Keith Fitzhugh Turns Down NFL Dream for Railroad Reality

Keith Fitzhugh says he needs stable paycheck to support his parents.

December 08, 2010, 2:07 PM

Dec. 8, 2010— -- Keith Fitzhugh just gave up his shot at the NFL to work on the railroad.

24-year-old Fitzhugh, who dreamed of an NFL career as a boy, had a chance to sign with the New York Jets as a free-agent safety. Instead he opted for the stability of his job as a train conductor on the Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Fitzhugh said it's more important to support his struggling parents than to gamble on a chance at a Super Bowl ring. He lives in his parents' home in Georgia, where his father is disabled and can't work. The family depends on their son's railroad salary to make ends meet.

"People say I may have had a chance to play in the Super Bowl, and I sit there and think, and I tell them -- hey, you only got one mom and dad!" Fitzhugh told ABC News.

For more on Keith Fitzhugh, watch "ABC World News with Diane Sawyer" tonight.

This isn't exactly a real-life "Rudy" story. Fitzhugh had already had plenty of success on the gridiron, even if he was never offered one of the NFL's rare big-money contracts. He was a star on his college team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, and after graduating in 2009, he signed with the Jets, only to be cut -- twice. He was also briefly signed by the Baltimore Ravens, who also let him go.

The Jets have only two safeties on their roster this year, both of whom have sustained injuries in recent weeks. But when the team called Fitzhugh looking for temporary backup, he politely declined, even though he knew that the team has a good chance of making the playoffs this year, possibly even the Super Bowl.

"I had to turn them down, 'cause I had a great job," he said. "It's about being a young man and not being selfish... I could have been released again, and that was a chance I was not going to take."

Fitzhugh started on the railroad after the Jets released him this past September, trading his football helmet for a conductor's cap. It's a job that offers him a regular paycheck, benefits, and the promise of long-term employment.

"I love riding the train. That has always been the backup plan for me," Fitzhugh said.

New York Jets Say Fitzhugh's Decision Shows Character

Fitzhugh's parents said they certainly value the sacrifice he's made.

"I just appreciate him loving us," said his mother, Meltonia Fitzhugh, "saying that I'm going to stay home with Mom and Dad, and I'm going to help them.... He's a great kid, he really is."

With his future on the line, the switch lights of the railroad offered brighter hope than the klieg lights of a stadium, but Fitzhugh isn't giving up on his childhood dream for good. He won't rule out a return to the NFL, even though he's sure he's made the right decision for now.

Today, even the Jets said that Fitzhugh's decision showed character.

"That's one of the reasons why we wanted that kid," said Rex Ryan, the Jets' head coach.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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