Ryan Fitzpatrick, the NFL's Merry Prankster, answered his phone Friday with the solemnity of a receptionist hours shy of a weekend.
"Hello," he said. "This is Ryan Fitzpatrick, retired football player."
He could have added, "and Bengals icon," because if Tom Brady doesn't want to shake his hand, all of Bengaldom does with word that Fitzpatrick is ending one of the longest and most unique careers in the history of the NFL. It lasted through 17 seasons, 166 games and nine teams during parts of three decades, four presidents and a Mount Rushmore beard.
Somewhere in this man-of-many-faces-cross-country sojourn, Fitzpatrick became the Forrest Gump of the Bengals. Not only surfacing at historic moments in the team's history, but also helping make them with an Oscar winner's drop-dead timing despite being here for just 2007 and 2008 and 12 starts.
"I changed the course of the franchise," deadpans Fitzpatrick, who did when he beat Andy Dalton and the Bengals for the Dolphins in a 38-35 overtime shootout at the 2019 Joe Burrow Bowl set in Miami.
Eight years before that, he was also the victim of Dalton's first Paul Brown Stadium victory and his first NFL fourth quarter comeback when Burrow's predecessor drove the Bengals down the field for Mike Nugent's field goal at the gun to beat Fitzpatrick's undefeated Bills.
"If you'll remember and I know you remember everything, there was another Bengals moment," Fitzpatrick says of the 2010 game at The Paul. "The Why So Serious Game."
As was his want, Fitzpatrick threw an interception and the Bills were down, 28-7. As also was his want, Fitzpatrick got hotter than a Rozzi's Labor Day firework and put together 35 straight points in 30 minutes for the win. He threw three touchdowns to wide receiver Stevie Johnson and after one of them Johnson lifted up his jersey to show the message he had scrawled on his T-Shirt for Bengals wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco.
"Why So Serious?"
Seriously, that wasn't as significant as a 2018 game at The Paul. After Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston gave the Bengals a 34-16 lead with four interceptions, Fitzpatrick came off the bench in the last 17:10 at PBS and rallied them to 34-34 before Dalton logged his last fourth quarterback comeback as a Bengal on what turned out to be his last completion to A.J. Green to set up Randy Bullock's gun field goal for the Cincy win.
But long before he was ushering the Bengals in and out of eras, he paved the way for head coach Marvin Lewis' 2009 Bengals to come off injured reserve, sweep the division and win the AFC North.
Fitzpatrick was in Buffalo by then, but he had helped set the table the year before in his first extended action as a starter in place of the injured Carson Palmer. The Legend of FitzMagic rustled as he led the Bengals to a 4-3-1 finish with an eclectic group that had been either signed off the couch midway through (Cedric Benson, Chris Crocker) and a core of young, emerging stars led by the likes of Leon Hall and Andrew Whitworth to support a roster depleted by injury.
It's been 14 years now and wife Liza has given birth to five more kids since Tate, their second child, was born in Cincinnati. But he knows how big the Bengals were in his career.
"That was a big step for me. That's when I made the jump from third stringer to the backup," Fitzpatrick says. "It was awesome, to be able to draw on that experience later in my career. It was eerily similar what happened when we started 0-7 in Miami. To see the turnaround we had and how it catapulted (the Dolphins) in to the next season, I just saw it was really important that they understood how important it was. It was just kind of a springboard even though the playoffs were out of the question.
"Marvin Lewis has told me multiple times that helped him a lot in his coaching career … They were still trying to use me like I was Carson and we're two different players. They started playing a little more to my strengths and helping me out. By the end of the year they really adjusted and did a great job Marvin has told me he saw that during that season and took it with him through the years."
The Bengals were all over Fitzpatrick in the 2005 draft. Like Bengals president Mike Brown, he was an Ivy League quarterback and there was a thought they could sign Harvard's all-time leading passer after the draft. Until the Rams took him in the seventh round.
But Brown and Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, a disciple of Rams head coach Mike Martz, got him back in a trade after at the 2007 cut down. Thirty minutes after the Rams team meeting in St. Louis, Fitzpatrick was in the parking lot talking to Lewis on a phone and Lewis was telling him how much the Bengals thought of him.
Fitzpatrick got off the phone with his wife to take the call. He had just told her he had been traded. He didn't have time to tell here where. Until he called her back half-an-hour later.
"She still gives me grief about that," Fitzpatrick says. "So much uncertainty with a six-month-old and where you're going to live."
Fitzpatrick still has high regard for that coaching staff. Lewis. Zampese. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. But it was his relationship with Palmer that may have influenced him more than anything else when it came to his rep as a fabulous locker room leader no matter where he Rand McNalleyed around the league.
"We all know how talented he was. No. 1 pick. Heisman Trophy. But to become buddies with him, that was really cool," Fitzpatrick says. "We were completely different. I was kind of the seventh-rounder always struggling to make a roster. But it was important to Carson to be one of the guys. I saw that in the meal room and we use to play pick-up basketball at the Cincinnati facility. He didn't want to be put on a pedestal. That is really something I loved and I could tell by sitting back and observing the other guys, especially the linemen, loved that about him. He wanted to be one of the boys and he was as tough as they come.
"As I got later in my career and was more established and was the guy in a few different cities, I realized the importance of that."
The pranks helped with all that. Somewhere there is a picture of Fitzpatrick and Palmer riding the tiger statue overlooking the Georgetown College football field. Fitzpatrick was introduced to pranks as a science under the meticulous Palmer, but he was the butt of many of them. That's how he ended up going to a practice once dressed as Ocho Cinco, complete with orange tights.
"Carson had this throwing contest every week and I never won, so I ended up getting dressed up a lot," says Fitzpatrick, who also remembers getting paint-balled at some point on a bet gone bad.
Among the many things he took from Cincinnati was Tate. Each Fitz child was born in a different state. Tate loved the fact Auden Tate played here, so Tate Fitz has a Bengals Tate jersey. Bengals director of operations Jeff Brickner was on the equipment staff when Fitzpatrick was here.
"I know people," he says. "Yeah, Brick."
Fitzpatrick turned 26 that November he helped turn the Bengals around. Now a few months shy of 40, it was time. And not an easy decision.
"They are very unhappy with their father that he has retired," says Fitzpatrick of his two oldest. "It's all they've known. Going to football games.
"It was a combination of things. The health of my hip. Whatever opportunities are out there to actually go somewhere and start and play, which there aren't many for me. Having a high schooler and having to pick up and move for a year. All those things started to factor in and helped my decision."
It's a decision that reverberates not only at PBS, but in the Ivy League. Bob Surace, the coach who has transformed Princeton into an Ivy power in a stunning decade of program building, was Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander's assistant when Fitzpatrick was in Cincinnati.
"He kept things together," Surace says. "He just has the great personality to connect with people. You could see how he did it with players and coaches. And then later you saw that with the media. He's been such a great representative of our league. There's not too many NFL players. There are coaches and owners, but not many players."
Surace has been watching Ivy football since he was a kid, which means since about 1980. Two of his top three Ivy products are Bengals, Fitzpatrick and Dartmouth linebacker Reggie Williams. 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a six-time Pro Bowler from Harvard, is the other.
"I have to go with Reggie," Surace says of the best he's seen in the Ivy. "Look what he did. But Fitzy for his longevity and production, what a great career he had."
Reportedly, Fitzpatrick is sticking around as a broadcaster for Amazon Prime's Thursday night NFL package working pregame, halftime and post-game. He won't confirm it, but he can confirm his enormous confidence in new Bengals center Ted Karras, a teammate in Miami.
"He's just so underrated. He's a solid football player," Fitzpatrick says. "But in terms of locker room and team unity and bringing the level of everybody around him up, he becomes invaluable to a franchise. Every single day, the way that he practices, the way he approaches the day, the way he demands things out of the other players. He was a great, great pickup."
Look at the FitzMagic timing. If the Amazon report is true, he'll return to PBS for the Sept. 29 game against the Dolphins.
The team he was playing for on Dec. 22, 2019.
"We're up two scores at Miami. No way Cincinnati can possibly come back," Fitzpatrick says of the 35-19 lead with a minute left.
"But they score a touchdown, recover an onside kick. Dalton throws a crazy whatever (a 25-yard touchdown pass to posted-up tight end Tyler Eifert with no time on the clock) and they still need the two-point conversion to tie."
Every Cincy school kid knows the rest. He ended up throwing for a career-high 419 yards, the last of his six 400-yard games. With two minutes left in OT, Fitzpatrick barely eluded edge Carlos Dunlap on third-and-10 and hit Isaiah Ford for 15. Then he went back to Ford and led him beautifully over the middle of a zone for 28 yards and the winning field goal.
"It had the potential to be one of the (worst) games in Dolphins history," Fitzpatrick says. "Thank goodness Miami wins that game. Joe Burrow falls into your lap."
FitzMagic may not make the Bengals Ring of Honor, but he'll always be honorably mentioned.