Ryan Fitzpatrick announced his retirement from the NFL last week. Judging by the reaction from the football media and his adoring legion of former teammates, you would have thought a Hall of Fame quarterback had just called it quits.
Fitz will never have a plaque in Canton. But he’s an indisputable Hall of Fame person, one of the most beloved and engaging players the sport has seen, a man who defied his perceived physical limitations and lasted 17 years in the league — longer than he or his critics ever imagined.
He played for nine different teams, a record. Fitzpatrick, who turns 40 in November, had a wonderful ride, despite never making it to the playoffs. Bills fans will be pleased, and perhaps unsurprised, to know that it is his four years in Buffalo that he treasures the most.
Fitz found himself as a player and a leader with the Bills. He became a full-time starter for the first time and got his one big long-term contract. Three of his seven children were born when he was a Bill. It was in Buffalo that he felt the most settled as a family man and embraced as part of a community.
A Buffalo guy, if you will.
“I think that’s fair to say,” he said by phone on Monday. “We were there for four years. We were there longer than anywhere else. I think my personality and the personality of the fans very much lines up. Without a doubt, Buffalo was my favorite place to play.
“We had some other great places. We met a lot of other great people. But nowhere touches Buffalo.”
There were some unforgettable highs in Buffalo, most notably the home win over the Patriots in 2011, in which Fitz threw for 369 yards and outplayed Tom Brady. That win snapped the Bills’ 15-game losing streak against the Patriots and gave them a 3-0 record and the division lead.
However briefly, he was at the top of the world. Sports Illustrated covered that Pats game and went to Fitz’s house afterwards. SI talked about Fitz engaging with all the neighborhood kids and called him “a natural community builder” and “a man who has found his home.”
Looking back, it’s amazing how cherished some of the players were from the Bills teams that fell short during the playoff drought: Fred Jackson, Kyle Williams, Stevie Johnson, Eric Wood. Fitz, of course. There was a certain nobility in their striving toward an elusive goal.
Those teams had a stubborn, resilient quality, which seemed to reflect the underdog ethos of the city they represented. Fitzpatrick was right. His flawed, relentless character was perfect for Buffalo.
“Yeah, you look back on it and if you just look at the records at the end of the year, every year was disappointing,” he said. “But when I look back on that time, on my memories and the people I played with, the things I learned about my team and myself — that’s one of the reasons I love Buffalo so much and why I love the fan base.
“We weren’t in the playoffs every year, but they were able to realize and to see what we put into it and the type of guys that we were. That’s why I look back on them so fondly.”
Fitzpatrick left the Bills after the 2012 season. He wanted a chance to compete for the starting job, but the Bills were ready to move on. They were worried that he might beat out their rookie quarterback, who turned out to be EJ Manuel. So he moved on, too.
The night he was released by the Bills, I spoke with Fitz, who was emotional about leaving. The first thing he said was, “It’s a really hard day for me, as a husband and father, because we loved Buffalo so much. We were very fond of the area and the people.”
Fitzpatrick defined himself first as a father and husband. He never took off his wedding ring on the field. Even more remarkable than any of his stats — passing for four TDs in a game 11 times, throwing for 400 yards in the first three games of a season — is the fact that he and his wife, Liza, have seven children who were born in seven different states.
He ran down the list for me: “I’m going to go really slow here,” he said. “I don’t want to forget anybody.
“Brady was born in 2007 in St. Louis. Tate was born in Cincinnati in 2009. Lucy was born in 2011 in Arizona. She was born there because of the lockout. That’s why we were there.
“Maizy was born in Buffalo in 2013. She’s a Buffalo girl. It’s funny, because it was after my last season, but it was January of 2013. Zoey was born in 2015 in Houston. Ruby was born in 2017 in Jersey. And then Jake was born in 2019 in Tampa.”
That’s one kid every two years. Fitzpatrick agrees that Liza, who was an all-American soccer player at Harvard (he also went there, as you might have heard) is the real hero in this story.
Several years ago, Dad began taking his two oldest boys to the Super Bowl. But last year, he didn’t want to travel across country to LA for the game. Then he saw that the Bills would be hosting the Patriots in a playoff game. Now this would be even better for Brady and Tate.
“It was like, ‘This is it; this is going to be our Super Bowl this year,’” he said. “I want my boys to experience what this is going to feel like.
“And … “ Fitz said with a laugh, “it did not disappoint. It wound up being one of the greatest offensive performances in the history of the playoffs.”
On Jan. 15, in 7-degree weather, the Bills destroyed New England, 47-17, in Orchard Park. They scored a touchdown on all seven possessions and became the first team in NFL history to go an entire game without punting, kicking a field goal or turning the ball over.
As anyone who was there could attest, it was an ecstatic, near-hysterical evening at Highmark Stadium. The Fitz kids had been determined to go shirtless at some point in the proud Buffalo tradition. They bugged Daddy Fitz all game long to do it.
“After every touchdown, it was ‘Shirts off,’” he said. “So, after the seventh touchdown, I was like, ‘Let’s do this, dudes.’”
The next thing you knew, Fitzpatrick, no doubt a few beers in, was standing up with his bare chest exposed. The boys had their shirts off, too. Fitz, bare-chested, Facetimed me in the press box.
It was nice of him to include me. Fitz and I got close over the years, more so after he left town. I think he appreciated me the way you would a crazy uncle. He texted me a shot of his X-ray from the operating room after breaking his leg with the Texans in 2014. He sent me a text after testing for Covid the week before the Dolphins’ finale at the Bills two years ago.
What better way to honor the fans who had supported him so well during those four seasons in Buffalo, than having his sons find out what it’s like to be a crazy, shirtless Bills fan?
“The whole experience,” he said with a laugh. “Then after the game, we’re walking out or hanging out in the parking lot, and they got to see Josh Allen after one of the greatest playoff performances a quarterback has ever had and got to say hi to him.
“He’s always been real nice to me and to the kids. So it was just a neat experience all around. I knew if there was ever a way to experience a game in Buffalo for my kids, for them to fee and see that, that was it.”
When Fitzpatrick Facetimed me in the press box, it’s as if he were saying, ‘Sully, look what these people are getting to experience, after all those years of waiting!’
“Ah, that fan base,” he said. “There’s plenty of tortured fans, but they deserve what’s going on right now. Josh is such a perfect representative of Buffalo, not only because he’s a great quarterback and he’s talented, but the way he treats people and the way he plays the game.
“I don’t know if there’s a more fitting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. He definitely gets it, but he’s also just authentic. His personality and authenticity hits home with Bills fans, it really does. There’s a natural fit to Josh and Buffalo that he doesn’t have to try hard, either.”
He could have been talking about his own time in Buffalo. Fitzpatrick joked that the difference is Allen has great talent. Still, Fitz made the most of his ability. He passed for 34,900 yards in his career. Granted, it was a different NFL, but that’s more than quite a few Hall of Famers.
Fitz threw for 11,654 yards and 80 touchdowns for the Bills. In 2010, he caught fire late and had me sweating, because I had guaranteed Jeremy White on WGR that I would run down Hertel Avenue in my underwear if Fitz threw 30 TD passes. I asked him late that season if he would run in his skivvies with me if he reached 30 TDs. He said, “Hell, no. But I’ll come and watch!”
No quarterback had such dramatic highs and lows. He was FitzMagic in good times, FitzTragic when things went awry. Who else could throw six touchdowns in a single game, and toss six interceptions in another, as he did with the Texans in 2014? Two weeks after throwing the six TD passes, he broke his tibia.
The last great performance of his career came late in 2020, when he completed a bomb down the left sideline while getting roughed by the Raiders, leading to a last-second win for the Dolphins. A day later, he tested positive for Covid. He couldn’t play the finale in Buffalo with Miami competing for a playoff spot. The Bills won, 56-26. Maybe he was better off.
When Fitzpatrick left Buffalo in 2013, I wrote that he had “an inflated sense of himself as a gunslinger.” I brought it up to him again this week, almost apologetically. He loved it.
“No, that was great,” he said. “That’s why I made it 17 years. I was very realistic. I always had perspective. I knew my strengths and weaknesses. But the confidence that I carried myself with as a player, that’s why I lasted 17 years. It wasn’t because of my talent.
“That’s why I had the incredible big games and the highs. It’s also why I had a lot of the lows, forcing balls and going down swinging. The inflated sense of self, the confidence, whether it was warranted or not, is what made my career for me. That’s why I played as long as I did. There’s no doubt.”
The success of the current team allows Bills fans to appreciate Fitz more in hindsight, as a flawed but admirable player who wanted so desperately to see this franchise return to greatness. He belongs on the Wall of Fame, which honors more than wins and losses and passing yards.
There’s also talk that the team might sign Fitzpatrick to a one-day contract and allow him to retire as a Bill. Fitz said he hasn’t considered it. But it would be a fitting gesture by the team. He loved playing for Buffalo’s fans. It would be nice to give them one more chance to love him in return.