NEW YORK -- Some people called Keith Fitzhugh crazy. Others praised him for his admirable decision.
"I'm so happy," the free-agent defensive back recently told The Associated Press from his home in Atlanta. "It turned out just right for me."
It sure did, especially with NFL players locked out and in a bitter labor dispute with the owners. Fitzhugh has a secure job and a steady income, things he might not have if he had put his football dreams ahead of taking care of his parents.
Fitzhugh, 24, gained national attention last December when he declined an offer to join the New York Jets to remain a conductor with Norfolk Southern Railroad and stay on track financially. His parents needed him, he said, and he couldn't let them down. The decision landed the former Mississippi State star a guest spot on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and national television interviews with ABC and CNN, among several others.
"It was really a blessing because when I played football and was giving it my all, I never got the opportunity to do the things I got to do when I was just trying to do the right thing," he said. "Never. Not one time. Going out to L.A., going on Jay Leno and going on all these major networks, I feel like I was the hottest non-football-playing football player in the world."
And, he was. Not that he couldn't play, though. Fitzhugh simply chose not to.
"I really didn't think it was going to be that big a deal, to be honest," he said. "It kind of blew me away."
Fitzhugh ponders what would have happened if he had left the job with Norfolk Southern, and he knows his decision appears awfully smart now.
"I have a lot of buddies out there and they're ready to go back out and play," he said. "In a way, I could be like, 'Ha!' and be laughing at them, but these are my buddies and what if the shoes were on the other foot? What if I had went and the Jets signed me? I would've been sitting around and wouldn't have known what was going on."
Not only that, but get this: Some of his friends in the NFL have even asked him during the lockout if he might be able to get them jobs.
"They're like, 'Hey, Keith, if this doesn't work out for me ...' and I just tell them, 'Just go ahead and apply, just like I did'," he said. "No big-name guys, but guys who are straddling that line like I was. When they hear about what I do, it's kind of exciting to them, too, because you turn into a kid all over again. You're riding a train that has 4,000 or 5,000 horsepower and you really can get into the thrill of it. It's a fun job, man."
But, he acknowledges, so is football. That's what made his choice so difficult.
Jets coach Rex Ryan wanted Fitzhugh to help with New York's banged-up secondary, likely on the practice squad, after safety Jim Leonhard broke a leg and backup James Ihedigbo sprained an ankle. The Jets also called defensive back Emanuel Cook with the idea that he and Fitzhugh, both of whom had spent time with the team in previous camps, could compete for a spot on the active roster.
Cook said yes, and joined the team. Fitzhugh declined and was back on the railroad.
"It was really tough," Fitzhugh said. "I can tell you this, I really teared up and cried because I wanted to go and do it, but I thought, 'Keith, this might not be your best decision to go out there and leave this job you already have.' "
Fitzhugh spoke to Ryan a few weeks later and explained his decision, telling him he couldn't just leave the security of a full-time job, not when he needed to help take care of his mother, Meltonia, and his father, Keith Sr., who's disabled and can't work.
"He said, 'Hey kid, I'm proud of you'," Fitzhugh recalled Ryan telling him. "He understood."
Not that it was easy watching the Jets advance to the AFC Championship Game as the 'what-ifs' crept in.
"I was sitting there just shaking my head," he said. "At the same time, I was thinking deep inside, 'You know what, Keith? You made the best decision for you and your family and who says you would've been there with them anyway?' That's what I had to keep telling myself, that there wasn't anything guaranteed."
Fitzhugh has been working at Norfolk Southern since September and has become a full conductor, often working on the main line from Atlanta to Chattanooga and delivering freight -- not passengers.
"A lot of people think you just give tickets out and collect them from people," he said. "It's not like that at all. I'm learning that 80 percent of everything we touch everyday, it comes off the railroad tracks because everything is shipped."
Fitzhugh always dreamed of two things as a kid: football and trains. And, he hasn't completely shut the door on the NFL. Fitzhugh said he has spoken to officials at Norfolk Southern, who have told him they could give him a leave of absence if a similar situation came up again.
"I'm still young and I keep my body in shape," he said. "I don't know if the opportunity will ever come with this lockout, but I can't say yay or nay. You never know who might call me and give me an opportunity."
In the meantime, he will just keep working on the railroad -- and doing what he always believed was the right thing.
"A lot of people might say, 'Oh, he's had his 15 minutes of fame and he's a one-hit wonder,' " Fitzhugh said. "Yeah, cool, but that's not a slap in the face to me. It was a blessing and happened to fall this way, the right way."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press