Fitzpatrick, Bills a good union

Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Bills is from Harvard, and that makes him unique. He's the only quarterback from that school to become an NFL starter.

But there's a common, everyman side to this son of a rocket scientist, and not just because he proposed to his wife at a McDonald's.

"Actually," he said, "it was a McDonald's connected to a gas station."

Fitzpatrick, you see, is a stickler for accuracy. That shows up on Sundays. In two games — both Bills victories — he has thrown for seven touchdowns with one interception, directing a team that leads the NFL in scoring with 39.5 points per game.

The Bills play host to the Patriots on Sunday, a team that has beaten them 15 times in a row.

"We'll be ready for them," Bills tight end Scott Chandler said.

Dismiss the Bills at your peril. This isn't the same team that lost its first eight games last season, finishing 4-12 and securing the third pick in the draft. This is a club gaining confidence by the week, especially in its quarterback, and several of its skill-position players were overlooked by much of the NFL.

Receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson were undrafted, and Steve Johnson went in the seventh round. Running back Fred Jackson wasn't drafted, and Chandler has been cut four times in five years.

"It kind of causes us to play with a chip on our shoulders," Chandler said. "We all have confidence, and we've known our whole careers that we can play. It's just a matter of getting that shot, and a lot of us had to work a long time to get that shot."

None longer than Fitzpatrick, 28, who was drafted by the Rams in 2005 — the sixth-to-last player chosen — and also spent time with the Bengals. This is the first season he has been the starter since Week 1, and there's no question the Bills are happy about that decision.

"He's smart," Bills coach Chan Gailey said of Fitzpatrick, who scored 48 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test. "He's obviously highly intelligent when it comes to protections and coverages and what defenses are trying to do."

The lore of Fitzpatrick still lingers at Harvard. People there remember him knocking out an opposing linebacker when he should have been stepping out of bounds, scrambling around like the Ivy League's answer to Steve Young and starting every home game day by walking the field with his parents.

"There were kids who were top athletes who walked around Harvard like they were the show," said Brad Quigley, the school's head football trainer. "Ryan was just a regular kid."

Being the quarterback did have its advantages, though. One year, Fitzpatrick had a prime gig running the motor pool at Harvard's reunions, shuttling high-profile alumni here and there. He jokes that being an NFL quarterback is the second-best job he's ever had.

"Everybody made thousands of dollars on tips," he said. "It was awesome. Guys were driving around Conan O'Brien, people like that. That might have been the coolest job I've ever had, even though it lasted about a week."

Bob Glatz, executive director of the Harvard Varsity Club, recalled: "He was the most popular driver, not because he was Ryan Fitzpatrick, football star, but because he was a good-looking young lad who knew how to treat the alums well."

It took more than smarts and savvy to land the Bills job, and, although he did a respectable job replacing Trent Edwards in 2010, there was no guarantee he would be this year's starter. The Bills told Fitzpatrick after last season that if they got a chance to draft Auburn's Cam Newton, they would have. And if Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was off the board by the time the Bills were ready to make the third pick, they might have taken Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. (Dareus was there, however, and they took him.)

Regardless, Fitzpatrick, who's due a new contract after this season, is trending upward by the week.

More than that, he fits the blue-collar ethos of Buffalo, a place that had grown increasingly wary of glamour-boy quarterbacks from the West Coast. It played big in that town last season when Fitzpatrick, raised in Gilbert, Ariz., grew a lumberjack beard over the course of the season. He was much more Jeremiah Johnson than Rob Johnson.

"He's definitely a very down-to-earth guy," Jones said. "Even when we're in the huddle, he's always joking. He keeps everybody else calm."

Fitzpatrick laughs at himself too. He coined the nickname "The Amish Rifle," drives a pickup truck and might be the only quarterback who wears his wedding ring when he plays. He's married to Liza Barber, a former soccer star at Harvard, and their engagement story is a classic.

During his rookie season, Fitzpatrick bought the ring with money from a joint bank account he shared with Barber. He hid it in his car, then picked her up for a day of shopping at a St. Louis mall. They stopped by a clothing store, the clerk accidentally double-charged her and Barber said not to worry because she'd check the account online when she got home.

"I knew she was going to notice the money that was missing," Fitzpatrick said. "So I was like, 'Oh, man.' I had to figure out from The Gap to my house how I was going to propose. Luckily the ring was in the car.

"We drove by all these fancy places. I asked her if she wanted to grab some dinner and sit by the lake. It was November, and she was like, 'Why would I do that? It's freezing outside!' All she wanted was McDonald's. My relationship with my wife, and knowing her, it was just the perfect setting.

"She ordered probably a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets and had sweet-and-sour sauce on her face."

Soon, she had a diamond ring, too — a Happy Meal redefined.

sfarmer@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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