As Nick Fitzgerald left the gameday locker room for the last time until September, he passed Joe Moorhead who was on his way back in. Minutes before, the head coach had called his senior quarterback to the front of the locker room where Fitzgerald was announced as one of Mississippi State’s two team captains for 2018 elected by their teammates.
Inside the locker room, Moorhead had spoken about Fitzgerald’s leadership and the importance of having strong captains if they’re going to win championships. Outside the locker room, Moorhead stopped his quarterback for a quick personal note.
“Congratulations,” Moorhead said. “That’s awesome. I was a senior captain quarterback. It’s a heck of a deal.”
And it’s a deal that neither Fitzgerald – the offensive captain – or senior linebacker Gerri Green – the defensive captain – take lightly.
“It’s a great, great honor,” Green said. “Seeing all the captains that came before me, big time guys on and off the field, to be able to follow in their footsteps, that means a great deal. I thank my teammates, especially all those guys that have been with me since my freshman year. Us fifth-year seniors going into our last season, it’s a big deal for us to make sure we close out our careers on a high note.”
“Honestly, a lot of people probably thought I shouldn’t even be here to start with,” Fitzgerald said. “To come up, earn a starting job, enter my senior year coming off an injury and still be able to earn enough respect from your teammates to be voted captain, that’s huge. I’m excited. It’s a lot of responsibility on and off the field. I’m ready to get to it.”
Astute listeners will notice that Green and Fitzgerald both made an important distinction in their roles as leaders: it must happen on and off the field. Moorhead himself said it several times when introducing Green and Fitzgerald as captains in the locker room, and it’s clear he’s put an emphasis in his program on character, behavior and performance away from football, giving honors each week not just to players who practice well, but players who do well in classes or with charitable services.
It applies, as well, to workouts, conditioning, film study and all the other parts of the game that take place outside the lines of the field. That, he noted, is why captains are so important. They are the driving force in those moments, and during a long offseason where coaches aren’t able to spend time on the field, it’s imperative that the players themselves make sure the work gets done.
“The best teams I’ve been around are player-driven teams, not coach-driven teams,” Moorhead said. “We elected our captains and we’re passing the team over to them.”
To hear Moorhead explain it, there is no surprise in Green and Fitzgerald being the elected captains, voted into the role by their teammates. The vote wasn’t even close, he told the team, and even confessed, “you know who it is,” before making the introductions. As fifth-year seniors, both of them, they’ve got long resumes of work and reputation to back up their new roles.
That Fitzgerald was elected as the senior quarterback is no shocker, and as he explains it, the same holds true for Green, one of the most respected players in the locker room regardless of position.
“He’s the perfect teammate, honestly,” Fitzgerald said. “Off the field he’s never had issues. On the field he plays his heart out. He’s always voted the hardest worker in the weight room. The best guy. He’s always a first one in, last one out kind of guy. He’s definitely the perfect captain for the defense.”
“He’s one of those guys that’s been with me the whole time,” Green said of Fitzgerald. “I’ve watched him grow. He’s grown as I’ve grown. Both of us came in as freshmen, and to see where we are now speaks highly of how much we’ve been through.”
Applause and cheers were loud and long for both as Green and Fitzgerald took turns stepping to the front of the locker room and addressing their teammates, promising to be the leaders they’re expected to be, to guide their team on the field and off. Now, with practice over and the offseason underway, it’s their time to take over.