Former Bellingham High School athlete JT Fitzgerald has long dreamed of reaching the NFL. His father, Jamie, had achieved every football player's goal after playing two games for the Minnesota Vikings in 1987, and Fitzgerald felt he could do the same.
The journey has been anything but easy, though, and Fitzgerald still has work to do to take the next step.
Fitzgerald, 23, is in the midst of his rookie season in the Arena Football League as a defensive back. He has recorded 16 tackles and one interception in 10 games for the 8-7 Spokane Shock.
The Shock is his first team since a shoulder injury during preseason forced Fitzgerald off the Canadian Football League's BC Lions.
The 6-foot-1 Fitzgerald has long struggled with a history of injuries. After a four-year career at Rocky Mountain College, in which Fitzgerald compiled 222 tackles and seven interceptions, Fitzgerald attended a pro day at Rocky Mountain College.
He had just had surgery to treat one of his injuries incurred at Rocky Mountain and was smaller than the 205 pounds he weighs now.
"I lost quite a bit of weight and was overlooked by teams," Fitzgerald said in a phone interview.
The general manager for the Shock, also a scout for the BC Lions at the time, noticed Fitzgerald's talent, including a 4.27 40-yard dash, and brought him to the BC Lions camp.
He made the roster heading into preseason but after another shoulder injury, he was cut.
"It's been kind of tough," Fitzgerald said. "At times, you think 'Are these ever going to stop?' If I keep having these injuries, teams are going to think I'm injury prone. It's always in the back of your mind."
Fitzgerald knew he was just one step away from the NFL, but the setback "pushed him back to the bottom again."
The Shock signing Fitzgerald has been a "blessing" and for now he's just going to try to get on film and impress NFL coaches.
With the Shock, Fitzgerald dealt with some of the same issues he has faced in the past - injuries. He battled with a hamstring injury this season, but when he has played, he's done well.
In his first game back from the injury, Fitzgerald recorded his first AFL interception. He saw an errant throw from the quarterback going off the end zone netting, which ais in play in the AFL, and ran into position. He caught it off the net and started running out of the end zone but realized he wasn't going anywhere and ran back in, where he was downed for a safety.
Despite the miscue, Fitzgerald said he was proud to get on the stat sheet.
The AFL has forced Fitzgerald to focus on parts of his game that need work. He was a strong safety in college, but the quicker pace and smaller field of the AFL forces teams to play without a safety. Fitzgerald had to refine his cover skills.
"It's been real hard for me," Fitzgerald said. "It's really made me work on my craft...I think I've become a student of the game. In high school and college, I got away with not doing film study. Now, it's my job."
There have always been challenges for Fitzgerald. In youth leagues, he was always undersized. People laughed at his dream to play in the NFL. A growth spurt in college changed that but then the injuries came.
Still, he never stopped pursuing his dream.
"All the times that I thought about not playing, it was hard. The chapter wasn't done yet. I didn't want to close the book," Fitzgerald said "Every setback I got a little nagging, 'Do I need to stop?' But I always kept going. It was never hard for me. It wasn't really a conscious decision."
Fitzgerald stays in contact with his agent and will be sending film to CFL and NFL coaches toward the end of the AFL season, but for now it's all about staying healthy and boosting his highlight reel.
CFL and NFL teams have shown interest in him, Fitzgerald said, especially as a special teams guy due to his speed, but he knows he's a risky pickup since he hasn't played a full season in years.
"If I didn't make it to the NFL, that'd be tough," Fitzgerald said. "At the same time, I can't say I didn't give it my all."
To follow Fitzgerald and the Spokane Shock, visit spokaneshock.com. The Shock plays three more games before it enters the playoffs, the team's fourth playoff berth in five years.
Reach Joshua Hart by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 360-715-2851.