Inspiring Teens is ex-NFLer’s Life’s Work
By Don Leypoldt
Do you know how long it took former NFL defensive back Steve Fitzhugh to realize that he had a platform?
One day. His first day of training camp with the Denver Broncos.
“I was a nobody. A free agent from Miami of Ohio,” Fitzhugh recalled. “I get to the practice field and see a huge sign in the stands: Steve Fitzhugh Fan Club. This group of kids every year would pick somebody and be their fan club. I realized for the first time that there are people who love their Broncos and they live to be around the sport.”
Today, Fitzhugh uses his platform to serve as the national spokesperson for “One Way 2 Play”, an anti-drug and alcohol outreach sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Although Fitzhugh personally has a strong Christian faith, “OW2P” is a 100% secular program designed to reach students in schools.
A poet, rapper and lyricist, Fitzhugh now travels across the country bringing his dynamic message of hope, positive choices and the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse to thousands of students each week.
Fitzhugh spent the week of February 7th in the Delaware Valley, speaking to students at Harry Truman, Nueva Esperanza and Archbishop Carroll high schools – along with several more in South Jersey.
“I blend in my NFL experience with my personal life to try and make a point to the students,” he explained. “Most of the direction that they need about the decisions they make about alcohol and drugs of abuse- they’ve already heard those messages. The question now in high school and middle school is how do you apply that information to decision making.
“Do you have the courage to make the tough decisions? Do you have faith? Do you believe that if you make the tough decisions, great things will come back to you?” he challenged.
“Then I challenge them to make these commitments: Faith. Commitment. Accountability. They raise their hand and say ‘I can do that.’ I give them a commitment card to sign- a contract between them and their future. They sign those cards with enthusiasm.”
Fitzhugh is a potent speaker in part because Fitzhugh endured some agonizing personal tragedies. He lost his mother, a smoker, to inoperable cancer. He also lost his oldest brother who was plagued by alcohol and cocaine abuse.
“The big motivation is I see that teenager who really wants a better life. I see that teenager in the mirror. I experienced a lot of pain and a lot of depression,” Fitzhugh admits. “But I was fortunate enough to have people who soared in my life. My pastor, Ron Fowler, treated me like I was his son. It made a huge difference.
“I hoped that I too could make that impression in the lives of some teenagers. If students can make the tough decisions before they turn 21, they have a great chance to make great things happen in their lives.”
As a player, Fitzhugh actively served in the Denver Broncos Youth Foundation, further re-enforcing the idea that anyone who wears an NFL uniform has a platform.
“They didn’t care who you were,” he noted. “If you could get a Denver Bronco to come to this orphanage, or visit this place and say anything, the kids would open up. I’m over 20 years removed from the NFL, and I still sign autographs.”
The Akron native had a standout career at Miami Ohio. As a freshman, he won the school’s John Baumes Award for “leadership, sportsmanship, scholarship and football ability.” When he was a senior in 1985, he was the defensive MVP of a Miami team that went 8-2-1 and finished second in the MAC.
A standout hurdler, Fitzhugh captained both Miami’s track and football teams during his senior year.
He latched on with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in 1986 but was released. Already having obtained his B.A. in Public Administration, Fitzhugh headed to Howard University in Washington D.C. for grad school. Little did the Master’s in Divinity candidate know that he would be thrust into one of the most controversial sagas in the NFL’s 91 year history: the 1987 Player’s Strike.
He remembered, “Denver had flown a scout in who said ‘Steve, the players are talking about striking and management wants to continue to play. Steve Foley and Tony Lilly, the starting and backup free safeties are likely to strike and you’re the next guy in line. They’d like you to come out and play for them.’
“I prayed about it. Here I was in grad school waiting to get on with my life, studying to be a minister but it was as if God were saying ‘Steve, I’m trying to hook you up man. Do I have to put the pen in your hand?’ So I signed the contract and played for management.”
Fitzhugh appeared in all three games during the ’87 strike, and was kept after the strike settled. Ultimately, a shoulder injury led to his release that year.
With the expiration of the current CBA on March 4th and a lockout appearing inevitable, there are lessons that can be taken away from the 1987 strike.
“My whole view of it is: How can this be a win/win? How can we take care of the athletes?” commented Fitzhugh. “It’s a dangerous sport. It’s a short life. Jim Zorn told me the average career of a Redskin is 3 ½ years.”
Although Fitzhugh never lost sight of the fact that careers are short, he knows plenty of teammates who did not have that perspective.
“A lot of it depends on who they have representing them and who they have in their lives. I remember one of the guys on my team who got released,” Fitzhugh recollected. “He was a rookie and had been drafted, and he thought being drafted with a signing bonus meant he was in. He looked at me with a blank stare on his face and said ‘Steve, I’ve already spent my whole signing bonus. What am I going to do?’ I tried to encourage him.
“Students come to me and say ‘I want to play in the NFL.’ I say, ‘Great. What do you want to do after that?’ They have a blank look on their face because the average NFL athlete is only going to play 2 to 4 years.”
Fitzhugh did have “other irons in the fire” and his job of reaching out to encourage and assist teens can be more rewarding than scoring a game winning touchdown.
“Last night, a young lady came to hear me speak,” he said. “I talked about scars on our hearts and how today can be the first day and the best day of the rest of their lives. I saw the tears in her eyes. She wiped away the tears and said ‘Thank you for inspiring me.’”
Fitzhugh grinned. “That’s my Super Bowl.”
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