Junior wide receiver Sean Fitzgerald has waited a long time to see playing time at Utah. Part of the 2006 signing class, Fitzgerald served an LDS mission prior to joining the team in 2009.
As is often the case with return missionaries, Fitzgerald used his redshirt that season and has toiled through three seasons of everything that encompasses playing football at the DI level.
"[Waiting] is hard. It's definitely not easy," said Fitzgerald of his three years at Utah. "Like the coaches have always said, hard work pays off. I've just tried to do that, work hard and get better and try to find ways to contribute."
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Fitzgerald, a classic Utah type of player given his blue-collar work ethic, has built his reputation on hustle, not taking plays off, hard work, and being a good teammate.
The players that have invested in the program early, and had to work their way through the depth chart step by step, have oft proven to be the breakout players, or at least the dependable, consistent players that the Utes have turned to in key moments.
Names like John Madsen, Travis LaTendresse and Bradon Godfrey all come to mind at the mention of Fitzgerald. Less is it a side by side comparison of their respective games than it is a similarity in what kind of player and teammate each was. There is something old-school about the way these players approached the game, and Fitzgerald fits into that mold, and it's fair to classify each of the three as classic under-dogs.
Godfrey was a walk-on who ground his way into a contributing role through the course of his time at Utah. Madsen, also a walk-on, did not even play football in high school but found his way onto the football field as a collegiate athlete. LaTendresse tried out for a junior college team and made it, but never played in a game.
While Fitzgerald is a scholarship athlete, was highly touted as a high school receiver and possesses the rare and coveted combination of both size and speed, his mind-set and approach to football has appeared to be that of a walk-on, trying to earn a role going so far as to credit his teammates for making him better.
"The talent here has gotten better, and better. The competition has been amazing and it has just helped me to try and match it and get better myself," said Fitzgerald. "I've had to push to stay up with these guys and that competition is what helped me get to this point."
Despite his blue-collar approach, Fitzgerald was always high on the coaching staff's list. Since re-joining the team, wide receivers coach Aaron Roderick has consistently named Fitzgerald as a talent, and standout athlete that would look to contribute.
Toward the end of the 2011 season, that came to fruition, as Fitzgerald saw time at wide receiver in six games after seeing time at special teams solely in 2010.
Testimony to the fact that hard work does pay off, particularly in the unquestionably blue-collar Utah football program, Fitzgerald has earned a role in the 2012 offense.
When fans hear Fitzgerald's name called early in the upcoming season, it will inevitably be because he made his first career reception as Ute, which has been almost six years in the making.