Larry Fitzgerald Jr. had a question. Many questions, actually, but one main thought lingered with him.
How did Jerry Rice play at an elite level for so long, he wondered.
How did he train? How did he eat? How did he set up cornerbacks off the line? How did he come out of his breaks on pass patterns?
How, how, how?
Fitzgerald could’ve asked him over the phone. That wasn’t good enough. He wanted to immerse himself in greatness up close, without distractions.
So he invited Rice to visit his home in the Twin Cities one summer to train with him and teach him.
Rice, the NFL’s wide receiver GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), didn’t hesitate.
“The second he wanted me to come,” Rice said, “I said yes.”
Michael Irvin said yes, too. And Cris Carter. And Andre Rison.
Fitzgerald had different questions for each of them, a sponge hoping to absorb insight into a position that he already had mastered himself.
When Fitzgerald learned that Rice ate grapes every morning for breakfast, he incorporated grapes into his diet, too.
“You’re always learning,” he says.
Sift through all his accolades and Hall of Fame credentials, and Larry Fitzgerald’s place as one of the best wide receivers in NFL history can be traced to his work ethic, his preparation and his unrelenting obsession with knowing everything about his position.
As he approaches his 13th pro season, all with the Arizona Cardinals, Fitzgerald has a realistic shot to move up to No. 3 all-time in career receptions this season. His 1,018 catches stand 531 behind Rice’s record.
Barring injury, he’s a virtual lock to finish his career in the top 10 all-time in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
His journey from Vikings ballboy to a future spot in Canton has been fueled by sweat equity.
The foundation, he says, starts with family. His grandparents owned various businesses in Chicago for four decades, including a barbecue restaurant and steel hauling operation.
“[Work] was a learned experience,” says his father, Larry Sr.
Larry Sr.’s job as a Minneapolis-based sportswriter and media personality opened doors for his son to tag along with Carter, Randy Moss and other Vikings receivers every summer in training camp. He always studied them, and listened.
One summer, at age 16, Fitzgerald spent two weeks in Florida working with Carter and his personal trainer, Bill Welle. He saw that offseason training serves as a road map. He hired Welle once he reached the NFL, too.
Every offseason, Fitzgerald asked Welle the same question: What do I need to work on?
Even as his Pro Bowl selections multiplied — his nine appearances rank second only to Rice’s 13 by a wide receiver in league history — Fitzgerald poked holes in his game.
When he watches himself on tape, he only sees mistakes and weaknesses, never the good. He studies other receivers and finds things they do better than him. Satisfaction remains a foreign concept.
“You’re always battling yourself,” he says. “I’m effective at what I do, but it doesn’t look as good as Julio [Jones]. Not as quick as Antonio Brown. That’s how I’m wired.”
His offseason workouts became well-known around the league because of their intensity and structure. He’s not hosting his unofficial pre-training camp gathering this summer, but players at all positions from various teams have visited Minneapolis to train with him over the years.
Rice followed a legendary workout program as a player. He took part in Fitzgerald’s session for two days at age 46.
“That was crazy, man,” Rice recalled in a recent phone conversation. “I was really impressed with his workout.”
Fitzgerald treats workouts as if his roster spot is in jeopardy. He hates to miss a single day. Not even his love of travel — he has visited every continent and 96 countries — compromises his training.
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A few years ago, Fitzgerald hired a personal consultant/trainer to travel everywhere with him from mid-June until late-July. In the past three weeks, his trainer, James Smith, has accompanied him on trips to London, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and Richmond, Va.
If Fitzgerald has a charity event, commercial shoot or mini-vacation, Smith comes along and oversees early-morning workouts wherever is convenient. Fitzgerald has run sprints in the rain at a public park in Sandwich, England, and trained at a rugby facility in London.
Former Vikings receiver Greg Jennings had a running joke with Fitzgerald. They would text each other videos of themselves training while the other was on vacation, knowing that it would get under the other’s skin.
“It was a little childish,” Jennings admits.
Fitzgerald’s attendance at a function once caused him to miss a morning workout because his flight landed in Minneapolis at 3 p.m. He called Welle and asked if there was a park near his home.
Yes, Welle told him, but his wife was gone and he had to watch his kids. Be there at 5 p.m., Fitzgerald said.
“So I’m training Larry Fitzgerald by myself with kids hanging out on the playground and my neighbors are on the deck watching like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Welle says.
Fitzgerald has scaled back his regimen as he’s gotten older. He used to train twice a day in Flagstaff, Ariz., at 7,000 feet elevation in the weeks before camp. Training camp was a breeze after that.
“I was almost overtrained,” he says.
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Intensive training keeps him fit, but Fitzgerald’s longevity of success remains a byproduct of many components.
Start with natural talent, of course. His athletic gifts were obvious from an early age. When Fitzgerald was in high school at Holy Angels, an opposing cornerback once lined up across from him, looked him in the eyes and asked for his autograph after the game.
Fitzgerald’s big body and strong hands enable him to snatch passes while being defended tightly.
“His ability to attack the ball is off the charts,” Vikings veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn says. “When the ball is in the air, he’s like a power forward. He goes up and gets it at the highest point and he brings it down.”
Fitzgerald follows a strict plan in how he manages his body. He tries to sleep 10 hours a day during the season. He naps after practice and, if possible, goes to bed with his two sons (ages 8 and 3) around 8 p.m.
He drinks water primarily and eats “very clean.” No alcohol.
“When it’s 110 degrees and you’re practicing,” he says, “you don’t need anything more that’s going to dehydrate you.”
He uses a team of medical specialists in the Twin Cities and Arizona to help with injuries, injury recovery and dealing with chronic pain. He also receives a therapeutic massage three times a week. He has missed only six games in 12 seasons.
“I think Larry is the epitome of the NFL and what it stands for,” Rice says. “He’s still hungry. I think that’s what the NFL should be about — not getting complacent.”
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One thing about the NFL drives Fitzgerald crazy: perceptions based on physical attributes, namely speed.
Fitzgerald conducted an interview on a golf cart while playing in a charity event this summer. The conversation shifted to Vikings rookie receiver Laquon Treadwell and concerns about his speed.
Fitzgerald let loose an exaggerated sigh.
A touchy subject?
“Man, you have no idea,” he says.
Fitzgerald never has been a speed-burner, a knock he has heard ever since entering the league. He made a point by quizzing his interviewer.
“Name me your top five receivers of all time,” he says.
OK, here goes: Rice, Moss, Carter, Terrell Owens and Fitzgerald.
“There’s only one guy in there that’s sub-4.3 [seconds in the 40-yard dash],” he says.
“Winning is all about separation at the top of your breaks,” he continues. “Very rarely is the defense just going to let you run right by them. If you’re a defensive back, that’s one thing that will get you fired quick.”
Fitzgerald rattles off criteria he finds far more important: lateral quickness (to gain separation); strong hands (helps on poor throws and passes in traffic) and football intelligence (ability to read coverages).
“If you can do those things,” he says, “you’ll play for a while.”
• • •
Cris Carter shared a message with Fitzgerald years ago that has guided his approach as a professional. Be a giver, not a user. Make the league better than the one you entered.
Fitzgerald’s career statistics validate his legacy. The manner in which he has respected the game and treated peers has earned him a legion of admirers within the NFL.
“I always wanted to emulate my game after him,” says former Gophers standout Eric Decker, now with the New York Jets. “Being able to interact with him was awesome because I asked questions and he was so open about everything.”
Fitzgerald doesn’t take that reverence lightly.
“I know guys are following and watching,” he says. “I make sure that I’m leading by example.”
He plays hard and physical but within the rules. He takes young players under his wing and has become one of the most clutch playoff performers of his generation. In 2012, he was named finalist for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year based on his philanthropic work.
“He’s a guy that everybody respects because No. 1 he’s a leader,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer says. “You respect all great athletes. But the guys who do it with passion and it’s not, ‘Hey look at me’ … I’ve just always had a ton of respect for him.”
After the Cardinals drafted former Cretin-Derham Hall standout Michael Floyd in 2012, Fitzgerald invited Floyd to live in his house until he felt settled. He stayed most of his rookie season.
“I learned how to be a pro,” Floyd says.
Media reports in Arizona have speculated that 2016 could be Fitzgerald’s final season. He has heard that chatter but believes he still can produce at a high level. He caught a franchise-record 109 passes and made the Pro Bowl last season after moving to the slot receiver position.
“I’ve got a lot of good football left in me,” he says.
Fitzgerald loves Arizona coach Bruce Arians, his offense and his role. He’s especially proud of the seismic transformation his organization has undergone during his tenure. Once a laughingstock, the Cardinals are now a winner built on stable leadership.
“I’ve been a part of the foundation of changing the view of the franchise,” he says. “Now guys will say, ‘Fitz, put in a good word for me. I’d love to come out there and play with you guys.’ I never had that early in my career. I always thought, man, we can do something different here.”
As he approaches his 33rd birthday, his motivation is singular. He sees something missing from his Hall of Fame résumé.
“I only have one thing I need to do,” he says. “It’s the ring.”