Welcome to the third edition of Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly tour of football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find last week's FAM right here. Thank you for reading. — Chip
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Larry Fitzgerald Jr. spends his Sundays doing whatever he wants these days. Sometimes, he hangs out with his kids. If he wants to golf, he has time for that, too. He even has picked up pickleball.
For the first time since 2004, the Minneapolis native isn't playing in the NFL. And he's OK with that.
Does not being on the field on gameday feel weird?
"Not at all," Fitzgerald said Monday morning. "Football was my occupation, it's not who I am."
Fitzgerald does not use the word "retired" when he talks about his situation. He said he's just not playing football right now. He is a free agent after spending all 17 seasons of his career with the Arizona Cardinals.
"As you get older," he said, "other things become more important. It's just life."
Fitzgerald is 38 with three children, ages 13, 8 and 5. His place in NFL history is secure.
If Fitzgerald's career is finished, he walks away as a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. He ranks second in NFL history behind Jerry Rice in catches (1,432) and receiving yards (17,492) and is sixth in touchdown catches (121).
Fitzgerald has his 20-year reunion at Holy Angels this fall. He hopes to make the event. That life marker "brings back a lot of wonderful memories," he said, mentioning his Holy Angels coaches and teammates.
“When I look at youth sports, the biggest difference I see is that there is so much unnecessary pressure put on our youth now from parents and coaches. What I remember is just a true love of the game. I remember Saturday mornings, my mom bringing the hot cider and donuts for all the kids to eat before the game. ”
Fitzgerald's offseason training regimen became legendary among his NFL contemporaries. For years, he held Camp Fitz — as I referred to it — at the Gophers football facility that attracted NFL receivers and defensive backs from across the league. The players would do intense conditioning work first, followed by route running sessions.
Fitzgerald never cut corners in training, not even after establishing himself as one of the best receivers to play the game.
The impact he has made through charity work in the Twin Cities, in Arizona and globally deserves as much recognition as his football success. The 2016 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner is involved with numerous organizations and causes dear to him.
I heard that Fitzgerald recently bought 60 new helmets for the Phelps Falcons youth football program in Minneapolis. Said Fitzgerald: "I will not deny nor confirm those allegations."
He didn't want publicity, but it's true, according to Phelps President Jim Halbur.
"It's not about doing things for fanfare or attention," Fitzgerald said. "If I see a need, no matter what it is — large or small – if I can be helpful, I'm going to do it."
Now that his athletic career has reached its final stage, I asked Fitzgerald what message he would give athletes who are at the other end, just starting out in youth football.
"When I look at youth sports, the biggest difference I see is that there is so much unnecessary pressure put on our youth now from parents and coaches," he said. "What I remember is just a true love of the game. I remember Saturday mornings, my mom bringing the hot cider and donuts for all the kids to eat before the game. It wasn't about going to the National Football League. It wasn't about playing college football. It was about being present with the players and having a good time and trying to win and doing it the right way with sportsmanship and competitive drive.
"As I watch sports now, it's just a lot different climate and atmosphere than when I was growing up. I would tell kids to just enjoy the moment. Be in the present and have fun and really embrace the relationships that you have because that youth level is the most fun you'll ever have. It's not about salary caps and business decisions. It's just about kids enjoying themselves and having fun in the spirit of park football."
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On the money
The play is called "Money." Perham High put in the trick play several weeks ago and rehearsed it in practice not knowing when, or if, they would need it.
The Yellowjackets unveiled the hook-and-ladder special Friday night in the final seconds to stun their Highway 10 rival Detroit Lakes with a game-winning touchdown that allowed Perham to take possession of the coveted "Paddle" traveling trophy for the first time since 2017.
"We ran 'Money' … and it was money," quarterback Colton Hackel said.
First, the setup: Detroit Lakes scored with 32 seconds left to take a 27-23 lead. Hackel, a senior who has committed to play quarterback at the University of North Dakota, encouraged his teammates on the sideline.
"I let them know that we can still win this game," he said, recalling that he threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in the section championship two years ago.
A quick pass along the sideline moved the Yellowjackets to their own 48-yard line. The play call came from the sideline: "Money."
Hackel connected with receiver Josh Peterson, his cousin, on a curl route at the Detroit Lakes 45.
Levi Richter, who had lined up in the backfield and ran a wheel route, came charging up, took the lateral from Peterson, eluded a tackle and sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown with 13 seconds left.
"I don't think we could have done it any better," Richter said. "That felt amazing."
Said Peterson: "It was insane. I don't think anybody thought that was going to happen."
Hackel credited his two teammates for executing it perfectly. He also credited Perham coaches for designing the wrinkle of putting Richter in the backfield before the snap.
"They're not going to be expecting a hook and ladder out of the backfield from the running back," he said.
Perham and Detroit Lakes battle for the right to keep the canoe paddle for a year. None of the Perham players had experienced the thrill of rushing to grab the prized trophy until Friday night. The Yellowjackets plan to hang it in their locker room.
Three seniors and good friends will have some laughs when they get together 30 years from now and talk about "Money."
"It was an unreal feeling," Hackel said.
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TEAM OF THE WEEK
Andover's father-son duo
If Andover coach Tom Develice wants to talk to his quarterback about a certain play or issue with the team away from school, he can usually find him. They can discuss it at the dinner table.
Develice's son, Connor, is a senior starting quarterback on Andover's undefeated and No. 2-ranked team in Class 5A. Connor accounted for five touchdowns — three passing, two running — in the first half of Friday's 49-21 victory over St. Francis.
Coach Develice called the opportunity to coach his son "a really cool thing."
"There's pros and cons," he said. "Obviously it's a great experience being out there with your son. It's a cool deal when you've coached all these other sons and you finally get to coach your own."
He actually has two sons on the team. Devin is a junior backup receiver.
Connor and Devin served as ball boys when their dad was head coach at Blaine from 2012-18. The family lived in Andover, but the boys played youth football for Blaine's feeder system.
Once they reached high school, the sons opted to stay at Andover to be with friends. Tom moved to administration as Coon Rapids' athletic director in 2018.
When the Andover football job opened in 2020, Develice called it a "no brainer" because he missed coaching and being around kids.
He had a long talk with Connor, his starting quarterback since last season, about how to handle that unique relationship. The message: What happens at football, stays at football.
"If it was a really bad practice or you didn't do well that day, well, it's over with," Develice said. "It's now dad and son at home."
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LOVE OF THE GAME
Still waiting on that promise
Saturday brought a rare opportunity to tailgate before the Gophers game. My usual gameday routine is park, walk to stadium, work, walk back to car after writing.
I made an exception this past weekend and accepted a few invitations from fans — OK, I sort of invited myself — to stop by their tailgates.
First, I'm somewhat jealous of people who get to do this each week. In my next life I will become a regular tailgater — at Vols games, of course.
One tailgate I visited Saturday morning provided this story:
Dick and Delores Olson graduated from the 'U' in the late 1950s. Dick became a veterinarian in 1960 and joined a practice in Willmar. The Gophers made it to the Rose Bowl in '61.
As Dick recalled the story of what came next, Delores moved closer and joked, "Oh, I want to hear what he tells. This will be good."
Well, the vet that her husband was working for in Willmar put together a group of Gophers fans to travel to Pasadena to attend the Rose Bowl against UCLA.
Delores asked her husband if they could go, too. Dick told her that he needed to stay back to run the clinic. But he made her a promise.
"The next time the Gophers go to the Rose Bowl," he said, "we're going."
They're still waiting.
They have been married 63 years. Dick turns 85 in December. Delores turns 86 on New Year's Eve.
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- Todd Hoffner: Minnesota State Mankato coach earned his 109th career win Saturday, giving him the most career wins in program history.
- Kirk Cousins: Stellar play continued for the Vikings quarterback, which included completing eight of 10 passes on third down against Seattle on Sunday.
- Jacob Deutschman: Anoka quarterback passed for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Roseville.
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He said what?!
"Everything. You want me to be more specific? … Pass protection, quarterback play, tight end play, throwing and catching the football. That sums it up.'' — Gophers coach P.J. Fleck when asked what went wrong with the passing game after Tanner Morgan completed only 5 of 13 passes for 59 yards vs. Bowling Green.
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Inside the numbers
- 1,655: Career receiving yards for Vikings star Justin Jefferson, which trails only Odell Beckham Jr. (1,829 yards) for most receiving yards in NFL history through a player's first 19 games.
- 7: Points allowed by Mankato West in four games. The Scarlets, ranked No. 1 in Class 5A, have given up only 42 yards rushing total and 20 first downs.
- 199: Pass attempts without an interception by Kirk Cousins, two shy of his own personal record set in 2019.
- 20: Touchdown passes thrown by Springfield High's Brendon Buerkle in four games, tops in the state.
- 1: Career starts for St. Thomas senior quarterback Cade Sexauer, who led the Tommies to a 36-0 win over Butler in their Pioneer League debut Saturday. The last time Sexauer won a game as a starter, he was a senior at South St. Paul playing in the state quarterfinals against Marshall and quarterback Trey Lance, No. 3 overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers.
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I didn't understand the Gophers offensive approach Saturday but one sequence in the third quarter epitomized the performance. The Gophers led 10-7. On third-and-6 from the Bowling Green 33, Mike Sanford Jr. called a running play that lost a yard. Fleck then sent out kicker Matthew Trickett to attempt a 52-yard field goal that missed.
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Grab your popcorn
The Vikings' old friend Kevin Stefanski, former offensive coordinator, returns to town with his 2-1 Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
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An important 48 hours for …
The Gophers offense. Fleck, Sanford and the players on offense have a few practice days to make corrections to all that went wrong Saturday.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
I woke up Monday morning with my ears still ringing. The noise inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday with the return of fans gave me a headache, but no complaints here. The atmosphere was electric, as it should be. Football without fans is just not the same. Welcome back.
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Monday night on startribune.com, timed to kickoff of "Monday Night Football." And you can also join me on Twitter during the first quarter of MNF as I chat with readers about what I wrote each week.
Thanks, Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)