Jason Fitzgerald was plagued by knee injuries throughout his days playing in the offensive line at Auburn University.
Fitzgerald’s first injury occurred shortly after his arrival on The Plains in 1989. The second happened on Sept. 28, 1991, during the Tigers’ 30-21 loss to Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
“(Andy) Kelly to (Carl) Pickens beat us late,” Fitzgerald recalled.
Kelly and Fitzgerald were teammates at Rhea County High School, but went their separate ways to play collegiate football. Kelly’s 67-yard touchdown pass to Pickens with 13:19 left in the fourth quarter has stuck with Fitzgerald all these years.
Fitzgerald’s Tigers played Tennessee three times, losing twice and tying once.
However, the 1991 game in which Fitzgerald sustained the injury was impactful in more ways than the loss.
“It was a great experience for me at Auburn and coach (Pat) Dye taught us a lot of things,” Fitzgerald said. “Because of the second knee injury my playing career was over, but I didn’t want my football career to be over.”
Fitzgerald remained at Auburn until 1994 before returning to Rhea County as an assistant football coach. He was on the Golden Eagles’ coaching staff, either as an assistant or head coach, through the 2010 season.
At that point, Fitzgerald resigned his coaching position due to “professional and personal” reasons in May 2011, but retained his teaching position at the school.
Fitzgerald’s 11-year-old son, Jackson, passed away about three months earlier.
Having time to deal with the heartbreaking loss for Fitzgerald and his wife, Cheryl, the longtime coach knew that after a year away from coaching and watching games on Friday night from the stands he was ready to get back on the sidelines.
This past January, Fitzgerald was selected from an original list of nearly 90 applicants to lead Hixson High School’s football program following the resignation of Houston White.
Early this month Fitzgerald went through his first official day as a personal finance and physical education teacher and football coach at Hixson.
He was back where he belongs.
“The time off rejuvenated me,” Fitzgerald said. “I had time to be with my family, but coaching football is what I do and what I enjoy. It was good having a year off and refresh, but I’m glad to be back now.”
Fitzgerald directed the Eagles from 1999-2003 and again from 2006-10, posting a 66-48 record and leading Rhea to two region championships with three appearances in the state quarterfinals, losing to eventual state champion Maryville each time.
Hixson last had a winning season (6-4) in 2006. In the five subsequent seasons the Wildcats are 15-35, including two-win campaigns in 2007 and 2010.
“I know where Hixson’s program is and where it has been,” Fitzgerald said. “There is some talent here and we want to turn it into a winner as quickly as possible. But we have to change the mentality and the culture. I don’t know if these kids in the past believed they could win. I think the kids want to be champions and want to build a championship program here.”
With the Wildcats coming off a 4-6 record in 2011, Fitzgerald wanted to know from the first day his players put on their pads how mentally tough they would be.
“I wanted to see how they would react when they’re hot and tired,” the 41-year-old Fitzgerald said. “And I wanted to see how quick they could learn.
“So far they’ve responded well to what we want to do. Now I want to see how they respond when they get hit in the mouth. Are we going to fight back or lay down? What’s their will? What is the real character of these kids? Character is how you react when you’re down.”
The veteran coach got his first game-type glimpse of the Wildcats during Aug. 4 scrimmages against Sequatchie County and Upperman. A week later, Hixson played Silverdale in the jamboree at Finley Stadium.
Overall, Fitzgerald was pleased with his team’s performances.
“They went relatively well for us,” he said. “In the scrimmage we gave up a score, but the kids came back fighting hard and played pretty physical. It was kind of the same thing in the jamboree.
“One thing we were looking for was how would the kids react in bad situations. They got down in the scrimmage and the jamboree only to come back and win.”
Now, Fitzgerald will be focused solely on preparing the Wildcats for their Aug. 24 season opener against Walker Valley.
“As a coach you never think you’re ready,” he said. “We’ve still got 10-11 days to practice and I think we’re on course to be where we need to be. I think we’ll be ready to play Walker Valley.”
Clearly, it’s an important game for the new coach and his players. Fitzgerald watched his team progress through preseason drills and believes they have the confidence to take the program in a positive direction.
“The kids have done everything we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “Anytime we’ve challenged them they’ve met the challenge. Right now we’re laying the foundation and trying to build this program. We’re on the right track and I think we’re getting there.”
Fitzgerald has thrown new schemes – a 3-4 defense and a more traditional two-back offense – at his players during spring practice.
“On offense we’ll be blocking down and kicking out,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s old-school football. We’re going to run counters, traps and powers and we’ll run right at you. Their approach most recently was more sideways with zone schemes, which is real big in football right now.”
Fitzgerald said he’s going to rely heavily on the offensive talents of senior running back Eric Jones, senior wide receiver Allante Novene, junior lineman Charles Franklin and senior lineman Chance Loy.
Franklin and junior Austin Gilkey are stalwarts on the defensive line, along with junior linebacker Kedrick Bailey. Novene and senior T.C. Cunningham will provide solid leadership in the secondary.
It won’t be easy changing the Wildcats’fortunes.
In a three-year stretch from 1998 to 2000, Hixson was 21-13 and that included 9-3 mark in 1998. From 2005-06 Hixson was 12-9.
However, over the next five seasons the Wildcats went 15-35 and the closest they came to a .500 record was 4-6 marks in 2008 and 2011.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com)