Larry Fitzgerald Jr. defies labels as well as defensive coverages.
The best Minnesota-born football player to never wear a Gophers or Vikings uniform, Fitzgerald says he wouldn’t be a future Hall of Fame receiver without Minneapolis. He returns on Sunday when the Vikings play host to the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium, which could become the 27th NFL stadium in which he has caught a touchdown pass.
Two decades after he roamed the Metrodome sidelines as a Vikings ball boy, Fitzgerald without hesitation recalled some of the franchise’s longest-tenured employees who mentored him during his first job — equipment manager Dennis Ryan and his assistant Aaron Neumann, facilities director Chad Lundeen and youth football development manager Jeff Robinson.
“I pull for those guys every week, except when I’m going against them,” Fitzgerald said on a conference call Thursday. “I still got a little purple running through my veins.”
Fifteen years into an all-time great career, Fitzgerald pins his life’s successes — including 1,251 receptions, 15,721 yards and 110 touchdowns — to lessons learned from his parents, Larry Sr. and Carol, as well as the Vikings employees who watched a young Larry Jr. grow up at the turn of the millennium.
There was the leather jacket given to him as a gift by the late Korey Stringer, the Vikings Pro Bowl tackle who died of heat stroke during 2001 training camp. It was an early gesture that resonated with Fitzgerald, now a 35-year-old philanthropist who has “donated millions,” according to his father.
“If [Stringer] saw there was a need or something to help somebody out, he’d always do it,” Fitzgerald Jr. recalled.
There was the blowout loss at Minnehaha Academy, when Fitzgerald Sr. said he and Carol decided their freshman son needed to transfer to somewhere like Holy Angels Academy. Then his football career soared into national recognition.
“He kept rising after that,” Fitzgerald Sr. said.
His son is now making as many headlines for the man he’s become.
On the field, his reputation is that of a player who quietly destroys other team’s defenses. His celebrations are as understated as his strides, running routes so consistently that defenders don’t know what is coming next.
“He’s a wizard when it comes to running routes,” Vikings safety George Iloka said.
Off the field, he’s lauded by teammates and opponents alike as the “consummate professional.” Fitzgerald was named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2016 for his charitable efforts including his First Down Fund, which was established in 2005 and focused on K-12 education and efforts to prevent and cure breast cancer, for which his mother was being treated when she died in 2003.
“So many times, people come to me and talk about what he is as a person, what he did for their kid, what he’s done, how nice he was,” Larry Fitzgerald Sr. said. “They say nothing about football. It’s always about who he is as a person.”
Those messages continued to light up Fitzgerald Sr.’s phone after Larry Jr. delivered a moving tribute at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s funeral in late August.
Fitzgerald was one of a distinguished handful chosen to speak at McCain’s service.
“There’s no similarities there,” Fitzgerald said Thursday. “But [McCain] took a liking to me and I learned so much from him. I think that’s an example of what the world is capable of. It’s not about the color of your skin or religion or political affiliations or role in society, it’s about judging people based off character and I think that’s what made our relationship so special.”
In his speech, Fitzgerald said he was inspired by McCain’s experiences as a former prisoner of war, so he traveled to Vietnam — one of the 100 countries he’s visited on his growing list — adding, “I walked the steps. I sat in the cell. And the ordeal that my friend survived became all the more real.”
Experiences drive Fitzgerald to broaden his horizons.
But he’s often got time for a round of golf, picking his Vikings opponents wisely. He said he doesn’t go near receiver Adam Thielen, known as the Vikings’ best golfer on the team. But he “whooped up” on quarterback Kirk Cousins a few times this offseason. Despite the loss, Cousins said he wants to keep in touch with “the mayor of Phoenix.”
“He’s really done everything right when you look at production on the field, good teammate, community involvement,” Cousins said. “He’s pretty much the mayor of Phoenix.”
Currently in his 15th NFL season, Fitzgerald said he will put off retirement thoughts until the end of the year like he has “the last three or four years.” He came close to retiring last offseason, according to his father, after coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer walked away.
Whatever his football future holds, Fitzgerald Jr. expects even greater things off the field.
“I’d like to believe the Lord put me on the Earth for something much more important than catching a pigskin ball,” he said. “The game has given me a wonderful platform and helped me do some things off the field that I’m really proud of.
“I hope post career, I’m able to do that on a larger scale and give people the opportunity to live their dream like I was afforded.”