- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Some people called Keith Fitzhugh crazy. Others praised him for his admirable decision.

Turning down the Jets for trains? Yep, and he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“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. He 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 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 24-year-old 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 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.

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