Fitzgerald led theNFC in receptions and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons and lastyear tied for the league lead in touchdown catches with 12. It was all merely awarmup to the greatest postseason ever by a wideout. He set playoff marks forcatches (30), yards (546), touchdowns (seven) and TD catches in consecutivegames (four). As Arizona went deeper into the playoffs, Fitzgerald dug deeperinto the record book to know what marks were within reach. "Everybodyaspires to play big in the biggest games," he says. A three-time Pro Bowlselection and a 2008 All-Pro, Fitzgerald studies the greats who preceded him—hecan recite Jerry Rice's stats as if they were his own—and uses their numbersand stories as motivation. "I need to be great," says Fitzgerald."It's been my goal since I started playing ball."
Also pushing himis former Eagles and Vikings wideout Cris Carter, who's third alltime inreceptions with 1,101 and has mentored Fitzgerald since Larry was a ball boy onthe Vikings' sideline in the '90s. Carter knows how Fitzgerald is wired, whichis why he refuses to join the rush to crown him the game's best receiver. Helists Randy Moss of New England, Andre Johnson of Houston and Reggie Wayne ofIndianapolis as better. Fitzgerald knows what he has to do to join thatclub.
"I'm not evenin my prime yet," says Fitzgerald, 26. "My best football is still aheadof me. That's exciting as heck. I've been able to raise my level of play everyyear, and I don't expect anything different this year or next year or the yearafter that. I'm going to continue to raise that bar."
In 2004, whenArizona selected Fitzgerald at No. 3 out of Pitt, the Minneapolis native was 20years old—one of the youngest players ever to enter the NFL. Early on as a prohe still had much to learn, in particular he sometimes failed to push himselfin practice or to extend himself in games when a play took him beyond hiscomfort zone. Over the last several seasons Fitzgerald's attitude changeddramatically. And he understands that greatness means making those around himbetter as well.
In the off-seasonhe invited a handful of young teammates, including 2009 first-round pick Chris(Beanie) Wells, to stay at his house in Paradise Valley, Ariz., during workoutsso that they could focus on football. And when Fitzgerald was home in EdenPrairie, Minn., in July, he put up Dominique Byrd, the Cardinals' newly signedtight end, and trained with him. Fitzgerald also organized a receivers camp forteammates and other NFL players, including Greg Jennings of Green Bay, LeeEvans of Buffalo and Brandon Marshall of Denver, paying some of their travelcosts and securing a discount at a hotel near his house so the players couldeat, Jet Ski and play basketball together.
"He's tryingto take his game to a Hall of Fame level," says Cardinals G.M. Rod Graves,"and he realizes that some of these guys can help him get there."
At 6'3" and217 pounds Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the league's best-conditionedplayers. The strength of his game is his ability to make leaping catches (hehas a 38-inch vertical jump), particularly along the sideline or in the cornerof the end zone on fades. He also has great hands and uncanny body control.
When he's inMinnesota, he works on agility, quickness, speed and strength with respectedperformance coach Bill Welle. Before the 2008 season they focused on improvingFitzgerald's long-distance speed; the result was a career-high 461 yards afterthe catch—165 more than he had the previous year. This off-season theyemphasized his burst off the line of scrimmage. "He's quick and shifty, buthe needs to be a lot more explosive," says Welle. "He's not at his peakyet, which is scary."
Fitzgerald andWelle devoted each weekday during the month preceding training camp to adifferent workout element. One day, after concluding a session with 14 straight110-yard sprints— each to be completed in 16 seconds or less, with 45 secondsrest in between—Fitzgerald plopped onto a metal bench and asked a visitor ifhe'd ever seen an NFL player work harder. When the visitor told him he hadn't,Fitzgerald said, "Good. Because if you had said someone was working harderthan me, I would've had to get up and run two more."
Fitzgerald isregarded throughout the league as one of the toughest covers. Here's what threePro Bowl corners and an All-Pro teammate have to say.
Nnamdi Asomugha,Raiders "He doesn't look like the fastest player, but he kind of gallopsand gains ground. He's got long speed, he can outphysical you on short routes,and he can jump over guys."
Nate Clements,49ers "He gives you trouble with his size and his jumping ability. He hasexcellent hands, and he's very good at timing up a ball. He can put himself ina position to catch it with a corner draped over him."
DeAngelo Hall,Redskins "After his playoff run he put himself at Number 1 or 2 [in theleague], hands down. You can argue Randy Moss for the raw speed. But Randy andFitz are the same type of player."
Anquan Boldin,Cardinals Fitzgerald's Arizona running mate recalls a catch against the Cowboyslast October, "Kurt [Warner] threw one up, and cornerback Anthony Henrylooked like he was going to pick it off. You just saw Fitz come from out ofnowhere and take it. Henry was shocked. That's like a normal routine forFitz."
As athree-year-old Fitzgerald jumped into a pool and had to be fished out by hisfather, Larry Sr., who was in a business suit when he dived in. Little Larrywas unfazed and exclaimed, "I can swim, Daddy!"
He remainsadventurous, whether he's plunging off the coast of South Africa in a sharkcage; bungee-jumping 630 feet off the Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand; scubadiving near the Great Barrier Reef; or just roaring his Jet Ski acrossMinnesota's Bryant Lake at 70 mph. At his Arizona house Fitzgerald is having aworld map painted on the ceiling of his office with little flags marking hisU.S. and international landing spots. Those include Spain, Germany, theNetherlands, Turkey, Portugal, Australia, Peru, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa andAfghanistan, where he traveled in March on a USO tour. "I'm going to keepgoing until the whole map is full," he says, eyeing China or Jordan aspotential destinations for next year.
Fitzgerald's jumpto elite status last season was further reflected in his off-season schedule.There were commercial shoots and promotional spots for Nike (the "Run withLarry" campaign), EA Sports (he shares the cover of Madden NFL 10 withPittsburgh's Troy Polamalu), EAS nutritional products (he takes on apersonality dubbed "the Launch," a presumed nod to his leapingability), Cold Stone Creamery (a breast-cancer awareness campaign) and IHOP(he's snagging various breakfast foods out of the air). During a screening ofTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen at a Minneapolis theater this summer,someone called out, "We love you, Larry!" Corporate America doestoo.
Fitzgerald—asingle father whose toddler son, Devin, attended each of Arizona's postseasongames—learned from his mother, Carol, who died of breast cancer in 2003 at theage of 47, not to waste a single day. A community activist in the Minneapolisarea, she founded an African-American AIDS task force and an alliance to raisebreast-cancer awareness. When Larry and his younger brother, Marcus, weregrowing up, Carol had them work as counselors to younger kids whose parentswere HIV-positive. "We saw a lot of death," Fitzgerald says. "Itmade me really appreciate life.
"Mygrandfather told me this summer, 'Larry, don't wait until you're older. Neverpush anything back. When you have the means and the opportunity to do it, doit. There are no guarantees that tomorrow you'll have the same opportunitiesyou have today.' That's how I live."
By the Numbers
Telling stats from Fitzgerald's career
5,195 Receivingyards since 2005, most in the NFL
71 Games to reach400 career catches, second fastest alltime behind teammate Anquan Boldin(67)
78.6 Careerreceiving yards per game, third alltime behind Boldin and Torry Holt
6 Years sinceFitzgerald cut his hair; he wears it long and braided in tribute to his latemother, Carol, who wore the same style
"I need to be great. It's been my goal since Istarted playing football."
PETER READ MILLER
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
COURTESY OF EA SPORTS