Minkah Fitzpatrick had to rebuild his home well before he mended Alabama's defense
The Crimson Tide star defensive back's road to Tuscaloosa was flooded in ruin
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The world wasn't complicated enough for Minkah Fitzpatrick: high school, grades, adolescence, a financial crunch at home.
It got more complicated for an emerging five-star prospect. They would periodically summon him to the St. Peter's Prep office in the middle of the school day -- basically exposing his plight to God, country and his classmates.
He -- rather, his family -- owed for tuition.
"I'd be kicked out of school every other month because I couldn't pay," said Fitzpatrick, now Alabama's junior All-American defensive back.
Never mind the embarrassment. His family had been devastated by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Their Old Bridge, New Jersey, home flooded. With no insurance, there was no choice but to rebuild.
It wasn't easy.
Fitzpatrick's mother was working. So was a sister. His father, Minkah Fitzpatrick Sr., was working three jobs.
"[School officials] would come to my class and say, 'You didn't pay this week, you can't go to class,'" Minkah Jr. recalled. "I felt kind of selfish."
Selfish? Fitzpatrick is an excellent student and person. After a 13-hour day at school, after having his coach pick up and drive an hour each way to St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, he would come home to help his dad, a diesel mechanic.
"I told my parents, 'I'll stop playing football and just work and help you guys out,'" Fitzpatrick said. "They wouldn't let me do that."
Six years later, he is arguably the best defensive back in the country and one of the best in Alabama's glorious history.
Four games into his junior season, Fitzpatrick already owns the school record for pick sixes (four). With eight career interceptions, .500 isn't a bad batting average for the end zone. His part of the turf might as well be a sinkhole for opponents.
In the Alabama scheme, there are six secondary positions. Fitzpatrick has played them all with skill. Nick Saban, an old defensive back, said Fitzpatrick "does it as well as anybody I ever coached."
The Tide coach tosses around those kinds of compliments like they're manhole covers.
"It's fun, but it's hard at the same time because he watches us all the time," Fitzpatrick said. "He might not watch the quarterback every play, he might not watch the linemen every play, but he's watching us every single play, every single rep."
One-third of the way through the season, not much is certain nationally, though it's basically a sure thing that Fitzpatrick is headed for a second straight All-American season and perhaps a Thorpe Award.
The last Tide player to be named the nation's best best defensive back was Antonio Langham in 1993. But Langham didn't play six positions.
"It shows my versatility," Fitzpatrick said with a rare show of hubris. "My coaches worked hard with me. It's not meant for everybody, but if everybody put in a certain amount of work, they could do it.
"I don't want to say I'm proud of myself, but I've handled the situation very well."
That's what everyone says about every situation in which Fitzpatrick is involved. St. Peter's coach Rich Hansen, on the job for 27 years, says Fitzpatrick is one of the best players he has coached.
"He's a one-man personnel package," Hansen said. "I've only said that about one other player I've coached. He's got safety size and corner skills. He could probably lead the team in receiving if he wanted to."
His senior year at St. Peter's, Fitzpatrick played defense and tailback on offense. He also returned kicks and punts.
"Believe me when I tell you, he was lethal," Hansen said.
So why did an offensive flash in New Jersey end up as a defensive back at Alabama?
"One, it's Alabama," Fitzpatrick said.
That makes sense. So does having relatives in the state, but it's deeper than that.
"Ultimately, he wanted to play for national championships. He wanted to compete in a really, really hot-fire environment," Hansen said. "My concern was that Alabama flies over thousands of players to get to New Jersey. My feeling was, 'If it's close, Mink, they're probably going to go with an Alabama guy. You better be the best player there.'
"He looked at me dead in the eye and said, 'Coach, then I will be.'"
Not without a last-minute considerations.
What has emerged is a defensive force who could play in the NFL right now. Because of a new rule, Fitzpatrick was allowed to run at Alabama's pro day last spring. According to NFL.com, his 4.37-second time would have been fastest among all the safeties at the combine.
There's another part of that NFL pedigree shining through. Fitzpatrick is a leader, at least in mimicking Saban's take that last season's 14-1 finish was a "failure."
"I had to get loud. I had to cuss some people out because they weren't doing things on consistent basis," Fitzpatrick said. "During workouts in the morning, I was getting mad. I was thinking back to Clemson where it was the smallest things is why we lost.
"Everything we worked for is down the drain."
What would those small things be?
"Not wearing the right shoes, not wearing the right socks. That's going to transition to the field."
That tuition situation? Fitzpatrick said academic scholarships covered $10,000 of the annual $13,000 tuition. Not as bad as it sounds until you consider having to build a home back up from the studs.
Fitzpatrick would react to the short by taking odd jobs to earn money while simultaneously playing football and attending an elite private school an hour from home.
"They're prideful people," Hansen said of the family. "They didn't want their entire situation to be known by anyone.
"I would just go down to finance and say, 'We have a situation here.' Obviously, we're a Catholic school. Taking care of our own was really important. The whole time I was trying to preserve the family's pride."
That pride was on display a couple of years ago when Hansen said Fitzpatrick was supposed to appear with him on a CBS Sports Network show during National Signing Day.
"Mink didn't come because he wasn't 100 percent on his decision," Hansen said. "This was the morning of signing day. I was on the phone with him from the studio trying to nail it down."
At that point, Mario Cristobal, the former Alabama assistant who recruited him, was on the phone getting nervous. Fitzpatrick had become a "ghost," Hansen said.
"He finally called me and told me," Hansen continued. "It was on his terms. It was thought out. It was not a hastily made decision."
But it was the right decision.
The family didn't need him to quit football. The house was eventually rebuilt. A career is now taking shape.
In any given game, Fitzpatrick can be the best player on the field. Remember that sinkhole? Quarterbacks tend to shy away from it when he is out there.
"You either buy into the culture or you don't," he said of Alabama. "And the culture here is where legends are made."
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