|ONE ON ONE
The ESPN crew was inside the house, rearranging living room furniture near the fireplace. Light kits, cameras, tripods were everywhere. It was an August morning in Minneapolis, a morning where dad would interview son. A morning where former Holy Angels star Larry Fitzgerald Jr. would be in the spotlight once again. But this time around, his questioner would be his best friend in the world: Larry Fitzgerald Sr.
"I love my dad," Jr. said. "I love him so much."
The production lasted about an hour, with excerpts to be played on the network's "College Game Day" show. It was a pretty good idea, actually. Dad's a media professional, a Twin Cities sports reporter for decades. The kid is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, a sophomore Pittsburgh Panther wide receiver on a fast track to the NFL. ESPN knows a good angle when it sees one, a bit that worked to perfection. Of course, Larry Jr. admitted it wasn't easy being grilled by Larry Sr., especially "the way he worded" some questions, he said. Parents will do that to ya, Junior. Especially parents with media savvy. Recalling that same morning, Larry Sr. described the session as "just great." Parents.
Fast-forward to September 6. Heinz Field. Pittsburgh versus Kent State, the 2003 season opener. Parents were on Larry Jr's. mind. His dad was there, as always. But not both of his parents. His mother, Carol, passed away in April after a courageous battle with breast cancer. She was just 47 years old. This would be the first game she would miss. It was a tough day for father and son.
"Larry's first game was probably the hardest game I've ever had to watch in my life," Fitzgerald said. "It was the first game that I've ever gone to without my wife to watch him play. This was the first time I just couldn't sit in the stands, I was actually sitting in the press box. I couldn't sit in the stands, it was too emotional."
As for Larry Jr., he channeled his emotions into the task at hand. He caught six passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns that day, helping Pitt to a 43-3 victory. Still, he admitted it was a rough day. "I thought about her quite frequently while I was out there," he said. "But I had to take care of business. It was really difficult at times, but I also have an obligation to my teammates and my coaches to perform at a level they expect."
If you detect a pattern here, it's one of respect and love. Respect and love for family, for others, for the game. Larry Sr. wouldn't have it any other way. And it sounds like it's been that way since the beginning.
"I actually cut the umbilical cord," Larry Sr. said of that day when Larry Jr. entered the world. Same story for his youngest son, Marcus. "It was something she wanted me to do." Larry Sr. doesn't come off as a guy who spent much time changing a lot of diapers, but he always made sure his boys were around pro athletes: Twins, Vikings, North Stars. It came with his territory, and Larry Jr. and Marcus would benefit. Larry Jr. is a Panther star right now, and his brother, Marcus, is poised to play football with Marshall University (Randy Moss' alma mater) next fall.
"When you get to see the best players in those settings, and you're playing the game yourself, you really get to understand how good you have to be," Larry Sr. said.
"(Dad) got me to see the game that I love up close and personal at a professional level at a very young age," Larry Jr. recalled. "So it just made me hungrier to achieve that goal of being there."
Larry Jr. says he yearns to be a pro someday so he can better put himself in a position to help others. And even though smart money says a Heisman candidate is a lock to be an NFL regular, the Fitzgerald's aren't getting ahead of themselves. They know it's a dream. Larry Sr. an Illinois football standout at the high school and college level was invited to a New York Giants training camp, but didn't play pro. His son has a great chance to make it, but first things first. For Larry Jr., that means improving his game.
"I look at myself on tape and there's just so much more I have to improve on," he said. "I scored three touchdowns on (opening) Saturday. But if I had done what I was supposed to do correctly, I could have had six. I'm never satisfied. If I had 10 touchdown catches...there's a way that I could have been better to help my team. That's just the way I look at it every day."
Pretty humble stuff from a Heisman hopeful, but Larry Jr. says he just wants to focus on his team and the dream of winning a national title. As for the individual trophy, both father and son say it's an honor just to be mentioned.
"That's not something you can control," Larry Sr. said. "To get the Heisman, it's a popularity contest. It's a visibility contest. Obviously you have to be very, very talented and you have to put up numbers that put you in the position to be even considered."
"I really don't think about it too much," said Larry Jr. "I'm really focused on playing." But how do you keep that focus when someone says something about the Heisman to you every day?
"You just smile and keep on going," he said.
A sophomore this year, Larry Jr. is often asked if he'll come out early for the NFL draft after his junior year. Both he and his father say it's too soon to even consider that question, especially since they're still in the grieving process. Nevertheless, when that day comes, the pair says they'll tackle the question as a family.
"Larry is at the University of Pittsburgh to get an education and to play football," said Larry Sr. "He's got a full scholarship. And so Larry's going to play football and stay in school as long as Larry wants to do that. I'm going to support what Larry wants to do. We have not even talked about it. We've had far too much to deal with the loss of his mom to even look at that."
"If that's the right call for me at the time, I might look at those options," Larry Jr. added. "The future will take care of itself. Tomorrow's not guaranteed to anyone."
MOM KNOWS BEST
No it's not. One day at a time. That's the Fitzgerald way, especially right now. Which brings us to a day when Mr. And Mrs. Fitzgerald were considering allowing Larry Jr. to play for a middle school team. Naturally, you would think dad, with the football background, would be gung-ho, with mom having those it's-such-a-rough-game reservations. But on that day, the roles were reversed. Larry Sr. thought the kid might get hurt. He wanted him to wait to play tackle football in high school, like he did. Mom, bless her heart, wouldn't hear of it.
"When you start hitting people, these kids can get hurt, especially when they're not properly trained," Larry Sr. explained. "It was more of a safety valve for me to make sure that they would be free of injury going into high school."
Yeah, sure Dad, whatever you say. So it was Carol who would make sure Larry Jr. wouldn't play another down of touch football. The kid was glad she won that particular parenting showdown.
"She wanted me to play my dad didn't want me to so we backdoored him and went ahead then anyway," Jr. laughed. It's a sweet memory for a young man who appreciates the past, and is driven to be the best he can in the present.
"She speaks to him every day in her own way and touches him in her own way," Larry Sr. said. "We know that. Like I said, we're a family of faith."
"God does everything for a reason," Larry Jr. added. "My faith has never wavered. It's actually gotten stronger. You just have to look at it as God needed a special person up there with him in heaven at the time, so he took her. Who am I to ask God why?"