When the Buffalo Bills were down 21-0 at home on Sunday, most people assumed that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 could do little to turn the tide against the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. But Fitzpatrick responded by throwing for 369 yards and two touchdowns, including engineering a masterful late scoring drive. Buffalo won, 34-31 — its first victory over New England since 2003.
The shocked and delighted crowd of 68,000 celebrated in Ralph Wilson Stadium. But perhaps Bills’ fans shouldn’t have been so surprised. Fitzpatrick has defied expectations throughout his career in the National Football League (NFL). Drafted 250th in 2005, he has gone from third string to second string to spot starter to starting quarterback for the resurgent Bills.
But rather than rhetorically spiking the ball in the end zone of his doubters, the seven-year veteran speaks quietly and says that his Harvard experience helped prepare him for life in the NFL. He credits Crimson coach Tim Murphy and his teammates with helping him to develop as an athlete, but adds that it was his time in the classroom and the library that helped him to develop the habits of mind that have been so useful to him as a pro.
“I’ve just been patient,” he says humbly. “I’ve been able to learn from the different quarterbacks I’ve played behind, then apply what I learned when I got on the field. I’ve also been able to get better every year. A lot of that came from the experience of classroom work and studying that I had while I was at Harvard.”
That patience is paying off. Including the end of last season, Fitzpatrick has led the Bills to seven wins in their past 10 games. His nine touchdown passes tie him with New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford for second most in the NFL this year. His quarterback rating — 103.5 — ranks seventh and is nearly 30 points higher than his career average. Fitzpatrick says this success is due in part to lessons learned at the College, including how to work with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.
“The biggest thing I learned at Harvard was how to deal with different people,” he says. “In Arizona [his home state], it was all the same type of person. When I got to Harvard, there were a lot of different personalities and different people that I had to learn how to manage. And that’s actually a big part of playing the position of quarterback. You’ve got a lot of different people who you need to keep happy and keep going during a game when they’re not touching the ball.”
Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football, was always happy to see Fitzpatrick touch the ball, particularly in 2004 when the quarterback led the Crimson to an undefeated season and a league championship. Murphy watched Fitzpatrick amass 6,271 yards during four years in Cambridge — a school record — and compares the player to Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. But the coach says it was “intangibles” like leadership and grace under pressure that inspired him to encourage “Fitzy” to pursue a career in football.
“He had the physical tools to be an NFL prospect,” Murphy says, “but his intangibles were off the chart. He is the toughest, most competitive kid I’ve ever coached, and a natural leader. And his poise and ability to perform under pressure was eerie. I have never seen him flustered.”
Fitzpatrick confesses that his success comes as something as a surprise to him. Like most Harvard athletes, the economics concentrator had plans for a career outside of sports after college. He says that Murphy’s encouragement and his own love of the game inspired him to give pro football a shot.
“I wanted to play football for as long as they would let me,” he says. “I think everyone in the locker room at Harvard would have continued to play if they had the opportunity to. At times I feel like I’m playing for them. I’m the guy that was lucky enough to continue my career.”
Murphy says that Fitzpatrick’s impulse to put his teammates first — even seven years after his last game at Harvard — shows that he hasn’t changed much from the player the coach first met in Arizona more than a decade ago.
“The refreshing thing is that he is still the same kid we recruited out of high school,” Murphy says. “Humble. Respectful. No pretentiousness. No sense of entitlement.”
Right now, Fitzpatrick is focused on making Buffalo a force in the ultra-competitive AFC East division, home to the Patriots and to the New York Jets. He knows, however, that some day there will be no more cheering crowds, no more big games. When that time comes, he says, he will still have the education and friendships that he formed at Harvard.
One friend in particular stands out.
“I’ve got a beautiful wife who I met at Harvard, and three kids,” he says. “I’ve got so many tremendous relationships and great friends that I had at Harvard. And I think that the Harvard experience helped me out so much in terms of maturing and growing up. I don’t even want to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone there.”