I have met some amazing people over the years while covering the Miami Dolphins. But I haven't met anybody quite like Ryan Fitzpatrick. He is refreshing. He is fun. He is introspective. He is Harvard intelligent. He is so grounded, so humble, so unbelievably genuine that, at times, you wonder if it can all actually be true.
But after carefully observing Fitzpatrick over the past several months, after listening to his words, watching his actions and hearing his story, I am now certain it is all as real as that long bushy beard that dominates so much of his look.
I mean how many quarterbacks hold the locker room door open for the media? How many come with absolutely no discernible ego? How many actually relish the thought of running over a defender at the goal line? How many have played for eight different teams and have thrown touchdowns to 57 different players? How many have seven kids, the oldest just 12, and an MVP wife who is taking care of all of them this season at their home in Tampa while their 36-year-old dad plays a kid's game?
"I'm fortunate for so many reasons," Fitzpatrick says.
Truth is, we're also the fortunate ones. Fortunate that Fitzpatrick's crazy NFL journey brought him to South Florida. Fortunate that he is the perfect mentor for so many of these young players, the cool, calm voice of experience that has seen just about everything over his 15 seasons. Fortunate that just about every Wednesday at his weekly press conference, we get a brief glimpse of what this is man is all about, the depth of his character, the confidence he exudes and the way he has embraced the chaos of his personal life that has now become his norm.
Watch him after a game. How he walks across the field and is greeted by so many former teammates. How those players gravitate to him. How he is beloved and respected. How you can't find a single former teammate to say a bad word about him. When you're on your eighth team, that's a lot of former teammates. In Fitzpatrick's case, that's a lot of respect.
"You play long enough, you meet a lot of people," he says with a shrug.
On this Wednesday, it wasn't the football player I was interested in as much as the husband and dad. I mean think about it: His wife Liza and their seven kids live 250 miles away in Tampa where Fitzpatrick played last season. They figured a little normalcy for another season might work for a group that has packed and unpacked their lives eight different times already.
So, Fitzpatrick moved south, left his family behind, FaceTimes them just about every night and sees them on either his day off or when the group loads into their Nissan 12-passenger van and heads to a Dolphins' home game.
"Seven kids on its own every day is amazing," Fitzpatrick said. "But watching her walk through an airport with seven kids is pretty incredible as well. I know she could write a book."
So could Fitzpatrick. Think of the stories he can tell. Think of the people whose lives he has touched. The Dolphins are his third AFC East team. The contact list in his cell phone must be about to explode. His football journey already includes stops in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston, New York, Tampa and now Miami. It's almost harder to find someone who doesn't know Fitzpatrick than someone who does.
Ask Fitzpatrick about his kids and rattles off their ages in about three seconds. Birthdays? He's got them all down pat. Actually, it's the reason he showed up for offseason workouts not in the best of condition. "Too much birthday cake," he said. "Too many birthdays at about the same time."
Fitzpatrick can't say enough about Liza and the sacrifices she is making and the way she has that household running so smoothly. "I would say it might be a little easier this year with seven kids rather than me being home and having eight kids around. Because I'm not very good at bedtime with getting the kids all riled up."
Then in a more serious tone he added, "She's unbelievable and she does it with a smile on her face every day and just has a great love for life, and that's something that trickles down to our kids. I got lucky in finding her. It's been a lot of fun and she makes my life a lot easier."
Sure, he misses family dinners, and soccer and football practice and, well, just being around to improve the ratio of adults to children. It helps, though, that football consumes so much of his day and it also helps that his children are now getting old enough to follow and sometimes even critique his performances. His oldest son plays fantasy football. Dad is of course his quarterback.
"What else did you expect," Fitzpatrick asks with that proud papa look.
The kids especially love when Fitzpatrick takes off and runs, how he shows incredible quickness for a man his age and how he looks so fearless out there, sometimes choosing on purpose to go straight at a defender.
"Makes me feel like a real football player," Fitzpatrick says.
See, the years have not taken away any of the passion. Ryan Fitzpatrick still loves what he does, cherishes the new friendships that he makes and, of course, still longs for that next touchdown pass. Who knows when this remarkable journey will end, but right now that's the farthest thing from his mind.
There is half a season left and there is so much more he wants to do. He wants to continue to help these young players learn how to win. He wants to set an example they can follow. He wants to be what he has always been, a leader.
"I want to be the stable guy they can look to when things get a little shaky," he says. "I've had a different career than a lot of quarterbacks, but this has been a career that I've loved and a position I like being in."
Player. Husband. Father. Teammate. Any way you look at it, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the real deal.