There's something improbable about the gridiron career of Northwestern senior linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, almost as improbable as the Wildcats' string of come-from-behind victories this season. In Fitzgerald's case the hard-to-believe stuff started with the way his mother pushed him into the sport. As a 60-pound second-grader, Pat didn't take to football immediately, but Flo Fitzgerald thought the game would instill a sense of responsibility in her son. Every weekday she dropped him off at a field near the family's home in Orland Park, Ill., so he could participate in a league that allowed kids up to the sixth grade to play if they didn't weigh more than 100 pounds. "I dreaded going to practice," Pat says. "I remember coming home from school and hoping my mother had forgotten about practice. But sure enough, every time, she'd have my water jug ready and send me off."
Says Flo, "He'd sit in the car, and there would be tears, but I told him, 'Patrick, you have to get out there.' "
Fourteen years later he is still a bit undersized, at least for a middle linebacker, but he's no longer hesitant about football. His Northwestern teammates describe the 6'2", 235-pound Fitzgerald not as a lilliputian but as a leviathan—"like Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl," in the words of fellow linebacker Tim Scharf, repeating the oft-used description of Fitzgerald's idol, Dick Butkus. Fitzgerald suffered a broken left leg in the penultimate regular-season game last fall and missed the Rose Bowl, but still made first-team All-America, and he has come back more dominating than ever. "He's a little bigger this year, and I think even a step quicker," says Wildcats defensive coordinator Ron Vanderlinden.
Indeed, there was Fitzgerald last Saturday, contributing a key third-quarter interception and nine tackles in a 27-24 victory over Illinois in which Adrian Autry scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:02 to play. Northwestern has now won its last four games by a combined 10 points, overcoming fourth-quarter deficits in three of those games, and Fitzgerald's play has helped put the Wildcats (7-1, 5-0), last year's surprise Big Ten champions, in position to repeat, with games remaining against Penn State, Iowa and Purdue.
Perhaps no other player has better mirrored Northwestern's dramatic rise than Fitzgerald. At the start of spring practice in 1995, Vanderlinden had penciled him in as the second-string middle linebacker. By season's end Fitzgerald had not only become a starter but also emerged as the best player on a defense that allowed the fewest points per game in the nation. He ranked first in the conference in tackles per game (13) and, in addition to the All-America honors, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, no small feat in a conference that included linebackers Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice of Illinois, who were taken second and third, respectively, in last April's NFL draft.
While there is undeniably a Butkus-like ferocity to Fitzgerald's game, his style is more brainy than barbarian. "He recognizes what opponents are trying to do as quickly as anybody in the Big Ten," says Minnesota offensive coordinator Bob DiBese. "Sometimes you think he's guessing but that son-of-a-gun guesses right a lot." Fitzgerald is tenacious, too, as he showed during the Wildcats' 21-10 win over Penn State last fall. The Nittany Lions ran a running play behind guard Jeff Hartings, who freight-trained Fitzgerald. From his supine position, Fitzgerald made the tackle. Astounded, Hartings, a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions this year, pulled Fitzgerald up by his jersey and asked, "How did you do that?"
Though Fitzgerald now has a vertical leap of 30 inches and can bench-press 400 pounds, he was seen by most college recruiters as too small and lacking in athletic gifts. Among the schools that expressed a mild interest in him was Notre Dame. During the fall of Fitzgerald's senior year at Sandburg High in Orland Park, the Irish coaching staff invited him for an official visit. But soon thereafter, one of the coaches called and asked Fitzgerald if he would consider switching his visit to another weekend. Sensing that he was not a priority, Fitzgerald said that he would not switch dates and that he would get back in touch with Notre Dame if he changed his mind. His father, Pat Sr., who had been eavesdropping from the adjoining family room, came storming into the kitchen, his Irish clearly up. "You did what?" he bellowed. "What were you thinking?"
Pat Jr. turned his attention to Northwestern, which was two years removed from a 2-9 season, and Georgia Tech, which was two years removed from a national championship. "I just kept going back and forth between the two schools," he says.
Wildcats coach Gary Barnett recalls the February afternoon in 1993 when he parked his rental car less than a block from the home of a Louisville high school linebacker whose name he can no longer recall. Before visiting that recruit, Barnett wanted to check on the status of Fitzgerald, who had been undecided. Barnett picked up his cellular phone and called an assistant he had already phoned five times that day. This would be the last call, Barnett vowed. If Fitzgerald still hadn't committed to Northwestern. Barnett would give the Louisville prospect the last scholarship the Wildcats had to offer. "He's coming," the assistant said. With that, Barnett headed back to Evanston. "That's how close Pat Fitzgerald came to not becoming a Wildcat," Barnett says.
Barnett smiles wanly with the retelling of the story. "Do I feel lucky that I didn't walk into the home of the kid from Louisville and offer him a scholarship?" he asks. "Sure. But you have to remember this: At the time it wasn't that big a deal. While we were happy to get Fitz and expected him to be a contributor, we had no idea how significant that contribution would be. Who could have known?"