Once the wunderkind who came into his first training camp not even able to legally drink alcohol, Larry Fitzgerald will turn 30 in a little over a week.
Age may be just a number, but it’s a number Fitzgerald carefully considers anymore.
“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t,” the Cardinals’ Pro Bowl receiver said. “Time flies, man. I still remember vividly playing at Sun Devil Stadium, thinking I was going to play forever. It’s how it goes, it goes by in a blink. The window of opportunity, you value it so much more, your sense of urgency is a lot higher. You put a lot more pressure on yourself the older you get.”
Fitzgerald has built a career foundation that suggests Hall of Fame. His statistics had always been gaudy, his place in the game unquestioned.
He means something to many. To the league, he’s a personality with which “The Shield” can be trusted. To his peers, he’s a player who has proven enough to get into the Pro Bowl last season despite less-than-stellar production. To the Cardinals’ organization, he’s the face of the franchise.
Fitzgerald has earned all that. He also felt the weight of the bad 2012 season, the weight of a year slipping
After totaling 71 catches for 798 yards and a career-low four touchdowns last season -- numbers that wanted to make him gag – Fitzgerald admittedly attacked the offseason differently than years past. He had always worked in the past, always held his “camp” in Minnesota in July. He vacationed out of the country as normal. But he didn’t get away from the game for as long as he normally would have. He couldn’t.
“I was a lot more honed in,” Fitzgerald said. “I was doing extra stuff to make sure I was dotting all my ‘i’s and crossing all my ‘t’s. After the debacle that last season was, I wanted to make sure I did everything I could possibly do physically mentally to get myself prepared.”
Some of that included multiple conversations with Hall of Famer receiver and close friend Cris Carter this summer. Fitzgerald picked his brain, in part about how Carter’s career hit its apex right around the time Carter was turning 30.
Carter had six of his eight 1,000-yard years after reaching 30, and in 1995 – the year Carter turned 30 – Carter had 122 catches, 1,371 yards and 17 touchdowns. All were career-highs.
“His best years came from 30 to 35, so I understand that I have a lot of good football left in me,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not going to let last year define me and the kind of player that I am. I am determined to correct things.”
Carter, in a radio interview with Fitzgerald’s father this summer, believed Fitzgerald’s confidence would return with the addition of Palmer. But the year of bouncing back would be because of more than just the quarterback.
“Right now it’s more mental,” Carter said. “You get to the point where you can accomplish physical things, but what he went through last year and how to get over that hump, it’s all mental.
“I am expecting a huge year from Larry. A lot of that has to do with Carson Palmer but a lot has to do with the trial he went through last year. I think that will propel him over the next five, six years.”
Fitzgerald often talks about being on the “backside” of his career, not so much in context of retirement as much as acknowledging nothing lasts forever. He’s begun to collect accolades for older players – the University of Pittsburgh will retire his jersey at halftime of its season opening game against Florida State Sept. 1 – and he has settled into a veteran’s role that once seemed foreign to him.
“I’ve definitely matured,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not as selfish.”
He has fit well with Palmer, who said Fitzgerald is laid-back and as comfortable talking to a “camp body” in the locker room as much as a fellow starter. The two already compete, like the other day at practice when the two and a couple teammates after practice tried to hit the goal post with passes from 20-some yards away.
“He’s just a normal guy,” Palmer said.
Normal is relative. In a world where Fitzgerald makes millions per season, where his worth is judged by many both by the touchdowns and yards he collects and the wins he helps achieve, reality is different than most. The pressure builds after seasons like last.
Yet Fitzgerald said he has more fun now than ever.
“We obviously play for high stakes, but this is the same game I grew up playing in Minnesota at 7 years old at Martin Luther King Park with my buddies,” Fitzgerald said. “I still play with my buddies. They are just a lot bigger now, a lot more competitive. But there is nothing more fun to go to practice every day, to get coached, and to know when I go to sleep every night I did everything I could to get better.”
Turning 30 on Aug. 31 may signal more pressure for Fitzgerald. But it has also opened his eyes a little, giving the gift of perspective. He wants to make his age work for him.
“Relationships mean more to me,” Fitzgerald said. “You cherish everything more once you know, I won’t say when the end is in sight, but you know I won’t be doing this another 10 years.”