Two games into his senior year at Rice Memorial High School, Tommy Fitzgerald, no stranger to playing time, big moments or championships, was thrust into an unfamiliar position.
Months later his football coach, Neil Brodeur, remembers it vividly: His quarterback, doubling as defensive back, attempting to tackle Fair Haven’s Tyler Rice on the far sideline.
“I know exactly where he got hurt, I just don’t know the time,” Brodeur said.
Fitzgerald’s broken collarbone that September day threatened a promising football season and, potentially, basketball and baseball — two other teams that figured to rely heavily on the soft-spoken leader down the road.
Threatening, though, was all it turned out to be for the Green Knights. Fully healed, the three-sport standout went on to lead Rice to an elusive triple crown with championships in football, basketball and baseball. And those exploits earned Fitzgerald one last title for his trophy case, the Burlington Free Press’ boys athlete of the year.
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“Based on his leadership and athletic ability it’s not a coincidence that he won all three,” Rice boys basketball coach Paul Pecor said.
“That’s not a bad senior year, huh? Not a bad way to go out,” Pecor said.
Bouncing back from his first serious sports injury, Fitzgerald put together a year unlike any Rice athlete before him. Repeat titles on the gridiron and hardwood — the latter program’s first back-to-back crowns in 40-plus years — gave way to the Green Knights hoisting the school’s first baseball trophy in a half-century.
“I guess maybe everything else made up for it,” Fitzgerald said. “Having to sit out for a long time like that makes you appreciate being able to play and makes you want to play that much more.
“Why not (play) all three if you can? You only get to do it once,” Fitzgerald said.
A rundown of Fitzgerald’s roles with each season show an athlete capable of handling the spotlight and, given his teams’ success, one relied upon to do so:
• A quarterback (before the injury), wide receiver and defensive back on the football team. Record: 8-2.
• The rarely-subbed, usually-flawless point guard and defensive stopper on the basketball team. Record: 20-4.
• Leadoff hitter and, as shortstop, provided the glue for a well-drilled infield on the baseball team. Record: 15-4.
“He’s a professional in high school,” Rice baseball coach Jamie Merchant said. “He’s never irrational. He’s steady, he does the right things. You can count on him to do his part every time.”
Somehow — happily for his coaches and perhaps maddeningly for teammates — there were never the highs and lows so common among teenage athletes.
Two previous years of that three-sport regimen had molded an athlete whose mental toughness set him apart from most current and former athletes, according to his coaches.
“The more you’re around (pressure), in games and stuff, I think you get used to the feeling of big situations,” Fitzgerald said. “You know what pressure feels like but you’re just doing your thing when you’re in the heat of the moment. You’re not really thinking about it, you just do it.
“I do get kind of nervous and stuff, I guess I just don’t show it,” he said.
In all, Fitzgerald collected six team championships while at the South Burlington school — in seven state finals.
“Some kids don’t even sniff the playoffs all four years here and here he is bringing home championships five, six times,” Brodeur said.
“He’s pretty unique in that aspect,” Brodeur said. “We’re joking about it but he didn’t say much, he just went about his work every day at practice and his games spoke for themselves.”
For Brodeur, it meant an extra coach for the team when Fitzgerald was injured and a ready-to-step-up playmaker when he returned to the field.
For Merchant, it was a table-setter with speed and a sure glove who, with two titles already under his belt this year, commanded respect on a youthful team.
For Pecor, it was an unflappable floor general, a veteran of three championship games, who never swapped his poker face for the victor’s grin until his final curtain call in a rout at Patrick Gymnasium.
“You could see in his face, it was probably one of the first times he had that smile and he almost looked relieved,” Pecor said. “He shrugged his shoulders with a big smile and that just said it all. That was his final chapter.
“It had nothing to do with how he played at all — the look in his face said he got it done, everything was perfect in his world.”
TOMMY FITZGERALD’S YEAR AT A GLANCE
• Football: Captured his third crown in four years as the Green Knights defeated Lyndon in the Division II final. … Missed roughly half the season with a broken collarbone but returned for the regular season finale and playoffs, including a lengthy touchdown catch in the title game. … A coaches’ first-team selection at receiver and defensive back in D-II.
• Basketball: A Free Press first-team selection, the point guard piloted the Green Knights’ to the decorated program’s first title repeat in 43 years. … In the semifinals and final at Patrick Gym, Fitzgerald logged more minutes (61 of 64) than any other player with zero turnovers. … Finished his Rice career with a 62-10 record as starting point guard.
• Baseball: The Green Knights’ shortstop and lead-off man, Fitzgerald was a menace on the bases, setting a program record for steals in a game (seven) against Mount Abraham. … A second-team Metro selection, he went 2-for-5 with three RBIs in their 15-3 championship win over South Burlington.
• Next year: Attending Norwich University to continue his basketball career.