The last time I saw Ryan Fitzpatrick was Jan. 1 at MetLife Stadium. He was a happy man. Fitz had just led the Jets to a season-ending win over the Bills. He was ready to begin a new year and, perhaps, a new life.
Fitz told me he had likely played his last game. He was 34. He and his wife, Liza, had five children and one on the way. He had been an NFL quarterback for 12 years and had never suffered a concussion. The Jets were done with him. Maybe it was time to call it a career.
"I was really close," Fitzpatrick said Wednesday on a conference call. "More than anything, it was because of how tough a year it was, in terms of not playing well, not meeting my expectations or the team's.
"It was the first year where I had to sit down, reflect and figure out if I still wanted to do this or not."
But eventually, Fitzpatrick decided to come back. His wife, a former soccer star at Harvard, was fully supportive. Sons Brady and Tate were 10 and 8, old enough to appreciate what it meant to have a father play in the NFL. Ultimately, the competitor in Fitz couldn't walk away.
"I still love this game," Fitz said. "I love being out there, so I'm really happy with the decision I made."
On May 19, Fitzpatrick signed with Tampa Bay, where he would serve as a mentor and backup to former No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston, who was entering his third season after throwing for 4,090 yards in 2016.
It was an ideal fit for Fitz, who could earn $3 million carrying a clipboard for one season as a backup. Of course, that was often the case in past years, when Fitzpatrick started the year on the bench, only to be forced into a starting role when injuries knocked the No. 1 guy out of the lineup.
Sure enough, the "Fitz Curse" struck last week, when Winston had to leave with an injured shoulder. Fitz came on and threw for three touchdowns, leading Tampa Bay to 33 points in the final 23:27 of an eventual 38-33 road loss to the Cardinals.
As of Wednesday, the Bucs weren't saying whether Winston would sit out for the first time as a pro, giving way to Fitzpatrick. It would be fitting if Fitz got his first start as a Buc in Buffalo, where he enjoyed his finest days in the NFL. Either way, it feels like coming home.
"It really does," Fitzpatrick said. "It doesn't feel that way anywhere else I've played. Part of it is that I was in Buffalo for four years, longer than anywhere else. We made some great friends, and Buffalo was so welcoming to us. Even when we're not playing the Bills, people are reaching out to me and sending me texts and checking up on my family.
"So it really is like a second home whenever we go back."
Fitzpatrick is a native of Gilbert, Ariz., southeast of Phoenix. He grew up as a huge fan of quarterback Jake Plummer, who played for Arizona State and the Arizona Cardinals. When Fitz tossed his 162nd career TD to pass Plummer on the career list last year, he gave his father the game ball.
"My dad brought that to my attention," Fitz said. "That was the only game ball my dad has ever asked for."
Last week, Fitz was back home in Arizona. His alma mater, Highland High School, honored him at a football game and wanted Fitz to provide a photograph of himself in an NFL uniform for the ceremony. He sent them a photo of himself in a Bills uniform.
So on Sunday, he returns to his "second home," to New Era Field, where he had some of his greatest moments as a pro. That includes a masterful performance with the Jets in Week 2 on Thursday night last season, when Fitzpatrick passed for 374 yards in a 37-31 win over the Bills.
The next week, he threw six interceptions in a 24-3 loss at Kansas City.
It was classic Fitz, capable of soaring achievements one week — or one play — and colossal failure the next. He finished 2016 with 17 picks, third-most in the NFL, a league-low quarterback rating of 69.6.
I always felt that Fitzpatrick's guts were bigger than his arm. It made him attempt throws when he shouldn't, forcing the football into dangerous areas to make a big play. You can argue that it's better than rarely attempting the difficult throw and hiding behind a low interception rate.
Last week, Fitzpatrick threw three TD passes and two interceptions. He became the fourth man in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass for seven different NFL teams, along with Vinny Testaverde, Chris Chandler and Gus Frerotte. He was asked if he saw that as a badge of honor.
"That's definitely a badge of honor for me," he said. "One of the guys on that list is Gus Frerotte. In my second year, Gus came to St. Louis and was a huge mentor to me, not just as a football player but as a family man and husband and dad. That's cool to be in there with him."
Fitz joked that he has also thrown an interception for seven teams, which shows he has a sense of humor. He threw three picks in the fourth quarter of a loss in the season finale in Buffalo two years ago, with the Jets needing to win to make the playoffs. He said beating the Bills here last year eased the sting, but he still hasn't gotten to the playoffs.
The Bucs, who were a chic team to make the playoffs this season, are 2-3 and desperate for a win. Winston is day-to-day with a sprained shoulder, so there's a decent chance he'll play Sunday. Still, if Winston is less than 100 percent, it seems like an ideal spot for Tampa coach Dirk Koetter to give Fitz the start in familiar environs.
"That's one of the reasons why I'm here," he said, "being a guy with experience that doesn't necessarily need all the reps to be in there. I don't know what my role will be, but I'll be ready, whatever they want me to do.
"My career has been a roller-coaster. I've enjoyed it every step of the way and I try to do the best I can. Sometimes it's good enough, sometimes not. But hopefully, when I'm done playing, I would love for my teammates and coaches to have a great respect for the way that I played the game."