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So Good, Too Soon? Driven by tragedy, sophomore Larry Fitzgerald has become the nation's top wideout, perhaps its best player. The pros want him, but will the NFL let him in a year early?

Sometimes the last, small steps to greatness begin deep in the
soul, in a private place coaches and teammates can never reach. A
year ago, as a freshman wideout at Pittsburgh, Larry Fitzgerald
caught 69 passes for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns and was named
All-Big East. He was a very good player, but well short of
dominant. A year later he is one of the best college players in
the country, a transcendent receiver who demands that defenses
rewrite their game plans, fans remain anchored to their seats and
Heisman voters write his name somewhere on their ballots. This
ascent began in a most unlikely manner, with a heartbreaking
telephone call.

Early last April, Fitzgerald's mother, Carol, 47, lay in a
Minneapolis hospital, racked with a cancer that had taken root in
one of her breasts six years earlier, spread to her lungs and now
reached her brain. Fitzgerald's father, Larry Sr., called his son
and told him, "You've got to come home."

The words terrified Fitzgerald. "Coming home meant missing
school," he says. "My mother never let me miss school. If I'd
have had a broken leg, she'd have wheelchaired me to school. So I
knew it had to be the worst." He flew home from Pittsburgh on the
morning of April 8, as his mother was about to have surgery to
relieve the swelling--and the pain--in her skull. Fitzgerald
needed to see his mother. When he had last visited during spring
break in March, they had argued over a matter that Fitzgerald
prefers to keep private, and they had spoken little since then.
When Fitzgerald arrived at the hospital, his father told him that
Carol had stopped breathing before the surgery had begun and was
being kept alive by a respirator. "He never got to talk to his
mother, and they never got things settled between them," says
Larry Sr. Two days later, after doctors said that Carol had no
chance of recovering, she was removed from life support and died.

Two weeks ago Larry Sr., an offensive tackle at Indiana State
from 1975 through '77 and still a bear of a man--300 pounds, he
says, "give or take a biscuit"--sat in a wide recliner in his
south Minneapolis living room, weeping softly as he recalled his
wife's death and his son's reaction to it. "He was so overwhelmed
with grief because they never patched things up," he said. "I
told him, 'Don't you carry that with you, Larry. Your mother
loved you and you loved her. Don't take any other feelings out of
this room today.'"

That would not be easy. "It still troubles me," says Fitzgerald.
He went back to Pittsburgh, sought solace in training and plunged
headlong into preparation for his sophomore season. Other players
lifted weights for two hours; he lifted for four. Other players
went out at night; he studied tape at the football complex. He
put up a wall around himself and reinforced it when his teammate
and close friend Billy Gaines, a sophomore wideout, was killed in
a freak accident last June. Gaines fell to his death from a
catwalk in a Pittsburgh church.

"I wanted to do anything to avoid being alone with my thoughts,"
says Fitzgerald. He put 15 pounds onto his 6'3" frame to get up
to 225 and at the same time improved what Pittsburgh strength
coach Dave Kennedy calls his "speed burst." Through every long
day, he tapped his grief for strength and emerged as the best
receiver in the college game.

Last Saturday night, as wintry winds sliced through Pittsburgh's
Heinz Field, Fitzgerald's brilliant season ended with a thud in a
28-14 loss to Miami that cost the Panthers (8-4) a piece of the
Big East championship and their first BCS bowl berth. In a
demonstration of why it's so difficult for a receiver to control
a game (and win the Heisman), Miami sacked Pitt senior
quarterback Rod Rutherford nine times and draped two defenders on
Fitzgerald all night, a cornerback in press man-to-man coverage
and a safety sitting behind him. Fitzgerald caught just three
passes for 26 yards but still was able to extend his NCAA-record
streak for consecutive games with a touchdown catch to 18.

Even that lopsided defeat was a testament to Fitzgerald's
ability, a reminder of what he has achieved on a flawed team. He
finished the regular season with a school-record 87 receptions
and leads the nation with 132.9 receiving yards per game. He has
done all this for a team that supports its passing game with a
rushing attack that is ranked 98th (115 yards per game) and
against opponents that have concocted special defensive schemes
just to stop him. "Almost every week teams showed us some defense
they'd never shown anybody before," says Rutherford. "So we'd go
to the sideline and chalk up some way to get Larry the ball."

These improvisations have often yielded spectacular results. In
an audiovisual suite filled with monitors and VCRs on the second
floor of Pitt's football complex, Panthers video coordinator Chad
Bogard cues up The Best of Larry Fitzgerald like a kid giddily
climbing through the highest levels of Tomb Raider.

There's the diving touchdown catch in last year's 38-13 Insight
Bowl victory over Oregon State, in which Fitzgerald sprinted
under a Rutherford bomb, then pitched himself forward to catch
the pass while parallel to the ground. Or the post pattern in
Pitt's 37-26 win over Texas A&M on Sept. 27, in which Fitzgerald,
sandwiched between two defenders on a dead run, leaped and
corkscrewed his body to make the catch at the back of the end
zone. The official called him out of bounds, but the video shows
otherwise, as Fitzgerald extends his left foot onto the turf,
inbounds, as if it were disconnected from his leg.

On Nov. 15, in the first half of a 52-31 loss to West Virginia,
Fitzgerald caught a fade on the sideline as Mountaineers
cornerback Adam (Pac-Man) Jones drilled him (resulting in a pass
interference penalty) and safety Brian King came over the top and
smacked the ball with his hand. "I hit the ball hard and Pac-Man
got called for pass interference and he still caught the ball,"
says King. "I looked at Pac-Man and said, 'We've got no answers
for this guy.'" Fitzgerald's first-quarter touchdown catch in the
same game also came despite a pass interference flag. "I like to
decline pass interference," Fitzgerald says, devilishly.

The Fitzgerald highlight video lacks only one thing: showy
celebrations. After each of his 34 career touchdown receptions,
Fitzgerald has run to the referee and handed him the football.
"Officials have enough to do without chasing the ball after
somebody tosses it," he says. "I'm a receiver, I'm supposed to
score touchdowns." Fitzgerald has made handing the ball to
officials cool; high school kids in the Pittsburgh area have been
doing it in recent weeks.

Fitzgerald is only modestly fast by the stopwatch, running the 40
in the 4.5-second range (although he promises that the next time
he is timed, he will run in the 4.4s). But he has an unreal
ability to react to a pass in the air. "It's like the football is
a smart bomb and he's a target," says Pitt offensive coordinator
J.D. Brookhart. He has the veteran's full arsenal of tricks, like
bumping a defender off balance, not with an extended arm (obvious
offensive interference), but a strong, coiled forearm (barely
noticeable). According to one NFL scout, "Some receivers have
physical ability and some guys have common sense [about how to
play the game]. He has both." Some of Fitzgerald's physical gifts
are simply amazing. During practice, Brookhart fires 15-yard
spirals directly at Fitzgerald, who snags the ball one-handed,
point-first, without the point reaching the palm of his hand. Try
it sometime.

Remarkably, Fitzgerald played the last eight games of the season
with a damaged ligament in his right hand. He suffered the injury
in the Texas A&M victory but kept it secret from opponents. He
protected his hand by wearing a soft cast in practice, but shed
that for games.

In the near future, Fitzgerald will decide whether to join former
Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in challenging the NFL's
rule prohibiting college players from entering the draft until
three years after graduating from high school. There's little
doubt that Fitzgerald is ready for the pro game. "He'll get
picked first, second or third overall, no lower," says an NFL
scout who has watched Fitzgerald numerous times in the last two

"I'll consider it when it's the right time," says Fitzgerald. It
is worth noting, however, that his father's dining room table is
littered with information on recent NFL first-round draft picks'

"Larry will make his own decision," says Larry Sr., who is the
sports editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a
50,000-circulation weekly with a primarily African-American
audience. "But I've talked to many people, and I think I have a
pretty good idea what his ability level is, and what
opportunities he'll have."

Whenever Fitzgerald leaves for the NFL, he will rejoin a world
with which he is already familiar. From age 12 through high
school, he worked as a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings, a gig
that included spending six weeks living in a dorm during training
camp at Mankato State University and often participating in
drills with receivers like Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed.
"We had ball boys every year, but very few of them could jump
into a drill like Fitz could," says Carter.

"You could see even then, he had incredible hand-eye
coordination," says Dennis Green, the Vikings' coach during
Fitzgerald's ball boy days. "And he was also learning how
professional athletes behave."

On Friday nights, when Fitzgerald's team at Academy of the Holy
Angels High would play, Vikings players would often come to
watch, rolling into the school parking lot in their massive SUVs,
with music rattling nearby windows. "He was a man among boys in
high school," says Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper. "I'm
telling you, he had it all."

Everything except good grades. Colleges that showed interest in
him backed off when they saw D's on his transcript. Some
suggested that he attend junior college. Others, including Pitt
coach Walt Harris, recommended prep school. Fitzgerald left
Minneapolis in the middle of his senior year at Holy Angels and
enrolled at Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy. "Here he was, a
star athlete pulled out of his school to make up for lost time,
and all of a sudden he's a plebe, with sophomores telling him to
shine his shoes," says Valley Forge coach Mike Muscella. "And he
took it all and he grew up."

Yet no influence in Fitzgerald's life has endured like his
mother's. Carol Fitzgerald was a disease intervention specialist
with the Minnesota Department of Health who also founded the
African-American AIDS Task Force in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the
Circle of Love, an HIV support group. "She was the type of person
who would never turn off her pager," says coworker Georgia
Harris. Through his mother, Larry met dozens of AIDS patients and
their children. Many of the patients died, teaching Larry a
lesson that has helped him slowly accept his own loss.

"I was around death a lot," he says. "I've learned to accept that
I was blessed to have my mom for 19 years. Everything I've done
this season is in her honor. I know she's watching me."

He has given her one sweet show.
More college football coverage, including Tim Layden's Insider
and B.J. Schecter's Marquee Matchup, at

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY EYE-OPENING Fitzgerald has been nearly unstoppable, catching 87 balls and leading the nation with 132.9 yards per game.

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES BEEN THERE ... Fitzgerald makes acrobatic catches look easy and always hands the ball to an official after he scores.


COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE FITZGERALD FAMILY FAMILY TIES Fitzgerald, with his parents in high school, has dedicated his career to his mother, who died of cancer last April.

Fitzgerald has an UNREAL ABILITY to react to a pass in the air.
"It's like the football is a smart bomb and he's a target," says

From age 12 through high school, FITZGERALD WORKED as a ball boy
for the Vikings and sometimes participated in drills with Randy