Chip Scoggins: Fitzgerald's philanthropy work touch lives globally

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2012 - 12:19 AM

The Minneapolis native and NFL star receiver follows his late mother's example of generously sharing time and resources.

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Larry Fitzgerald Jr. (left), and Starkey's Bill Austin with other NFL players in Tanzania.

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One after another, Larry Fitzgerald Jr. fitted hearing aids in the ears of young children and watched their world come alive. His heart pounded as, in stunned amazement, the kids heard birds chirp, cellphones ring and motorcycles roar on a busy street.

Fitzgerald was in India on his first 10-day mission with Starkey Hearing Foundation, and that scene stirred something deep inside him.

"You ever been to a Baptist church before?" Fitzgerald asked. "And kind of caught the spirit? That's kind of how it was. I was like, 'This is an unbelievable experience.'"

That moment reaffirmed what he already believed in his heart. As a high-profile professional athlete, Fitzgerald feels an undeniable obligation to use his platform and stature in a manner that helps others and effects positive change. He's devoted his life to that pursuit.

Most know Fitzgerald as a superstar NFL wide receiver. He could go down as one of the best ever to play that position, and he's having his usual impact for the Arizona Cardinals this season. But that discussion is for another day, because the Minneapolis native does so much more than catch footballs.

Fitzgerald devotes time, money and resources to dozens of charities and philanthropic causes here in his hometown, nationally and even globally. He has visited 80 countries on six continents and often uses his love of travel to help others.

He has made five USO tours to visit soldiers overseas. He helped dig wells and build irrigation systems in drought-stricken Ethiopia. He's fitted children with hearing aids in eight countries, including Uganda, Rwanda and Malaysia. He's served as league spokesman for the NFL's breast cancer awareness initiative to honor his late mother, Carol, who died of breast cancer in 2003. Fitzgerald's "First Down Fund" makes a weekly donation to a charity nominated by a fan.

Locally, he refurbished basketball courts at Martin Luther King Park in Minneapolis, paid for underprivileged kids to attend summer football camps and helped north Minneapolis tornado victims. He announced this week that he has partnered with Riddell to provide new helmets to 1,000 kids in the Minneapolis parks and recreation football program.

That's only a snapshot of his charitable involvement.

"He's making a difference," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Not just with breast cancer but with a variety of other charities, because that's the kind of guy he is."

In August, Fitzgerald was chosen as the recipient of the Arthur K. Arkush Humanitarian Award, presented by Pro Football Weekly to an NFL player who demonstrates exemplary contributions to the community and charities.

Former President Bill Clinton made a mission trip with Starkey to Uganda in July. He asked Starkey founder and CEO Bill Austin if he would arrange for Fitzgerald to accompany him.

"I called Larry and said, 'You've got a presidential request,' " Austin said.

Fitzgerald isn't looking for attention or praise. He helps because he finds joy and purpose in it.

"When you're a professional athlete, people look up to you," he said. "They look at how you carry yourself. You have the ability to effect change in the things you say, in the things you do."

His mother serves as his inspiration. Carol worked as a disease intervention specialist for the Minnesota Department of Health and became an activist for HIV/AIDS and breast cancer organizations. She taught her two sons about compassion and selflessness.

"She lived by example," Larry said. "She set an example by giving back, being good to people, giving her time. And genuinely caring about people and their well-being."

That is why Fitzgerald doesn't just cut a check and move on. He doesn't believe in detached community involvement. Starkey's doctors trained him in how to fit people with hearing aids so he can help on missions. Two years ago, he paid for two breast cancer survivors to accompany him to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and invited them to his rented house for dinner the night before the game.

"I wanted them to know that I care about them and I think about them and I appreciate their valiant fight," he said.

Fitzgerald embraces his role model status because he recognizes the impact he can have on young kids by giving them guidance and support.

"I remember going up to King Park and shooting baskets for hours when I could be doing some other stupid things," he said. "But I had that outlet. I want to make sure kids have that same opportunity that we had when we were growing up. I have that responsibility to the next generation."

His extensive travels to far reaches of the globe have provided him a humbling perspective and awareness of the challenges that others face on a aily basis.

"When you see how dire the need is in some of these places, it really makes you sit back and appreciate the things that we have here," he said. "A lot of people don't have that same opportunity, but every day you see they have a smile on their face and they're thankful for their families and to be alive. From a worldly standpoint, they might not have much. But what they do have is a fulfilled spirit."

Fitzgerald wants to experience more of that. He plans to visit Antarctica after the season. He also wants to explore Tibet and Russia, climb Mount Kilimanjaro and sail around Patagonia.

"I've got a lot of things on my bucket list," he said.

Fitzgerald wants to see the world and do his part to make it a better place. His mother would be proud.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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