ORONO — There is nothing subtle about Joe Fitzpatrick’s running style.

Fitzpatrick is the sledgehammer of the University of Maine’s running game, a 5-foot-11, 230-pound senior who will run over anyone who tries to tackle him.

“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever met in my life,” said Chris Mulvey, Maine’s 6-2, 300-pound junior center. “You could hit him with a steel chair and he’d probably eat it.”

Yet, for all the fury Fitzpatrick plays with, the former Cheverus High star from North Yarmouth also provides a calming influence to the Black Bears.

“Joe’s a leader in his own way and puts that effort in that everyone can really see,” said Nick Charlton, Maine’s first-year head coach. “Everyone knows what his style of play is like but just having Joe out there, it’s, in a very strange way, a calming presence even though it’s not really how his game is.

“It makes you feel relaxed and comfortable knowing he’s there.”

Running back Joe Fitzpatrick is healthy now after missing much of training camp while recovering from a back injury. (Staff photo by Derek Davis) Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Fitzpatrick, 22, returned to practice last week after missing much of training camp while recovering from a back injury he suffered over the summer. He said he’s fine now, but the Black Bears are trying to take it easy with him.

Fitzpatrick plays a vital – Charlton called it “underrated” – role with Maine. When the Black Bears open their season at home at 6 p.m. Friday against Sacred Heart, he’ll be the top returning rusher (475 yards, four touchdowns) from last year’s 10-4 team that advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.

Elijah Brooks is the only other back on the roster with any carries as a Black Bear– and he had only one for 3 yards last year.

“Having him in there is big,” said junior quarterback Chris Ferguson. “He’s a senior, he’s a leader, he’s been here. He’s had meaningful carries in big moments. Knowing he’s back there, knowing he knows what he’s what doing, in (pass) protection, running routes, that’s big for me too.”

Maine’s defensive players, known for their aggressive hitting, also feed off his energy. “Joey Fitz is the intimidator,” said senior defensive end Kayon Whitaker. “He’s the type of guy, you give him the ball, and he’s either going to run through someone or, if they try to go low on him, he will jump over them. He’s a fighter.”

And he’s a Mainer, something that means a lot to him and the program. When the Black Bears run into Alfond Stadium Friday, Fitzpatrick – who is 79 yards shy of 1,000 in his Maine career – will lead them while carrying the Maine state flag.

“He represents the state in a great way,” said Charlton.

“I have a whole lot of pride being able to play for my home state and to be able to compete at this level against the schools that I grew up going to the camps of and them telling me, ‘I don’t think we can find a spot for you,’ ” said Fitzpatrick, who gained 2,071 yards at Cheverus. “I was talking to the team about what it was like recruiting for me in high school. I had nothing, no offers, no anything, no looks. I had a great connection to this school with Coach (Jack) Cosgrove. That was it.”

And now he’s playing a lead role.

“I just have a lot of pride to be a contributing player right now,” he said. “My first year even though I was playing it was sort of like figuring it out. As years went on I was able to contribute to this team and for this state.”

Maine worked on its third-down offense in Tuesday’s practice and offensive coordinator Andrew Dresner said Fitzpatrick makes that easy.

“Joe knows he’s on the field in that situation, especially third-and-1, third-and-2,” said Dresner. “He knows he’s got to play at a good pad level and he’s going to get us those first downs. He’s going to set the tone in those situations.”

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