Not only is that statement from the Cardinals’ radio analyst and former player seemingly realistic, but it’s not the only incredible trait Arizona legend Larry Fitzgerald possesses. Not by a long shot.
I don’t believe there’s an NFL fan on the globe that doesn’t love Larry Fitzgerald.
The man they call The Best Hands in the NFL has not only climbed the ladder of greatest receivers in the league ever, but has built a reputation as one of the kindest, most giving, and genuine people to ever grace the field. A rare combination in a league seemingly overflowing with prima donnas, Fitzgerald is a consummate professional, a committed team mate, and a compassionate and dedicated philanthropist.
Fitzgerald was born in 1983 and grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to father Larry Fitzgerald Sr., a writer for the Minnesota Spokesman-Reporter, and mother Carol Fitzgerald, a hard working, philanthropic and caring woman devoted to helping people regardless of their station or situation, a trait she passed on to her son. She would take Larry and his brother Marcus to Circle of Love, where they’d cater to the needs of people who had been recently diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.
Carol sadly passed away when Larry was nineteen. He has forever been grateful for the time he got with her, but regrets some of his actions, admitting to being somewhat selfish at the time of her passing.
“I feel blessed to have had her for 19 years, and she was around long enough to shape me into the man I am today,” Fitzgerald explained. “But I’m sad at the fact that she busted her ass for so many years so I could live my dream, and she never saw the things I could’ve given her. That hurts. But I know when I’m out doing things in the community, she would be proud, because who I am now is a result of lessons she taught me when I had her.”
The passing of his mother hit Larry hard, especially considering the distance between them at the time with Larry not having spoken to her for several months due to a small argument, and I think that really did, as he said, make him the man he is today. It reinforced a lesson that his grandfather had passed on to him at an early age, and that lesson was, “tomorrow is not guaranteed.” Grief and regret can be a real force for long-lasting change, probably the biggest motivators for change that a mortal can experience. It brings you a perspective on life that people are often oblivious to, and that’s that life can be taken away from you at any moment, so grasping each and every second – and making people happy along the way – is vitally important to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald and the NFL had a unique relationship from an early age with his father being an NFL writer, and he had a connection to the players that not many, if any, could get with legends like Cris Carter (whom Fitzgerald refers to as his uncle) taking him under their wing after he became a ball boy for the Vikings. Carter can often be seen waxing lyrical, not just about who Fitz is as a player, but who he is as a person, whenever their relationship is brought up, although the ex-Minnesota man still maintains he has the better hands, only semi in jest, or so he’d have you believe. You can tell that Carter is as proud of Fitz as if he were his own son, and who can blame him?
He has talked about Barry Sanders always asking him whether he’s working hard at school, and he tries to emulate that now with other ballboys, because he remembers what it’s like to be in the same position.
They all saw the spark of talent within him and wanted him to succeed.
During his year at Valley Forge Military Academy in Philadelphia, where he was sent because his grades were poor, his talent was on show as he accrued 35 catches for 420 yards and 7 touchdowns in 6 games. Fitzgerald has spoken of crying in bed on the first night of him being there, but he looks back now with fondness knowing that he needed it, and he still reaches out to his former coach Mike Muscella when he can.
“I still have people come up to me, and they’re like, ‘wow, I remember that catch he made when he was here,’” Muscella reminisced. “He made this grab on the sidelines on a ball that was thrown two yards out of bounds. He just went up and snatched it. It was unbelievable.”
But Muscella also tells a story of a compassionate Fitzgerald inviting him and his family out for dinner before the Arizona Cardinals took on the Philadelphia Eagles in November of 2008. Though he usually doesn’t bother Fitzgerald with seemingly trivial things, Muscella brought a football for Fitzgerald to sign for a friend’s son who was a huge fan. After Muscella briefly explained that the kid was struggling in school, Fitzgerald asked for the kid’s number and gave him a call.
Fitzgerald then spent ten minutes on the telephone with said kid, giving advice and talking about how he had also struggled. “People always have these stories,” Muscella continued, “how great some of these guys are. But, with Larry it’s different. He’s real. It’s just the kind of guy he is.”
After finishing up with Coach Muscella and VFMA, Fitzgerald went to the University of Pittsburgh where he went on to be considered one of the best wide receivers in college football. He had a great two years with them, picking up a number of prestigious awards in his second year. Across 26 games, he caught 161 passes and racked up 2,677 yards and 34 touchdowns, the touchdowns of which were a new record at Pitt. He had 14 games with at least 100 yards receiving which broke a 13-game record previously held by Antonio Bryant. His 18-game touchdown streak is also an NCAA record.
As a result, on 1st July, 2013, Pittsburgh retired his jersey number: #1
Fitzgerald was then drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the 2004 draft, a surprise to many who considered the Cards in need of a quarterback. But of course, Fitzgerald went on to become a legend in Arizona, and any doubts the fans had were quickly assuaged.
One of the things that stands out to people immediately with Larry is his inquisitive nature, his desire for knowledge, and his keen mind. “He’s a curious person,” Kurt Somers, writer at Arizona Sports describes him with a smile. “He’s an information gatherer.”
Others offer the same testimony, including such figures as Michael Bidwell the Arizona Cardinals President, Richard Sherman, and Ike Taylor, former Steelers cornerback. They talk of a man that cares, and values everyone around him. A man that cares when it’s your child’s birthday, or your wife’s, or probably your dog’s.
Sherman paints an exceptionally respectful yet comedic picture of Fitzgerald. “’Oh, how’s your momma, I just saw her earlier today, I gave her a hug. I saw your brother,’” he says in immitation. “And this is, like, right before play on third down and eight in the fourth quarter. He ain’t trying to psyche me out, because he’s so engaged in the conversation he misses the snap!”
Even his quarterback, Carson Palmer, is not free of Fitzgerald’s questioning. “He’s inquisitive about everything,” Palmer says. “rap music, golf, politics, economics, money, you name it…”
One thing he’s very interested in is culture. He’s often painted as a wanderer, and friends and teammates will get calls from obscure locations and just know it’s Larry somewhere new. His passport reads that he has been to close to one hundred different countries. Travelling is in his heart. He talks of avoiding the colder climes of the northern hemisphere, and has mainly travelled the southern, but he aims to get to as many places as possible when retired, although he did make an exception for Antarctica.
“My tour guide said that less than 100,000 people have stepped foot on to the continent of Antarctica,” he says, looking at pictures of himself there in a scrapbook of his travels, which include some exquisite photographs. “You’ve got to think about how old the world is, and the billions of people that have come and gone throughout the course of eternity and, you know, 100,000 being in one place? That kind of strikes you when you step foot on a continent.”
When he’s not travelling, and football’s off the clock, he’s doing something philanthropic. In 2005, he set up ‘Larry Fitzgerald’s First Down Fund’ which supports all manner of things for children, including activities throughout the year and the holidays, playgrounds, vision care that would otherwise be unavailable (through the Plano Child Development Center, founded by his late grandfather, Dr Robert Johnson), and acquiring equipment including computers – at one point in which he teamed up with Microsoft to provide Surface Technology to schools in Minneapolis so the children have the best technology to learn from, and even attained a library of tablets that can be checked out in order for students to better learn at home.
He also donates to all manner of breast cancer organisations, and pushes it wherever he can. The First Down Fund help with research, support groups, and free mammograms.
When it’s not through his charities, it’s direct. From school visits, to hospitals, all over the world, he’s making a difference.
“Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, he goes down to the Society of St. Vincent De Paul and he serves breakfast, and mingles with the homeless people,” Mike Jurecki, host of Arizona Radio says. “Then he will make a trip to the hospital, unannounced, no cameras.”
There are a million stories of his kindness and generosity, and he has touched the lives of so many people, from the lowest to the highest, from strangers to his peers. “I don’t know of a professional athlete that has devoted so much time and effort to other people, and causes, as Larry Fitzgerald.” Says John McCain, United States Senator. Following the 2016 season, Larry Fitzgerald was honoured with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award alongside New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. A testament to the good he does for the community.
“I can’t tell you how gratifying it has been over all these years, walking through airports or somewhere shopping and someone tells you that your son really touched them or what a great person he is,” says his father, somewhat teary-eyed. “And they wouldn’t be talking about the player, they’d be talking about the person he was.”
On the field, Fitzgerald has been a constant force to be reckoned with.
Earlier in his career it was as possibly the greatest contested catch maker the league has ever seen, whether in double or even triple coverage, he somehow always seemed to come up with the ball. In his first season as a Cardinal he came up with 780 yards and 8 touchdowns on 58 reception, immediately putting many doubts about his being drafted so high to bed. But if there were any doubters left after that, there weren’t any after the 2005 campaign, where he managed 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns on 103 targets. Even missing out on three games in 2006 he nearly managed 1,000 yards, missing out by 54 yards. Incredibly, across his fifteen supremely productive years in the NFL, he has only missed seven games through injury. Seven.
The pinnacle of Larry’s career as an outside receiver came in Super Bowl XLIII in which he scored a 64-yard touchdown with 2:37 remaining, but the defence couldn’t hold the Steelers out, and the Cards were pipped at the finishing line by Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes.
In 2013, Fitzgerald was moved to the slot by Bruce Arians. Initially, Fitzgerald seemed to think that Arians didn’t have faith in his ability as an outside receiver, but after a period of adjustment, Fitzgerald posted huge production, including three seasons with at least 107 catches back-to-back! He learned to block, leading Arians to call him the best blocking receiver in the NFL, and Richard Sherman clearly felt Fitz’s blocking ability during a game.
“There was one play, he had a blindside hit on me,” Sherman says. “He could have killed me, probably could have put me out of the game, and he made the block, but he didn’t give me any of that. But what he could have done, you know? Instead, it was pretty much a nothing hit, and then he comes up and apologises. Most people, you take your shot, boom, that’s football. It just shows the kind of guy he is.”
Ultimately, Fitzgerald has enjoyed the switch inside, and admits it has extended his career. “Without a doubt,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day it made me a much better player, and it actually made me a better man, too. I think whenever you are pushed out of your comfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself.”
The Cardinals would again make a push for a Super Bowl, with Larry pulling out the heroics in the divisional round of the playoffs in 2015 against Green Bay. In overtime, The Best Hands in the NFL would catch a short pass from Carson Palmer and carry it 75 yards to the four, producing a beautiful run and a no-look stiff-arm that any running back would be proud of. A few plays later, he’d catch a five-yard shovel pass to win the game.
Unfortunately, again, it just wasn’t meant to be as the Cardinals collapsed in the NFC Championship Game, getting blown out by the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers. The image of a dejected Fitzgerald sitting facing his locker, head in hands, is one that sticks with most of us, because we felt as though we were witnessing the end of him. We felt as if we were seeing his final push for a ring expire. My heart went out to him then, as did many fans’ around the world at that point. We sat and thought, “Man, this guy has done everything right. He’s been persistent, consistent, a true champion of the sport on and off the field, and he’s not going to get a ring.”
But life is cruel sometimes, as well Larry Fitzgerald knows, but he still wants that legacy. “I want to have a lasting legacy that could be remembered in history. You think of Jerry Rice, Lynn Swann, the David Tyree moment, fifty years from now those things will be remembered, you know, and you want to have moments like that.”
Maybe a ring isn’t on the cards for potentially the greatest receiver of all time, and I know that’s the big thing for all NFL players; of course they want a ring, but does that make him less of a player in the eyes of everyone else? A player that has been the face of a franchise for going on sixteen years, has 116 regular season touchdowns, coupled with only 29 drops (he has more tackles than drops: 37)?
I should hope not.
When he looks in the mirror, reminded of his mother because of the dreads he keeps because of the Samson story she used to tell, he should know that people will still talk about the great Larry Fitzgerald in his bright red jersey, his long dreads, and his amazing hands way in to the future.
Not only the player, but the man, too.
Way in to the future.
And he’s not even finished yet…