HOUSTON – Larry Fitzgerald was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year Saturday night, but he wasn’t alone.
For only the third time in the history of the award, there were co-winners of the honor – Fitzgerald shared the title with the Giants’ Eli Manning, players who were selected two picks apart in the 2004 NFL draft.
It doesn’t mean it meant any less.
“It’s truly humbling,” Fitzgerald said. “It kind of hit me when I was walking up on that stage, with (former winners) Anthony Munoz and Derrick Brooks and Kurt Warner and Curtis Martin, Warrick Dunn, all these guys who have been pillars in their communities.
“To be thought of in the same light as those men, football aside, that’s what it’s about.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was the third finalist of the award, presented by Nationwide. Fitzgerald had been chosen as the Cardinals’ Man of the Year in December because of his charitable and community work, most notably with his own First Down Foundation and the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund. The latter is named after Fitzgerald’s late mother, who died from breast cancer.
The First Down Fund mainly helps kids in both Phoenix and his hometown of Minneapolis by donating money to fund books, field trips, supplies and technology to underprivileged youth.
“Our communities are better because of what Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning, Greg Olsen and the thousands of other outstanding NFL players bring to them,” Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said in a statement. “They are all truly worthy of our recognition and appreciation.
“But at the Cardinals, we all know how special Larry is and why he is particularly deserving of this prestigious honor. What he has accomplished as a receiver in his 13 years in the NFL will be nearly impossible to match. Even more so is the level
Fitzgerald is only the second Cardinal to win the award. Quarterback Kurt Warner, who was voted into the Hall of Fame Saturday, won the award in the 2008 season.
It was the second time Fitzgerald had been a finalist. He was also in the last three in 2012, when Ravens center Matt Birk won the award. Last season’s Walter Payton NFL winner was Fitzgerald’s former teammate Anquan Boldin, then of the San Francisco 49ers.
“The Walter Payton Man of the Year award is our highest honor,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Fitzgerald and Manning will split the first and second place prizes, which results in a $1.25 million combined donation in their names, with $625,000 going to the charity of the players' choices and $625,000 to the expansion of the league’s Character Playbook charity, across all NFL cities.
Olsen get $125,000 for his charity and $125,000 for Character Playbook. The donations come from Nationwide, the NFL Foundation and the United Way.
“We’re all winners, because anytime you are mentioned in the same sentence as Walter Payton, your charity, your work is brought to a whole new platform, a whole new awareness,” Manning said.
For Fitzgerald, though, it traced back to his parents – especially his late mother, who made sure Larry and brother Marcus followed her around helping people and creating a belief in giving back.
“She is proud right now,” Fitzgerald said. “I know she’s not here right now, but she’s smiling. Continuing to do the work that she started, she would be very proud.”