© Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
In order to fully understand Minkah Fitzpatrick’s path to the NFL draft, you must know the breadth of his journey. After enduring Hurricane Irene’s destruction, financial insecurity, and long commutes for school, Fitzpatrick has emerged from exhausting circumstances as a future NFL standout.
Thursday evening, the prized Alabama product will be selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Fitzpatrick is considered one of the top prospects in the class, whom many view as a top-10 pick. If he falls to San Francisco at No. 9 overall, he could supplement the 49ers secondary at just about any position.
“This is a once in a 20, 30, 40-year guy,” said Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, who originally recruited Fitzpatrick to Alabama. “This guy is really unique and impressive in every way as a football player and human being.”
Success is often a product of favorable circumstance. But for Fitzpatrick, success came despite one hurdle after another.
In late August of 2011, Hurricane Irene ravaged Fitzpatrick’s Old Bridge, New Jersey home, displacing his family to his grandparents’ three-bedroom residence. His family struggled to pay tuition at St. Peter’s Preparatory School, with Fitzpatrick Sr. working three jobs and Fitzpatrick working part-time gigs to help them get by. When he returned home after 13-hour long days, Fitzpatrick joined his father, Minkah Fitzpatrick Sr., a diesel mechanic, in repairing cars. He also helped Fitzpatrick Sr. build a new home from scratch.
“It was crazy stuff,” said Rich Hansen, Fitzpatrick’s high school coach. “It was really rough. I don’t know how he did it. I swear to you, I don’t know how he did it.”
Hansen was Fitzpatrick’s commuting partner. Each weekday morning, around 6:30 a.m., Hansen would pick up his star playmaker to make the hour-long drive to St. Peter’s Prep, home of the nationally renowned football program.
“I could tell he had a rough night and wasn’t 100 percent, and he never complained; he never alibied,” Hansen said. “He just buckled up his chinstraps and went. That’s his grind. That’s his payment. That’s his investment in building his foundation of strength and toughness. Until you walk the walk the walk that he walked and lived what he lived, you really don’t know what toughness is.”
During those car rides, Hansen and Fitzpatrick discussed life and what lay ahead. Both knew the NFL was a distant but real possibility in Fitzpatrick’s future.
Hansen, who has coached seven NFL players during his 34 years of coaching, says it’s difficult to foresee an NFL career in high school. But Fitzpatrick was one of the easiest guesses. Hansen had never seen a high school player like Fitzpatrick, whose blend of work ethic, singular focus, and eye-popping talent molded him into a can’t-miss recruit.
By the time he was in ninth grade, Fitzpatrick was already a ‘legend’ in New Jersey, according to Cristobal. He played running back, wide receiver, defensive back, and returner, all with apparent ease. He ran track, and if he hadn’t given it up to focus on football, he would have likely broken New Jersey’s 100-meter record, Cristobal says.
By his senior year, Fitzpatrick was a five-star recruit in the 2015 class. He led St. Peter’s Prep to the No. 5 rank in the nation after winning the New Jersey State Championship his senior season.
Early the next morning after the victory, Hansen called 10 of his seniors to thank them for an unforgettable year. He woke up nine of them. The one call that went to voicemail was directed to Fitzpatrick, who was busy running and training, despite what had transpired at Metlife Stadium fewer than 12 hours prior.
“He was like, ‘Coach, it never ends,’” Hansen said. “'(I am) just getting ready for the next level.’”
“Honestly, it took me a while to understand that’s what makes him happy,” Hansen said. “His happy time is when he’s training and working and killing himself.”
Hansen has countless ‘Minkah stories,’ but one of his favorite tales came in the state semifinals.
St. Peters Prep trailed by four points at halftime. Walking through the tunnel, Fitzpatrick approached Hansen and pounded his chest, as if to say ‘get me the ball.’ The first play out of the half, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, now the starter at Notre Dame, launched a 65-yard rainbow to Fitzpatrick in the back of the end zone. He elevated and snagged the ball, keeping his feet in bounds, right in front of a contingent of fans behind the end zone. Rather than celebrate, Fitzpatrick handed the ball to the referee, saluted him, and ran back to the sideline. No frills, no flash.
Cristobal quickly saw the same business-like Fitzpatrick. After he committed to Alabama his senior year, Fitzpatrick spent his spring break in Tuscaloosa, training with his future teammates and learning Nick Saban’s defense.
“You’re not going to outwork him, and you’re not going to find enough work for him,” Cristobal said. “He’s going to find extra before and he’s going to find extra after.”
During Fitzpatrick’s recruitment, Cristobal, the Alabama offensive line coach at the time, prophesied Fitzpatrick’s career in a conversation with his parents.
“I would be shocked if he doesn’t graduate Alabama as the best (defensive back) they have had there,” Cristobal said.
He may be right.
Cristobal says Fitzpatrick is one of the best tacklers he has ever seen. Fitzpatrick, who ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, has plenty of speed and athleticism, which he showed as a college freshman.
In the seventh game of his college career, a 41-23 win at Texas A&M, Fitzpatrick had two interceptions, both resulting in touchdowns. He quickly impressed his coaches and older teammates with his playmaking abilities and premature grasp of Saban’s defensive schemes.
“The system, it’s got some learning that comes with it, and (Fitzpatrick) was all over it,” Cristobal said. “(He has) a real high football IQ, and he is like a sponge. He just worked at it.”
Fitzpatrick played all six secondary positions at Alabama and starred on special teams. He bookended his three-year career with two national championships, the first as a freshman and the most recent as a junior. He led Alabama with six interceptions last season. His four interception returns for touchdowns are the most in Alabama history.
Last December, Fitzpatrick won the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player. He also won the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back, becoming the second recipient in Alabama history.
Cristobal’s prophesy held up.
“I don’t gush just to gush,” Cristobal said. “I haven’t seen better. I just haven’t seen better. I think he is still scratching the service.”
If this is only the beginning, what lies ahead of Fitzpatrick is a brilliant NFL career, which seems more probable than possible. What remains to be seen is which team will acquire the Alabama product Thursday evening.
One of those potential suitors is the 49ers, which hosted Fitzpatrick for a pre-draft visit earlier this month.
For a San Francisco secondary that lacks depth and experience, it would make a lot of sense to select Fitzpatrick, who can line up anywhere in the secondary. The 49ers are shallow at cornerback, with Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon as the projected starters. Jimmie Ward is slotted at cornerback until Sherman returns, but Ward has played mostly safety in recent seasons. K’Waun Williams would likely start at nickel. Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt are expected as the starting safeties.
Fitzpatrick has the ability to step in and play multiple secondary positions as a rookie, just as he showed during his freshman year at Alabama. He can cover receivers and tight ends. He can attack the opposing backfield. He can turn punts and kicks into game-changing plays. Hansen calls Fitzpatrick a ‘one-man personnel package.’
His 6-foot-1, 203-pound frame matches the big, physical prototype in defensive coordinator’s Robert Saleh scheme. General manager John Lynch has preached the importance of players’ ‘versatility,’ a buzzword commonly associated with Fitzpatrick.
“You want players who can thrive in any scheme; game-changing players,” Lynch said Monday afternoon.
Fitzpatrick grew up as a Jets fan, but Hansen says the 21-year-old simply wants to join a team that appreciates him and has a plan.
Thursday night will punctuate all of the sacrifices and hard work he has devoted to football since he was a kid, overcoming one challenging scenario after the next. Once he hears his name called, he will celebrate in Dallas’ AT&T Stadium alongside his family, who used to drive 16 hours to watch him play at Alabama, always supporting his football career despite their hardships.
“He came through the fire,” Hansen said. “I would say this to whoever is getting him: you are getting a life-tested, tough dude at a very young age whose single focus is about his craft and being the best at what he does.”
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow Brad on Twitter @Bquist13.