Football is a physically demanding sport.
But it was another equally tough sport that helped University of Maine senior running back Joe Fitzpatrick become a productive football player — boxing.
Fitzpatrick started boxing when he was 10 at Portland Boxing Club. There, he was coached by Maine Sports Hall of Fame inductee Bob Russo, whom he credits with helping him shape his competitiveness.
“Bob is a hell of a coach and a hell of a guy, too; a great person, great character,” said Fitzpatrick, who grew up in North Yarmouth.
He said the gym is where he developed his mental approach to sports.
“I was being shaped to compete and to really push myself and train by myself. It’s not just game day, it’s preparing the right way during the week.”
Fitzpatrick fought all around New England and still does some sparring during school breaks. He said the sport combines physical attributes and mental toughness.
He said boxing is different than lining up with 10 other teammates on the football field and sharing the experience with a large group of athletes.
“[In the ring] you’re lining up against someone, so you know it’s either going to be you or them, so you have to put everything you have behind yourself,” Fitzpatrick said.
The hard-running Fitzpatrick used his determination to overcome back, knee and shoulder injuries and carve out a nice football career at UMaine. He goes into Saturday’s noon game against Richmond as UMaine’s top rusher with 208 yards on 41 carries, a solid 5.1 yards per carry.
Fitzpatrick was the Black Bears’ No. 2 rusher each of the past two seasons.
For his career, he has 235 carries for 1,129 yards (4.8 ypc) and has scored eight touchdowns, including three this season.
Fitzpatrick was a medical redshirt in 2016 due to a back ailment but, as a true freshman in 2015, played in six games.
UMaine senior linebacker Taji Lowe, who used to be Fitzpatrick’s roommate, said he can see how boxing has been beneficial for him.
“His footwork is great. He’s really good at chipping off blocks, getting his elbows into some guys,” Lowe said.
Lowe also said Fitzpatrick is difficult to tackle.
“You don’t know if he is going to go high or jump over you. He always keep you guessing,” he said.
Fitzpatrick has impressed with his hard-nosed running style, physicality and his ability to bounce back from injuries.
“He is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met, in general,” UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said. “He’s very tough physically and mentally. He wants to play football. This is a big part of his life.”
Charlton said Fitzpatrick also executes as a pass blocker and a leader on the field. The muscular 5-foot-11, 230-pound Fitzpatrick said he takes pride in his versatility.
“I like to work on every aspect: Pass blocking, blitz pickup, catching the ball out of the backfield, running downhill, inside zone, outside zone, counters,” he said. “If you have a back who can do every aspect of the running back role, that’s harder to defend against.”
Fitzpatrick said he has been determined to prove himself because he received limited scholarship offers coming out of Cheverus High School in Portland, where he was the 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior and a finalist for the James J. Fitzpatrick Award, which is given to the state’s top senior player.
“People told me they didn’t have a spot for me. Luckily, I got a scholarship to play here. But I’ve never forgotten that stuff. It’s always in the back of my head,” he said.
Fitzpatrick has played alongside many players who received offers, some from big-time schools such as Rutgers and Penn State, but did not have the drive to succeed.
“I didn’t come in with all this hype. It just fuels me,” he said.
Fitzpatrick was bothered by a shoulder ailment last season and was not 100 percent but still played in 13 of 14 games. He had minor surgery in the offseason to clean up some scar tissue and feels good now.
He said he has been blessed to have a supportive cast of doctors, trainers, coaches, teammates, friends and family members.
Fitzpatrick said his determination is a reflection of the way he was brought up.
“He wants it bad. He wants to play for guys on this team and for himself,” UMaine junior quarterback Chris Ferguson said.
Representing his home state at UMaine means a lot to Fitzpatrick.
“It’s great to run out here with the Maine flag. I feel a lot of pride,” he said, admitting the adjustment from Maine high school football to Division I was challenging.
“There have been ups and downs but I feel I acclimated well,” he said. “I fit into the program and I’m happy about that. I’m happy to be able to represent the younger kids looking up from high school and middle school.”