FOXBOROUGH - Years later, Mike Frey can’t forget the sight, or the sound. The former left tackle at Harvard was watching his quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, race toward the sideline with the ball in a 2004 game against Princeton.
Zak Keasey, an All-America middle linebacker, was closing fast. But instead of taking the safe route and running out of bounds - the decision most quarterbacks would make - Fitzpatrick lowered his shoulder and charged the oncoming defender, helmets and pads colliding violently.
“He took him on, and made Keasey’s head snap back,’’ Frey said earlier this week in a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where he’s now a corporate bond analyst. “I remember thinking that if he’s going to do that against their All-American, I better pick up my game. We all saw it. Something like that lifts everybody up.
“He’s got a competitive fire within him.’’
Competitive fire? The player who never lost an in-season gasser or an offseason 6 a.m. conditioning sprint while at Harvard, despite being joined by his supposedly faster skill position teammates, seems to finally have found a home as a starting quarterback in the National Football League, six years after being a seventh-round draft pick. He’s led the Buffalo Bills to six wins in his last nine starts, including two straight to open this season.
Directing an offense that has scored 41 and 38 points in wins over Kansas City and Oakland, Fitzpatrick has pumped new life into a franchise that’s had just one winning season since 2000. Others are starting to take note, but if he can lead the Bills to a 3-0 start, it’ll be historic, because that will mean beating the visiting Patriots on Sunday. Buffalo hasn’t celebrated a win over New England since the 2003 season opener, collecting 15 consecutive losses since.
“I think the Patriots, in general, they always present a tough challenge for us,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “Obviously, [with] the streak, the number of games that we’ve played without beating them. We really respect them here.’’
Respect is something Fitzpatrick has earned wherever he’s been, either during his four years leading the Crimson, or in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and now Buffalo as a professional, trying to change any preconceived notions that a Harvard graduate belongs in a board room, not the NFL. Smarts, though, is one of Fitzpatrick’s most impressive calling cards. The son of a rocket scientist, he scored 48 (out of 50) on the Wonderlic test, completing it in record time.
“He’s smart,’’ Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “He’s obviously highly intelligent when it comes to protections and coverages and what defenses are trying to do.’’
Said Fitzpatrick: “I’m the Harvard guy everywhere, every day, but you know what, there’s worse things to be called, worse things to be known by. I know that sometimes people use it as a kind of a joke or sarcastic comment, but I take a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that I went to school there.’’
He arrived in Cambridge with no expectations of playing in the NFL. It wasn’t until after his junior season, in fact, that playing at the next level was even discussed, and that came at the urging of Harvard coach Tim Murphy.
“I mentioned to him that I thought he could play in the NFL, and he kind of looked at me funny, like I had two heads,’’ said Murphy, who sent Fitzpatrick to Peyton Manning’s summer camp, where he competed against bigger names, holding his own. “I can’t for a second say that I thought he was going to be an NFL quarterback when we were recruiting him out of high school. But he just has a tremendous, understated football charisma, the kind of leadership that really goes the farthest.
“He’s a very confident guy in a very low-key way, and boy, that has an effect on his teammates. When something needed to be said he would say it, but he doesn’t talk just to hear himself talk.’’
Fitzpatrick’s play this season is speaking quite loudly. He has seven touchdown passes (tied for the league lead with Tom Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford) and 472 yards, with just one interception. His 109.6 passer rating ranks sixth.
“He’s smart, he sees defenses, he reads coverages, he gets rid of the ball quickly, he’s got good skill players to work with, he’s got a good offensive team,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He’s done a good job of managing it and of executing it, he’s made a lot of good throws. He’s an athletic guy, he can escape and run out of some pressures. But the biggest thing for any quarterback is accuracy and decision-making, and he’s done a real good job of that.’’
Fitzpatrick’s targets are largely unknown. David Nelson leads the Bills in receptions (14), Steve Johnson in receiving yards (162), Scott Chandler in touchdown catches (three). Individually, none would be considered elite. Collectively, they’ve been perfect complements to their hard-working quarterback.
“We’re a team full of guys that are looking to make a name for themselves, we’re looking to make a name for our team,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “Although most of us are unheralded and nobody really knows us, we think that we’re pretty good and we’ve got a lot of talent on the roster. A lot of our guys are so young, they don’t realize that they’re not supposed to go out and score 39 1/2 points a game. They feel like that’s normal, so for us, it’s keeping that confidence, just keeping the swagger that we have.’’
To those who know him, Fitzpatrick and swagger don’t often occupy the same sentence.
“He’s never been a spotlight guy, he just kind of works hard behind the scenes and people trust him,’’ said Will Johnson, who played center and guard on Fitzpatrick’s Harvard teams and is now a professional rugby player living predominantly in London. “Fitz is the kind of guy who just puts everything of himself into everything that he’s doing. The things that he says are inspiring, and he backs it up with work ethic and ability. I think he empowers other people around him to do the same.’’
Added Murphy, who recruited Fitzpatrick as a high school senior in Gilbert, Ariz.: “For all his physical skills, he had the best intangibles I’ve ever seen in a college football player. He was at his best when things were at their worst, and he had this incredible poise that was just palpable when he was out there. I never saw him, even once, flustered in any situation, and that’s something that’s served him particularly well in the NFL.’’
Fitzpatrick was taken in the seventh round of the 2005 draft by the Rams, the 14th and final quarterback drafted that year. Twenty picks earlier, the Patriots chose Matt Cassel, denying Fitzpatrick the opportunity to stay in Boston, and sending him on a three-team journey that has now touched nearly every corner: third string, second string, spot starter, full-time starter. A Buffalo radio station reported this week that the Bills are discussing a contract extension with Fitzpatrick, but when asked about it yesterday, he said his only focus is on beating the Patriots.
Sunday’s game is in Orchard Park, N.Y., though, which means Fitzpatrick will have to wait until the Jan. 1 return game to partake in his favorite culinary ritual in the Boston area. Any time Fitzpatrick visits with his wife and three children (he’s married to Liza Barber, who was an All-America soccer player at Harvard), he makes it a point to stop at Pinocchio’s, a Cambridge pizzeria, where he’ll order two slices of pizza and a cheeseburger sub.
“That’s one meal, and I think I put on about 25 pounds in college from that one meal,’’ Fitzpatrick said.
He put the extra weight to good use, though, creating indelible memories (10-0, the Ivy League title, and one flattened Princeton linebacker as a senior) for his teammates.