PITTSBURGH (AP) — Minkah Fitzpatrick could sense the vibe as he walked through the Pittsburgh International Airport last month, equal parts bleary eyed and adrenaline fueled following a trade that helped the second-year safety flee the rebuilding Miami Dolphins for the decidedly more stable Steelers.
From the jetway to the concourse, from the shuttle to the main terminal, Fitzpatrick was struck by the number of people who recognized him and wished him well even though he'd been in town for all of five minutes.
"Pittsburgh is a football city, a sports city," Fitzpatrick said.
"It's a different type of culture down there," Fitzpatrick said. "It's not as big."
With good reason. The Dolphins haven't won a playoff game since Bill Clinton's final days in office and are yet in the midst of a massive reset under first-year head coach Brian Flores. Miami is winless (0-6) heading into Monday night's visit to Pittsburgh (2-4), very much looking like a team that could use an intelligent, versatile and dynamic player such as Fitzpatrick. And yet he'll walk onto the Heinz Field turf wearing black-and-yellow after asking the Dolphins to continue their reboot without him .
Fitzpatrick stressed it wasn't personal, just business. He has no agenda he's trying to push. No axe to grind. He wanted a change. The Dolphins — who are aggressively stockpiling draft picks in hopes of accelerating their makeover — accommodated him. When Flores scans Pittsburgh's defense under the lights there won't be any pangs of what might have been when he spots Fitzpatrick's familiar No. 39.
"It's something that happens," Flores said. "We've moved on."
Miami doesn't really have a choice. The Dolphins received Pittsburgh's first-round selection in next spring's draft for Fitzpatrick and Flores has buried himself in trying to figure out a way to at least make his team competitive.
"I think if you start to think about everything other than that, 'If this happens ... Why'd this happen? Why'd that happen?' (it's not beneficial),'" Flores said.
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has certainly looked every bit worth the investment the Steelers made when they moved aggressively to land him just hours after losing safety Sean Davis for the season with a shoulder injury. Davis was entering the final year of his contract and Pittsburgh had made no overtures to re-sign him. Bringing in the 22-year-old Fitzpatrick addressed a need and in some ways provided an upgrade over Davis, who has been solid but not spectacular through three-plus seasons.
Less than a week into his new gig, Fitzpatrick picked off a pass and forced a fumble in a loss at San Francisco. He's missed all of one defensive snap in four games with the Steelers while winning over his teammates with his preparation and his professionalism.
"He doesn't play like a second-year guy," veteran cornerback Joe Haden said. "He has the ease of a player who's been in the league at least five years. He's very, very, very mature and takes the game seriously. He doesn't just talk for no reason. He's really focused, locked in. Very smart. Knows all the plays. All the checks."
Fitzpatrick shrugs off the compliments. Call it the byproduct of playing safety for Nick Saban at Alabama. Saban doesn't have his coaches dumb things down to accommodate the Crimson Tide's playmakers. If anything, Saban forces his coaches to go the other way because he knows it will help prepare his stars for what awaits at the next level. It's one of the reasons Fitzpatrick has been able to adjust so quickly. The playbook Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler handed Fitzpatrick when he arrived was the third one Fitzpatrick downloaded in less than a year. And yet he's rarely found himself out of place on the field.
"To me, he is very sudden," Butler said. "What I mean by that is once he realizes what is going on, he is quick to attack and do his job. I think that has probably helped us as much as anything else."
Focusing on football also helps. Fitzpatrick spent his first week in Pittsburgh at a nearby hotel waiting for his gear to arrive from Miami. He then met with a real estate agent after the Steelers returned from San Francisco. He asked teammates for recommendations on where to live and told the agent he didn't need much to get by. A bed. A sofa. A kitchen. That's it.
When he heads home for the night, Fitzpatrick will often hop in his car and just drive around in an attempt to get a feel for his new town, a unique challenge of its own in a place — unlike Miami — where there are no palm trees, straight roads or easy ways to get from here to there. Yet Fitzpatrick has always prided himself on being able to find his way around no matter where he is. Residue from his job description.
Besides, as he put it "I don't just want to sit at home on the couch. I've got to check things out." So Fitzpatrick will cruise around, drink it in and try not to ask his phone for help getting back home. So far, so good. On the field and off.
"He's a Swiss Army knife," Haden said. "He can do anything."