Minkah: Mature, Motivated Rookie

Posted May 14, 2018

There are a lot of things to like about Dolphins first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, and right at or near the top is his very high maturity level.

Simply stated, Fitzpatrick does things the right way.

“I mean, as a kid, I don’t think any kid knows what hard work is,” Fitzpatrick said. “I did have to grow up at a young age. My family has been through some things. I was about 13 or 14. I just grew up in a blue-collar home. My father was a mechanic. My mother, she worked at a clothing store in the warehouse. It was instilled in me just to work hard. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, whether it be stuff on the field or off the field. It’s just been in my blood since I was young. I just carry it over to football.”

University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who has won five national titles in 12 years since leaving the Dolphins following the 2006 season, always has been known as a perfectionist who can be very demanding.

He’s also coached his share of great players through the years, so one pays attention when he says Fitzpatrick is one of his all-time favorites.

Maybe that’s because Saban and Fitzpatrick are alike in a lot of ways. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, the result of Fitzpatrick’s personality evaluation given to all incoming Alabama players — as a tool to better interpret individual learning styles — matched most closely that of Saban.

“Well, first off, he’s a hell of a lot better player than I ever was,” Saban told the newspaper. “Let’s get the record straight on that. I do think Minkah has a lot of the qualities that I think I’ve always tried to put in place for myself to have the best opportunity to be successful as a coach, as a person.

“He’s very conscientious, pays attention to detail, very disciplined, understands the importance of preparation. He’s not one of these guys that just thinks he can go out there and make plays without doing things the right way. He sets a great example in terms of his work ethic and how he practices and what he does every day. So there’s not a lot of things that you can say that Minkah doesn’t do exactly like you would want him to do as a coach and what you try to get all of your players to do.”
There are plenty of stories around to illustrate how seriously Fitzpatrick goes about his business, from the time his high school coach called him the morning after the team won a state title to find him working out, to the time he was spotted in the locker room six hours before a game watching film, to the time he was dejected because of a missed assignment in a game Alabama was leading by some 40 points.

Make no mistake, Fitzpatrick has a ton of athletic ability. But that alone might not have been enough to help him become a starter at Alabama as a true freshman. Or play six different positions in his final season in 2017 when he became only the third player to win both the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player and the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

The other two? Michigan’s Charles Woodson and LSU’s Patrick Peterson, who went to earn a combined 16 Pro Bowl invitations.

Woodson and Peterson both were selected to the Pro Bowl as rookies, for the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals respectively. Fitzpatrick has lofty goals for his NFL career, but he’s not about to make predictions for his first season in a Dolphins uniform.

He’s very humble when he talks to the media, another sign of his maturity.

“I’m just going out there and working my hardest every day, challenging the people around me and challenging myself,” Fitzpatrick said. “Whatever happens, happens. I mean I would like to be (a major contributor). I don’t think anybody doesn’t want to play, but if I’m not that … I hope to be the best out there. I’m going to work to be the best out there so I can contribute to the team.”

As an example of his humility, Fitzpatrick insisted he genuinely thought he would be selected between the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft and the end of the first round, even though there wasn’t a mock draft to be found that had him outside the top dozen picks.

Before the Dolphins made him the 11th overall selection Fitzpatrick waited for his turn to get his name called at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on the night of April 26 with his family, friends as well as Saban. He said getting drafted will give him the chance to do something for his family.

“When it comes to my family, it’s definitely an awesome opportunity,” he said. “I’m definitely going to purchase a home for my family — a home that’s going to be their home that can’t be taken away from them and can’t be whatever. It’s going to be their home. It’s going to just be awesome being able to provide them, but being in the NFL wasn’t the end goal. I wanted to be a great player in the NFL, a legendary player in the NFL. I’ve made it to this part of the journey but there’s a whole lot more left to go.”

Fitzpatrick said it was his parents who instilled in him his strong work ethic, but it was an act of nature that forced him to grow up quickly.

It was August of 2011 and Fitzpatrick was a little less than three months away from turning 15 when Hurricane Irene dropped an inordinate amount of rain on the Northeast.

Fitzpatrick’s family home in New Jersey got flooded, forcing him, his four siblings and his parents to go live for a year in his grandparents’ basement. Minkah Jr. also began working to help out the family.

“I had to start working with my father and a couple of other jobs that not every 14-year-old is doing,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’re usually playing in the backyard or something like that while I was at work until 12 o’clock at night. Like I said, it was just instilled in me. I couldn’t complain. I had to do it because I knew I had to help my parents out and help my family out. Definitely that was the main reason why I had to work, was because of the displacement from the hurricane.”

During that time, Fitzpatrick helped out his father, a diesel mechanic, and did some construction and plumbing work.

Four years later, Fitzpatrick was doing his work on the football field for Alabama, making an impact on the collegiate level right away. Before he would leave the Crimson Tide program, he would earn the nickname “Saban’s son” and also earn the admiration of his legendary coach.

“It’s a major compliment coming from him,” Fitzpatrick said. “Like you said, he doesn’t give them out often. He’s had a lot of great players come underneath him and he hasn’t said too much about them, so when you receive a compliment from him, it means a lot. I’m honored to have played for him. I learned a lot from him. I’ve just got to live up to his compliments. I can’t let it get to my head. I’ve just got to keep on pushing forward, receive it, and that’s it.”

Now certainly isn’t the time for Fitzpatrick to get complacent. He spent the rookie minicamp this past weekend getting introduced to life in the NFL and to the way the Dolphins do things, and now it’s going to be time to start working with the veterans during the final week of Phase Two of the offseason program before OTAs begin next week.

Fitzpatrick said the Dolphins defense is similar to that he had at Alabama, so there’s reason to believe he’ll be able to grasp it fairly quickly. Fitzpatrick lined up everywhere in the Alabama secondary last season, but the plan at the outset is for him to line up at safety for the Dolphins.

But there is nothing keeping defensive coordinator Matt Burke from making full use of Fitzpatrick’s wide variety of skills if he so chooses at some point.

“In the limited interaction I’ve had with him, he’s shown the ability to be sort of a big-picture thinker and he understands football and he’s a student of the game from that sense,” Burke said Saturday. “My initial impression is that he’s got the ability to absorb a lot, but we’ll have to see how that goes. We’re just kind of starting him out. It’s going to be up to him how much he can take on and how good we feel about expanding his role into certain things. Once we get the whole squad and that whole room together and sort of how we’re utilizing those players, I’m hopeful we can do some different things with him.”

For his part, Fitzpatrick has a simple, mature answer when he’s asked where he belongs as a football player: “On the football field.”
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