Larry Fitzgerald brings lasting legacy to what looks like his final game in Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — In January 2010, Kurt Warner was on an airplane with Larry Fitzgerald when the veteran quarterback informed his top receiver he would be retiring from the NFL.
Warner and Fitzgerald played together for five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and helped lead the franchise to its only Super Bowl, a last-minute loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII in February 2009.
When Warner finished telling Fitzgerald his plans, the receiver had some news for him. In 2005, when Warner joined the Cardinals, the quarterback told Fitzgerald he wasn't working hard enough and needed to commit himself more to become great.
"Five years later, he told me, 'I'll never forget that conversation that you had with me,' " Warner said. "He said it motivated him from that moment on like, 'Why don't I want to be the best?' "
Fitzgerald, a Minneapolis native and former local prep star, developed into one of the top receivers in NFL history. In his 15th season, he ranks among the best receivers of all time: third in receptions (1,251), third in receiving yards (15,721) and eighth in receiving touchdowns (110).
On Sunday, Oct. 14, Fitzgerald, 35, will make what could be the final appearance of his career in his hometown when the Cardinals (1-4) face the Vikings (2-2-1) at U.S. Bank Stadium. Many believe this will be his final NFL season.
Fitzgerald, a Vikings ball boy during the Dennis Green era, said he won't decide on his future until after the season. He did reflect, though, on his illustrious NFL career.
After being taken by the Cardinals with the No. 3 pick in the 2004 draft, Fitzgerald had a good-but-not-great rookie season, catching 58 passes for 780 yards. A year later, Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls, including a victory in January 2000, arrived in Arizona.
After watching the cocky young receiver in practice, Warner told him he had better wide receivers with the Rams in Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
"You could see the upside of this kid, but at the same time you could also see that he didn't necessarily understand how to play the game, like the little nuances of being a great route runner," said Warner, who was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017 and is now an NFL Network analyst. "So we were at dinner and I shared that with him, and his response was kind of like, 'I'm pretty good. I'm good enough right now. We've got bigger problems in Arizona than me.' "
Best friends now
Slowly, Warner's words sank in, and Fitzgerald eventually took that advice to heart. He improved quickly, and led the NFL in receiving in 2005 with 103 catches for 1,409 yards, securing a spot in the first of his 11 Pro Bowls.
"I was like most 21-year-olds," Fitzgerald said. "You just think your stuff doesn't stink and (Warner) served me a small splash of the humble pie, which I needed. I didn't take it personally. I just took it as a challenge. ... I was very grateful that he came along in my life, my career, at the time. I really needed that leadership and that challenge to take my game to the next level."
Warner said he and Fitzgerald eventually became best friends, and said it's been an "honor to see him grow into the person he's become."
Fitzgerald has gone from a cocky kid to a wise NFL veteran. First-year Cardinals coach Steve Wilks was impressed immediately with Fitzgerald's leadership abilities.
"Everything you see that's advertised is totally true," Wilks said. "Just a real pro, a guy that comes to work each and every day. Phenomenal. Even 15 years in, what he practices is unbelievable. And a great role model for the young guys."
He is a role model for players beyond the Cardinals, as well. During the offseason, when Fitzgerald returns to the Twin Cities, he often works out with Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, a fellow Minnesota native.
Fitzgerald has twice led the NFL in receptions. Entering Sunday's game, Thielen is the league leader with 47 catches for 589 yards.
"I've learned a lot from Larry," said Thielen, a five-year veteran who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. "Not just being personal with him, but watching him for a long time before I was even in the NFL. ... He's been just so great to me, reaching out to me and giving me support, and so it's been pretty cool. It's cool when guys that are at his status and have had success like he has still care about others and reach out to others."
It's not just his work on the field that has gained Fitzgerald respect. He has become a pillar in the Phoenix area for his work in the community. After the 2016 season, he shared the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
He established the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund, a charity that helps support Arizona youth. In Minnesota, he works with his father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., a sports writer and broadcaster, on the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund. The fund was established by his father after Fitzgerald's mother died of a brain hemorrhage in 2003 while being treated for breast cancer.
"I'm hoping that is still to come," Fitzgerald said when asked about his greatest achievement off the field. "I like to believe the Lord put me on the earth for something much more important than catching a pigskin ball. The game has given me a wonderful platform, and it's helped me do some things I'm really proud of, some of the things that my parents taught me and showed me as a child, how important it is to serve others. And I'm hoping post-career I'm able to do that on a larger scale."
McCain a mentor, friend
Fitzgerald's most visible moment this year came outside of football. In August, he was chosen to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Despite a 47-year difference in their ages, Fitzgerald and McCain developed a close friendship.
"I'm very proud and appreciative of the relationship I had with him," Fitzgerald said. "There were so many wonderful conversations and moments that I shared with him over the last years that I had known him. ... There are many differences between the two of us, from age, I played sports and he's a politician. There's no similarities there, but he took a liking to me, and I learned so much from him."
Fitzgerald's interest away from sports has led him to become a world traveler. He has been to 100 countries, reaching that milestone with visits this year to Iceland and Sweden.
"I've always been proud of Larry the way he carries himself, the way he lights up a room," his father said. "People gravitate to him. He's helped so many people through his foundation, my foundation. It's always been gratifying as a parent to be told by people who don't know your son that they are so proud of the way he carries himself."
Fitzgerald Sr., 61, was an offensive tackle at Indiana State from 1975-77, and says with pride that his son got much of his athleticism from him. Fitzgerald Sr., though, didn't realize how good his son was at football until he first began to play in 1993.
"When he was 10, my wife signed him up for a pee-wee football team at Dr. Martin Luther King Park in South Minneapolis," he father remembered. "I started watching him and saw him make all these moves and stuff, and I'm saying, 'Man, he really can play.' "
Fitzgerald's abilities eventually took him to Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, where he was a two-time All-American, and to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was an All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2003. Fitzgerald was so good in high school that a number of Vikings players regularly attended his games.
He's a Vikings fan
Fitzgerald developed a relationship with Vikings players while serving as one of the team's ball boys from 1999-2001, his sophomore through senior seasons in high school. Fitzgerald got the job thanks to his father having started a radio show with Green in 1994, the third of his 10 years as coach.
"Daunte Culpepper, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Korey Stringer, they were all at (Fitzgerald's Holy Angels games)," Fitzgerald said. "There would be 2,000 or 3,000 fans at the game and they would see the Vikings players and all be running up in the stands to get autographs."
Vikings players also provided valuable advice to Fitzgerald. He said their influence has played a role in his ability to have such a long career.
"I was able to see every day, I see Robert Smith, I see Cris Carter and I see Chris Walsh, Jake Reed, guys getting into the cold tub and working out and doing everything and getting massages and eating right and acupuncture and things like that that I've implemented in my career," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also became an avid Vikings fan, something that has continued ... most of the time.
"I pull for those guys every week except when I'm playing against them," he said. "I still got a little purple running through my veins."
It hasn't gone well for the Cardinals in Fitzgerald's trips home. They are 0-5 in Minneapolis. Fitzgerald has had some big games in defeat, making 11 catches for 172 yards in 2006 and seven grabs for 107 yards in 2010.
Fitzgerald, though, has moved beyond his numbers. He said the reason he has continued to play is to get that elusive Super Bowl ring.
In Super Bowl XLIII, he came close. Fitzgerald scored on a 64-yard pass from Warner to give the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2:37 left in the game. But the Steelers won 27-23 when Ben Roethlisberger threw a 6-yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds remaining.
"I don't need any more catches or yards or touchdowns," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think any of that is going to change my place in history, but you know on a personal (level), you always want to win a championship. That's the only reason you play. ... You want to be a part of something special like winning a championship, and that's the reason I come back."
The Cardinals, though, aren't looking like a contender this season. They are 1-4 and ranked last in the NFL in total offense.
Sam Bradford, who played the past two seasons for Minnesota, was the starting quarterback for the first three games before being replaced by rookie Josh Rosen. Both have struggled, and Fitzgerald has just 17 receptions for 176 yards coming off three straight 100-catch seasons.
"I think this is his last year in football," said Joe Theismann, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and NFL analyst. "I think he'll move on to the next phase of his life."
While Theismann doesn't profess to have inside knowledge of Fitzgerald's plans, he is friendly with the wide receiver and has has played golf with him. Theismann was named NFL Man of the Year in 1982 with the Redskins, and said he has a book coming out that will include a reference to Fitzgerald's work ethic.
"When I was a broadcaster (for ESPN games during Fitzgerald's first three seasons), I wanted to interview him and I would stay and watch him after practice catching 50 or more balls," Thiesmann said. "Larry Fitzgerald, to me, is the epitome of greatness on and off the field. I would call him the favorite son of the Minneapolis area."
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has gotten to know Fitzgerald, calls him the "mayor of Phoenix."
Whatever the title, Warner is proud of what Fitzgerald has accomplished and flattered that any advice he once provided helped.
"There are very few guys that have had the kind of legacy that Larry has had, being seen as an unbelievable person and an unbelievable player," Warner said. "It's been an honor to become good friends with him and seeing the legacy he's going to leave."