Pregame a couple Sundays ago in Charlotte, Michael Jordan told the Original Larry Fitzgerald something bad was about to happen to Jr.
“It’s ironic. I was in Carolina and bumped into Michael Jordan. He owns the Charlotte Hornets. I was shocked to see what a big-time Carolina Panthers fan he is,” said Fitzgerald, father of Cardinals wide-receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and the columnist who writes the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder’s “Fitz Beat.”
The NBA Hall of Famer and businessman “told me before kickoff they were going to smack Arizona that day and he wound up being right,” said Fitzgerald. “I absolutely [didn’t see that coming]. When your son is playing you are kind of seeing it through his vision. The last time, Larry, on a great team in ’08, went into Carolina and beat one of their better teams. I thought they had proved they could do this and they would do it again.”
Panthers stamped their ticket to Super Bowl 50 and a matchup with the Broncos by putting a 49-15 whuppin’ on the Cardinals. The loss left Jr. near tears.
Nothing reportedly compares to the excitement of seeing your son play in the NFL Championship game, said the Original Fitz, who had that thrill in 2009. Sadly, the Cardinals lost to the Steelers.
Jr. came away with a Super Bowl ring, not the one he wanted, and so did his dad. The NFL created a special ring for the Original Fitzgerald, commemorating his stature as the first sportswriter to cover a Super Bowl played in by his son.
Getting a good look at that ring is one special element of my startribune.com/video of Original Fitz.
A 30-year staffer for the Spokesman-Recorder, Fitz said, “The misconception is a lot of people think that’s my only job and that’s not realistic. I am a sports commentator on TPT2’s Emmy Award-winning ‘Almanac.’ I do my radio thing. I’ve had a syndicate since Dennis Green helped me out big time by allowing me to do his radio show. Then we turned it into the network which is my business now, the National Programming Network. I have been able to adjust to things that have happened in our industry. Who thought Twitter and Facebook were going to pop up like they have and before that cable TV? I have found a way to work in all the mediums and for the most part it’s been very successful for me.”
Q: Do you have a more fond Super Bowl memory than seeing your son play in the 2009 game?
A: No. There is nothing bigger than that. To see your son going for a world championship, then to have a prominent role and put his team right on the edge. Wow. I’m blessed. Super Bowl 50, will be my 35th Super Bowl, unless something happens in the next couple of weeks.
Q: You get a big kick out of reminding everybody that you are the Original Larry Fitzgerald.
A: Yeah. He chooses not to be recognized as Larry Jr., so I like to remind every one that I’m not Larry Sr. My driver’s license says Larry Fitzgerald. I said, “I’ll take care of that, I’ll just be the original.” [Long laugh.]
Q: He dropped Jr. from his name?
A: No, he didn’t, but some players, you see it on the back of their jerseys even. [Odell Beckham Jr.]
Q: Should a wide receiver as good as Larry be a blocking wide-receiver? That infuriates me every time I hear the position.
A: [Laughter] Well, they keep talking about Hines Ward and what they did in Pittsburgh and Hines used to do that. When I used to watch the Steelers play I don’t remember Hines blocking quite this much. I’m glad Larry has learned to adjust to it. He is [a team player] It’s benefited his team this year with the running game. They still found a way to get it to him 109 times, he had a career year but sometimes when he has to take on those linebackers or defensive ends I think, “Man, that ain’t for a wide receiver.”
Q: Larry could have been a QB.
A: He could have been but I never remember him saying he wanted to be. He was always satisfied with being a wide receiver. He’s sort of mastered it and then he uses psychological advantage when he is talking to defensive backs. He softens them up by talking good things about their family. You only need a split second to be able to get ahead.
Q: What has exasperated you in terms of the local sports teams?
A: When you are watching, as a journalist you want them to have success. But then what we have to be able to do is measure their success by whether they win or lose. When they lose you have to determine how long do these guys get to keep failing. You look at the Timberwolves; they haven’t been to the playoffs in 12 years. So you say, Man. They’ve had many, many chances. They passed on Stephen Curry, for Pete’s sake. They could have drafted him! He is the hottest thing this league has seen since Jordan or LeBron. There were other mistakes they made. Same things with the Vikings, the Wild and now the Twins. They had Big Papi, a Hall of Famer, they let him get out of here. You have to measure not only what they do day in day out but in terms of athletes they let slip through their hands.
Q: You don’t think Minnesota sports are snakebit?
A: Papi was good. I think he hit 18 home runs one year for the Twins but for whatever reason Tom Kelly and the guys just didn’t think he was going to have the staying power. He went to Boston and they told him to stop doing this and do this and boy he’s been doing this ever since and got 500 homers and the Hall of Fame. The Twins way is in many ways successful for them but for some athletes you have to let them be who they are and they didn’t let him be who he was.
Q: That’s common in Minnesota?
A: That’s true. Some writer asked me the other day why didn’t Larry go to Minnesota. Why didn’t he go to the Gophers. I said, “You had assumed that the Gophers were at his door first. They weren’t.” He’s right here in Minneapolis. If they’d have come knocking on his door first, maybe he would have been excited about it like he was when Pittsburgh came knocking at the door first and followed him to a road game when he was in high school and then he was convinced that they had his best interest. Remember, he had a parent who had a scholarship — me. I told him some of the stories he was going to get that were true and false from coaches who were trying to recruit. He chose Pittsburgh and [it] put him in the right position, they highlighted what he does well. He won Biletnikoff [the Fred Biletnikoff Award] and hasn’t looked back.
Q: The bowl situation has gotten silly in my opinion. I remember the elite days of bowls. Now we could have the Fitz & C.J. Bowl.
A: [Laughter] Yeah, we can do that. They’ve added so many. There were 40 bowls this year and there were so many, they didn’t have enough winning teams. That’s how the Gophers got to go. It was a tough deal with Jerry Kill leaving for health reasons and his replacement stepping in there. His replacement should have won that game against Michigan. He may not admit it but clock management killed him. They had Michigan beat that Saturday and they let them off the hook, as Denny Green would say.
Q: Here’s the curious thing about the Gopher program. I thought Coach Kill wanted Tracy Claeys in there for some stability and then Claeys comes in and starts kicking guys out of there.
A: [Laughter] It’s amazing. That shows you when you’ve got two different men, different ways. You never know what’s the replacement’s mind set. You look at the university. They’ve got all these problems. Interim AD, for a time interim football coach. They ran Tubby [Smith] out of here when he was winning and look at what they’ve gotten since; this program hasn’t been this bad since the Mitch Lee days back when Clem Haskins was just starting. Just awful.
Q: Are you more like Dr. Bennet Omalu in your assessment of the concussions issue or like coach Bud Grant who kind of doesn’t believe in concussions.
A: I’m very serious about it and recognize what happens, whether it be in football or basketball, baseball. It can happen in any sport. For me listening to the NFL say they care … if they really cared they wouldn’t be playing games on Thursday nights. The body cannot recover from a Sunday game and be ready to do on Thursday. It simply can’t. They do it because of the ratings and the money they are making. All these networks are fighting for that Thursday game because they are all trying to win sweeps. The game is what it is but the numbers are starting to show parents are working hard to push their kids away from it.
Q: If you were Commissioner Roger Goodell, what would you do in addition to cutting out the Thursday game?
A: I would end that talk about having an 18-game season. That’s not going to help. They use to lose guys in practice because of concussions. The players association has been able to cut back on that practice time, which means they are not hitting as much. I would probably try to reduce a week or two of the preseason. I’d have them out there working out but not necessarily hitting. If you can take away a couple weeks of full contact you are benefiting the players in the long haul.
Q: I kind of go into mourning after the Super Bowl, because I love football, but there are a lot of tackles I would make illegal.
A: These are the best athletes in the world, they are so fast and highly skilled. Remember, everything a player does in practice and in a game is on video. When you are preparing for an opponent you are looking for his tendencies. In many ways they are prepared when a guy is getting ready to run a route, so they read it That’s why the contact is so violent at the very end.
Q: Has Larry ever taken a hit while you were watching a game that made you lift up out of your seat?
A: Absolutely. It’s happened a few times. For a split second it’s almost like your heart stops and then you exhale when he gets up, you know, then runs back to the huddle. He’s told me a couple time he’s gotten back to the huddle when he didn’t know where the huddle was. He gets in there and then has someone direct him to the sideline. That really concerns me but I don’t think he’s going to be playing this game much longer. He’s had a terrific career to this point and I knock on wood that’s he’s able to get away from it without sustaining any more injuries around the head.
Q: When Larry was so emotional after the loss to the Panthers I was thinking, “Buck up. You’ve got a couple more chances to get back there.”
A: This team, the Cardinals, could be back; they did win 14 games. They were consistent 7 & 2 on the road 7 & 2 at home. But something happened because they were in such a tough division, Seattle and this rivalry they have. Seattle came in having lost the week before and Seattle just happened to have lost the Super Bowl on that famous play at the goal line of the Patriots the year before and it happened at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Pete Carroll had them revved up on that Sunday and they smashed the Cardinals 34-6 and obviously that took something from them; that feeling of invincibility. They survived the Packers but obviously when they went to Carolina they met a great football team and weren’t able to match that intensity.
Q: I love Peyton Manning but I don’t think this Super Bowl is going to be a fairy tale ending to his career. How bad do you think the Panthers are going to beat the Broncos?
A: [Laughter] Certainly they are the favorite when you go in 17 & 1 trying to become one of the greatest teams in the NFL. They scored 500 points and their defense, wow, those guys are lethal. I’ve never seen a team that just takes the ball away from you and goes for touchdowns, other than the Bears when they dominated in ’85. Carson Palmer couldn’t throw it over them so they are going to make it tough on Peyton Manning. And if the Broncos don’t show up with a running game Super Bowl Sunday it could get ugly like it did a couple of years ago against the Seahawks
Q: So you don’t think the Broncos have a better defense than the Panthers?
A: Their defense is not a stout, physical defense like Carolina’s. Their defense is predicated on speed off the edge and Cam Newton is just a different kind of quarterback. He’s so big and so physical and he can throw the football and they use max protection. I think they are going to be able to deal with the speed Denver has up front and give him the time to move the ball. I think it’s going to be a great Super Bowl but Denver is going to have to play a perfect game to beat these guys.
Q: Cam is just awesome. When have we seen a quarterback running like this guy and just diving over the pile?
A: Yeah. Big and strong and confident. You don’t see guys doing it but he’s doing it and enjoying it. He’s probably got more critics than he should have because that’s just his style. It’s different but it’s working and like he says, if you don’t like it you can stop it and nobody’s been able to stop it.
Q: I’m only critical of him for a couple of things, that computer incident when he was at Florida and why would you name your child Chosen? It’s Chosen Sebastian Newton.
A: [Laughter] That’s true. Like Pe Tony, one of my cousins. P-e Tony. He dropped the Pe, believe me.
Q: Do you have friendships with other parents of elite athletes?
A: Mr. Winslow, Kellen Winslow Sr. the Hall of Famer. His son was drafted in the first round and played in the league seven, eight years. He and I are good friends. Also Donovan McNabb’s dad, I’ve gotten to know over the years. He’s a big part of something called All Pro Dads, although I’m not a member of that.
Q: When was it apparent to you Larry was an elite athlete?
A: His sophomore year. He had made All-American once and then when he made it again that let me know he was climbing, getting better. And then when you hear from scouts saying he could play in the NFL now, that’s when you really back up and say, Wow. Really? That’s when I knew he had something he could take to the level he is today.
Q: So you didn’t know he was an elite athlete as much time as you spend on a football field?
A: I was pretty good. I was a two-time All American. Ever heard of Wool Bowl in Roswell? The 1974 Wool Bowl, in New Mexico, when I was in junior college at Indian Hills. I played with Rick Upchurch and couple other players who made it to the NFL, had good careers. We played in Mesa, Ariz., in that championship game and then I went to Indiana State where I played two-and-a-half years for Tom Harp, where they moved me to offensive tackle. I was a very good player, just didn’t have a pro career of any significance. Once Larry and Marcus were born, you know, you’re watching your children. I never pushed them into anything. Because of my business, being in the media, I took them to a lot of games. They developed a liking for sports and that is where I could see they really were competitive and really wanted to play. From that point I started telling them my stories and telling them things I thought would benefit them. After that it was just taking them around to people I knew who were very successful and they could learn from and use to give them an advantage.
Q: When you’ve got two boys, one of whom is an elite athlete and the other one wants to be, how did you make sure Marcus came away with good self-esteem?
A: They are friends. They love each other. They are only two years apart and they both played on the same football team in high school and they experienced success there at Holy Angels. Of course, Marcus got his own scholarship to Marshall University. Randy Moss went there, so that’s a successful school. Larry went to University of Pittsburgh after the prep school situation. You know Marcus had a shot at the pros. He was with the Vikings in their camp. He got into Cardinals camp. And then when Denny Green left the Cardinals he was in that new league and Marcus was in his training camp. He had a taste of the pros. It just didn’t work out for him. He gave it the old college try. [Laughter]
Q: Whenever you mention Randy Moss’ name, I can help but think about that story we can’t tell about his reaction to the portrait I painted of him. (A portrait Moss gushed about until he found out who painted it.) You wouldn’t repeat what Moss said because as you told me, “I don’t talk like that.”
A: Randy has a way of letting you know what he doesn’t like. He didn’t like the menu that the Vikings had in the locker room, on Fridays, his second time around. [Sustained laughter.]
Q: I’ve never seen Larry almost crying or sniffling so much after a game as I did following the loss to Panthers. He couldn’t look at the cameras. Even though he’s a grown man, he’s still your baby, so does he need a little more attention after a loss like that?
A: Larry has seen me emotionally break down. I shouldn’t say break down but tears. I’ve never been ashamed of what comes out, my human emotions. I’ve never seen him cry other than the first time he found out his mom was close to dying. Other than that’s he’s been really strong. But after the game against Carolina, I could see he was really getting close. He wants to win that championship and really believed this team could do it. I just think it really bothered him that he was this close and his team played so poorly.
Q: Your late wife, Carol, was a sweetheart. She tried to get me to go to church, all the time.
A: [Laughter] Not a bad idea.
Q: I know her death was hard for you. What do you miss the most about her?
A: From that time to where we are today, she missed Larry [being in the running for] the Heisman; all the things that Marcus has done in terms of his education — finishing in three years, trying to make it in the NFL — and then a good business in the pharmacy field. She has missed all of that. Wow. She would have experienced and enjoyed all of this and, of course, our three grandchildren. That’s something I regret she hasn’t been here to help me with. My guys are doing a lot of what we laid out for them to do. I’m really proud of the way they have gone about doing, just about everything.
Q: As someone I know was a faithful husband, how do you stomach covering these athletes who forget they took marriage vows?
A: I try not to judge why so many thirsty men disrespect themselves. Sports is supposed to teach you discipline.
Q: You haven’t remarried and I know you’re a catch.
A: [Chuckle] That’s true, I haven’t but I do have a special woman in my life. Sharrie Warner has been with me for the last eight years We’ve had our ups and downs like any relationship would have. She has to deal with things that I can’t explain for her that she feels she gets caught in the middle of but that’s just a part of it. I’ve been honest and fair with her and she has been honest and fair with me, so we’re still riding.
Q: Before Sharrie came on the scene, tell me the funniest lady-coming-over-with-a-casserole story.
A: [Laughing] Nah.
Q: I didn’t ask you to give me names.
A: No. If they read this they would know exactly the scene. But there have been a few situations that have popped up. [Laughter. Long laughter]
Q: How much did your boys fight when they were little?
A: They had their share of fights. We had to get on them all the time about that. It was territorial things. One of them getting to do something first and they would be battling over it.
Q: But they grew up loving each other?
A: They did.
Q: Do I understand Marcus to be a pharmaceutical rep?
A: No. He’s got his own deal in the independent pharmacy business. He just been working at it and doing pretty well.
Q: Is he going to get his Ph.D. so he can actually be “Professor,” as he calls himself on Twitter?
A: [Long laugh] I don’t think so. He enjoys that title. If you listen to him, you’d think he might be on his way.
Q: Does Larry Jr. swear?
A: No, he doesn’t. He’s been pretty good about that. I mean where would he learn it? He didn’t learn it from me.
Q: Good thing I’m not a parent of his.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her, check out Fox 9’s “Jason Show.”