A doctor told RJ Fitzgerald he would miss the rest of this season. Fitzgerald wasn’t convinced.
Montana State’s starting fullback dislocated his left elbow in MSU’s Gold Rush game on Sept. 11. It certainly looked like a season-ender, but a trainer told Fitzgerald he could return in four to six weeks.
Fitzgerald was activated last week, five games after the injury, and he played in MSU’s 13-7 win at Weber State.
“I like proving doctors wrong,” Fitzgerald said with a smile Monday.
Nobody at MSU is surprised Fitzgerald came back as soon as he did. Toughness defines the redshirt junior from Dillon.
The No. 8-ranked Bobcats (6-1, 4-0 Big Sky) hope his fortitude and valuable blocking ability will contribute to more big victories in this season’s final stretch.
“That’s one of the toughest humans I’ve been around. He loves football. Guys want to know how you’re supposed to do things, just follow him,” MSU offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright said Tuesday. “He’s who you think of when you think of Montana State football, a kid who would just bust his butt and run through a wall for you.”
It’s not a coincidence that Fitzgerald returned for the Weber State game.
The Wildcats are four-time defending Big Sky champions and entered this season as the conference favorite. They were 2-3 entering last week but sat at No. 19 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25, making them the first ranked team MSU had faced all season. The Bobcats had lost three straight games to WSU and hadn’t won in Ogden, Utah, since 2013.
“Once I got hurt in Gold Rush, the first question I asked was, ‘When’s the soonest I can come back?’” Fitzgerald said. The trainer said “four to six weeks. I looked at my schedule, pulled it out and was like, ‘Oh, that’s Weber.’ I was shooting for that the whole time.”
Fitzgerald got hurt on a short catch early in the second quarter of MSU’s second game of the season against Drake. He used his left arm to brace his fall as he was tackled, and the arm bent in a gruesome way. Concern grew as the player reputed for his toughness lied on the turf for several minutes. To make worries worse, trainers held his left arm in place as he walked off the field.
Fitzgerald wouldn’t let the scene remain somber. As he departed, he raised his helmet in the air with his right arm, causing the quiet Bobcat Stadium fans to cheer.
“I was trying to fire up the crowd, trying to get us going a little bit and get some more energy in the building,” he said. “I’m a Bobcat through and through, so it’s going to be whatever it takes to kind of get the crowd fired up, and I thought in that moment that it would maybe spark us.”
MSU scored 15 straight points after that and won 45-7.
The helmet raise and Gold Rush win didn’t change the fact that Fitzgerald was dealing with a serious injury. The initial season-ending diagnosis and the road to recovery tested his mental strength.
But Fitzgerald tried to “do whatever I could to help the team out,” he said. He was engaged in practices, meetings and weight-lifting sessions, passing his knowledge on to players like his replacement at fullback, Jaharie Martin.
“How he came back after his injury is a perfect example of his mental and physical toughness and just who he is. He made up his mind he wanted to be back for Weber State, and he was,” said MSU tight ends coach Nate Potter, who is Fitzgerald’s main position coach. “That’s the kind of mindset you need. But he’s also respectful of the doctors and our trainers, and he followed the steps that were needed to come back.”
Fitzgerald wore a brace on his left elbow during last week’s game, and he played sparingly. MSU head coach Brent Vigen expects him to get more playing time as the season progresses, both at fullback and on special teams.
“His catch radius got a little shorter,” Housewright joked. “It typically was pretty short but now it’s even shorter, which I didn’t think was possible.”
Fitzgerald has long lived in the shadow of his good friend Troy Andersen, a fellow Beaverhead County High School graduate and one of the all-time great Bobcats. You won’t hear any complaints about that from Fitzgerald, whose father (Greg Fitzgerald) and uncle (John Fitzgerald) played football for Montana.
A fullback’s nature is to be selfless, Fitzgerald said before the season. Plus, he’s gained a ton of respect from his coaches and teammates.
“He’s your typical fullback,” Andersen, a senior linebacker, said in August. “He’s really good at digging out blocks. It’s sometimes annoying to be on the defense because he’ll block you well. It’s kind of like a little gnat. You can’t get him off you once he locks on.”
Fitzgerald felt a little rusty when he entered last week’s game, but he “felt great” after his first contact with a WSU defender, he said. Even at less than 100% during a poor performance from MSU’s offense, it was hard for Fitzgerald to feel any other way.
He feared his season was over about a month earlier. Not only did he come back, he helped the Bobcats earn their biggest win so far this season.