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“Real deal:” An inside look at “special player and special person” Larry Fitzgerald

BBV’s Matt Williamson, a former recruiter for Pitt, details his time interacting with the Arizona Cardinals’ star wide receiver

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 4 of the 2019 NFL season, the great Larry Fitzgerald passed Tony Gonzalez on the all time receptions list. Fitzgerald, a sure fire future Hall of Famer, trails only Jerry Rice in this category despite playing many of his seasons in Arizona with subpar quarterbacks. He comes to MetLife Stadium to face the New York Giants in Week 7.

For three years, from the 2001-2003 seasons, I was the Assistant Recruiting Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. During my first few days at Pitt, it became very clear that this staff was extremely excited about an incoming recruit from the state of Minnesota, an area that we didn’t regularly recruit. That recruit was Larry Fitzgerald.

At that time, the Pitt offense under head coach Walt Harris was structured very much after NFL offensive systems and we threw the ball a lot. In fact, in 2000, Antonio Bryant won the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the best wide receiver in the country. All of this helped us land Fitzgerald. But Fitzgerald had to spend the 2001 season at Valley Forge Military Academy before joining our program.

So during that season at Valley Forge, not only did Fitzgerald gain a great deal of maturity and discipline, but other colleges also could still recruit him. There were rumors that Ohio State still had a shot of swiping him away from us. Fitzgerald was close with Cris Carter when he acted as the Vikings ball boy (Fitzgerald’s father worked in media for the Vikings and was close with Denny Green). The threat of losing him to Ohio State certainly scared us during that season Fitzgerald was in military school. The recruiting process wasn’t over and that was a long year waiting to finally get our prize recruit.

My two main jobs as the Assistant Recruiting Coordinator were to watch and evaluate countless VHS tapes that were mailed to us every day and to show visiting recruits around campus, practice, games and whatnot. I, of course, did more, but these two things were my main focus.

So during that 2001 season, I went back and watched Fitzgerald’s high school tape at the Academy of Holy Angels countless times, and every week I watched his game tape from Valley Forge. He was a remarkable prospect and his game then was very similar to the way he still plays today. But during his time at military school, once in a while you would even see Fitzgerald playing linebacker or safety just to do something different.

Of course Fitzgerald ended up signing and playing at Pitt, but only for two years, as he was able to petition the NFL after two great seasons to allow him to be drafted since he was then three years out of high school. So I was fortunate enough to watch every snap Fitzgerald played in a Pitt uniform. I was also fortunate enough to watch him in practice every day, which was even more impressive.

As you can imagine, his ball skills stood out from the minute he arrived on campus. He is special in that regard. But his work ethic, personality and affect he had on his new teammates were also very apparent. It wasn’t long before Fitzgerald was routinely beating every cornerback we had in practice, including Shawntae Spencer and Torrie Cox, both of whom went on to have successful NFL careers.

So I mentioned that my main focus day to day was watching tape after tape of high school football players as well as showing visiting recruits around campus and our excellent facility that we shared with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which also happened to be a fine recruiting tool, I must say! Here is where Fitzgerald and I so often interacted. Many of you might not realize this, but a football facility is often very quiet without a lot going on because for much of the day, the offensive and defensive staffs are behind closed doors watching tape and preparing. I don’t want to say that Fitzgerald wasn’t into attending class, because he certainly was never a problem in this area, but let’s just say that he preferred football to physics.

So, Fitzgerald used to spend a lot of time at the facility and there wasn’t a ton for him to do when the coaches were all behind closed doors doing their prep work. On countless occasions, Fitzgerald would meander into my humble little office, grab a seat and look over my shoulder asking, “Who are we watching today?”

Before long, he and I would be going back and forth analyzing the kid on the screen. I would often hear things from him like, “Man, you can’t recruit that dude.” Or, “We can do better than that.” Or, “We’ll never beat The U with a guy like that.” Or, “Wow, I would smoke that guy.” Fitzgerald wasn’t being mean or cocky. He was right. But he had a very high standard for those around him, our entire program and more than anything, himself.

Lastly, Fitzgerald quickly became our best recruiter. As you might remember if you are as old as I am, it took him very little time to become a household name because of his great play on the field. So with his outgoing nature, huge smile, overall charisma and enthusiasm for the game and the Pitt program, I often went out of my way for a promising young recruit to bump into Fitzgerald as we toured campus or the facility and we always paired Fitzgerald with a top guy for recruiting weekends. Not only did hanging around Fitzgerald make a 17-year-old kid want to become his teammate, but Fitzgerald also offered us great insight on what that recruit was really like. I would be touring a family around and Fitzgerald would sometimes just pull the recruit aside and take him on his own tour.

If you have read about and watched Fitzgerald, it is obvious that he is a special player and special person. And he has grown into a magnificent man who affects the world in just so many ways, not all of which are on the football field. But let me just assure you that what you read or see on the screen praising Fitzgerald isn’t fictional or manufactured. He is the real deal.

So when your Giants line up against Arizona this upcoming week, please do me a favor and realize what a special person and player is wearing number 11 for the Cardinals. And I couldn’t have been luckier to be around him during a formable time in his life.