.
"He does it even though teams know the ball is probably coming
to him a good 10 to 15 times a game," says Wyoming offensive
coordinator Larry Korpitz. "But Marcus has a way of making sure
opposing players don't get too close to him."
Maintaining a comfortable distance from others has been Harris's
gift on the field, and his curse off it. Since 1988 his parents,
Ronald and Mona, have taken dozens of foster children into their
Minneapolis home. Harris at first welcomed the arrangement, then
soured on it. "There was this one girl," Harris says of a
three-year-old who spent about a year with his family. "She grew
very attached to us. But one day her aunt came to our house to
take her away. It's amazing what kids understand. She hid. My
mom said, 'Marcus, go get her.' And because the girl loved me
and trusted me, she came out of hiding with open arms. Then I
was forced to give her up. It was like I tricked her, and that
hurt me deeply. I lost my faith in the system."
Of the children who have passed through his parents' home over
the years, Harris has become close to just one, Shane, an
eight-year-old whom the family has adopted. But Harris still has
an affinity for kids in general. He is an elementary-education
major. But for his impending career in the NFL, he would love to
be a third-grade teacher. "You can still influence kids at that
age," he says. "By fourth and fifth grade they start thinking
they know a little too much."
At 6'2" and 216 pounds, Harris, who briefly considered turning
pro after last season, has the size and finesse that NFL
personnel directors seek. Last spring he was projected as a late
first- or early second-round pick had he left early. He stayed
in school, and now he looks like a mid-to-late-first-round pick.