A career in sports is unlike that of any other profession.  Beyond the glamor of the limelight is the burning desire to compete.  This is true for players and coaches alike.  Why else would so many professional athletes hang on long after their bodies have begun to fail them?  Many players and coaches define themselves by their profession, sometimes to the detriment of their family lives.  But this is not always the case.

Today is an unusual day in the world of sports.

First, Keith Fitzhugh, a 24-year old train conductor passed on the opportunity to join the New York Jets.  The undrafted Mississippi State star safety signed with the Jets as a free agent after graduating in 2009.  Like many undrafted free agents, Fitzhugh was cut by the Jets – twice.  He also spent some time with the Baltimore Ravens, but was cut by them as well.  With no offers from other teams, Fitzhugh did what others in his position are forced to do…he got a job.

In September of this year, Fitzhugh took a job as a train conductor on the Norfolk Southern Railroad.  While it is not as glamorous as playing in the NFL, it is a job that he loves.  More importantly, it is a job that offers him a steady paycheck and a chance for long-term employment.  You would think that if ever there was a time in life to roll the dice, this would be it.  However, Fitzhugh does not have the same luxury that many other 24-year olds have.

Keith Fitzhugh lives at home with his parents in Georgia.  His father is disabled and cannot work.  Keith’s salary with the railroad is depended on by the family to make ends meet.  If he joined the Jets, he would certainly make more than enough money to support his family.  However, players at the bottom of NFL rosters are constantly being let go based on the needs of the team.  So, rather than pursue his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL, Keith Fitzhugh put the needs of his family ahead of taking a risk that could cost him a job that he needs.

The statement that Fitzhugh made to ABC News speaks volumes about him as a person… “People say – I may have had a chance to play in the Super Bowl, and I sit there and think, and I tell them – hey, you only got one mom and dad!”

Later on in the day, Urban Meyer, the head coach of the Florida Gators, decided to step down from his high-profile coaching job so that he could spend more time with his family.  This is a decision that he also made last year at around this time, but that decision was a knee-jerk reaction to a health scare brought on by chest pains, which were later revealed to be esophageal spasms, not a heart problem.

Leaving one of the most high profile, desirable jobs in college football is not an easy decision.  Just like playing professional sports, coaching is something that goes much deeper than a career choice.  Anyone who needs further proof of this need not look any further than the opposing sidelines during the upcoming Outback Bowl (Urban Meyer’s final game as the coach of the Florida Gators).  Florida will be facing a Penn State team coached by Joe Paterno, who turns 84 on December 21st.  He has been coaching the Nittany Lions for nearly as long as Urban Meyer has been alive.

Some may think that Urban Meyer is becoming the coaching version of Brett Favre with the annual retirement talks, but he sounded very sincere at his press conference, and his motives seem pure.

“At the end of the day, I’m very convinced that you’re going to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games we won,” Meyer said.  He further stated…“I’ve not seen my two girls play high school sports. They’re both very talented Division I-A volleyball players, so I missed those four years. I missed two already with one away at college. I can’t get that time back.”

Meyer is walking away from about $20million in guaranteed salary to be there for his family.  When it comes down to it, there is no amount of money in the world that can buy back the time that is spent away from family.  He may very well coach again in the future.  With his track record, there will always be a place for him whenever he is ready.  But for now, he is putting his family first and his career second.

Many people will question Urban Meyer for his decision to step down in his prime, and Keith Fitzhugh for his decision to pass on the opportunity to join the Jets for their playoff run.  I, for one, think that they should be commended for defying conventional wisdom, and making the decision to sacrifice for the good of their respective families.


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