Former WIU safety Fitzpatrick tackles unique new role with creativity
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Creativity has always been in Justin Fitzpatrick’s blood.
“From when I was very young, I loved movies,” Fitzpatrick said. “I loved filmmaking. I loved making my own videos, my own films, my own highlights.
“I can remember I tried to make a highlight film for my sixth-grade B team feeder-league basketball team,” he said with a laugh. “I wasn’t very good.”
His passion for art and storytelling, though, never waned.
“My senior year in high school, I made our football team’s entire year-end banquet video,” he said.
As a sports broadcasting major at Western Illinois, Fitzpatrick won the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Mid-American Student Production Award for his profile of WIU women’s basketball player Sam Pryor and the impact of her mother’s death from cancer.
“It was things I enjoyed doing, and I never imagined I could make a career out of it,” he said.
That reality hit home when the two-time All-Missouri Valley Football Conference safety for the Leathernecks talked about his future career path with WIU head coach Jared Elliott during his playing days.
“I knew I didn’t want to coach,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t think I had that want. But I knew I still wanted to be around the sport. I love college football.”
That led to Elliott hiring his former safety after graduation in 2019 as the football team’s graduate assistant video coordinator.
“I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did,” Fitzpatrick said. “I love telling stories, showcasing our student-athletes and trying to give them more of a voice.”
Fitzpatrick’s role has now grown in the program. He was hired in the off-season to a unique role as the team’s director of football operations/creative solutions.
From GA to new role
Just like his play on the football field, Fitzpatrick’s video work as a graduate assistant — and desire to pitch in wherever needed last season — caught Elliott’s eye.
“He did a phenomenal job,” Elliott said. “It was no surprise to us who knew Justin as a player. He’s one of those guys who always went above and beyond. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the season and you step back and say, ‘Man, I hired him to be my video guy and he’s wearing seven different hats.’ He just gets things done and he’s proactive.”
When the program’s director of football operations position opened after last season, Elliott and Fitzpatrick had another career discussion, with a twist.
Fitzpatrick said he always admired the work of former WIU football operations leaders, DeMarkco Butler and Holden Boyle, who recently took over the position at Illinois State.
But the job is mostly behind the scenes, often thankless and can be a beehive of activity and tasks.
“(The DFO) is really the glue of your program,” Elliott said. “The most important thing you look at is you have to have someone who has a servant-minded attitude. There’s a lot of moving parts.”
The DFO position manages schedules, coordinates travel, attends meetings when coaches aren’t able to and – perhaps most importantly – maintains constant communication with the entire roster of players, coaches and support staff.
“Organization is critical when you’re getting pulled in a thousand directions,” Elliott said. “(There’s a need) to stay poised and to find ways to hold things together.”
Fitzpatrick said those needs were similar to how he handled his role as a team captain and a two-sport athlete. He also played outfield on the WIU baseball team.
“Being a pretty organized guy, and a captain on the team, I liked making sure everybody was OK,” he said. “That DFO role just fit perfectly.”
Before Fitzpatrick could accept the job, however, Elliott had one request.
He wanted his former All-MVFC safety to keep a hand in the team’s video and graphic work that is showcased on social media for the public and future recruits.
“I said, ‘Of course. That’s what I was about to ask you,’” Fitzpatrick said.
Working amid a pandemic
Every athletic department in the country has been impacted by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, and WIU is no different.
The MVFC moved football season to this spring (WIU kicks off Feb. 19 at South Dakota), workout schedules were thrown into uncertainty, virtual meetings became commonplace, and new health and safety protocols became part of everyday life.
Transitioning to a new role amid the pandemic was a benefit, according to Fitzpatrick.
“I started this role right as COVID started,” he said. “It was an unprecedented time. I had no idea what I was doing. But everybody was learning at the same time. That helped me get my feet wet. Now I feel like next year at this time, everything will feel like a breeze to me because I’ve had so many things to do during this pandemic.”
As a former player, Fitzpatrick has the benefit of knowing and having played with many members of the team, which provides a built-in trust. In addition, he is uniquely familiar with what WIU football is and how to communicate that to future players and their families via videos and graphics.
“Leatherneck football has a very special and unique identity,” Elliott said. “We’re a blue-collar, lunch pail type of outfit. That’s what we want to attract here at Western. We’re not glitz and glamour. That’s where Justin and his creative ability and his understanding of who we are and what we’re all about helps promote that.”
From coach to boss
Having spent four years in one place as a college athlete didn’t give Fitzpatrick the itch to leave.
Instead, it had the opposite effect.
“This place is special to me,” he said. “I always tell people that Macomb is not for everyone, but it’s a place that captures you. And if it captures you, you really never want to leave. It’s a place I love.”
Fitzpatrick also loves the opportunity to work for his former head coach.
“When I played, I wasn’t someone who would just go off on somebody,” he said. “I’m a mellow kind of guy. In the staff room, Coach Elliott operates like that. Once it gets competitive out on the field, you get a little more fiery. But we’re calm guys, and we try to solve problems as easily and as simply as we can.
“He started out as my head coach and ended up being my boss. I just love being in the office with him every single day.”