The losses have piled up but the receptions and yards have not, a combination that makes it very hard on Larry Fitzgerald.
Yet the wide receiver is cognizant of the “C” that resides on his uniform, especially has the season has veered off track.
“I know my teammates look to me as a captain, to be a leader,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s easy to be a leader when things are always going your way and you have 100-yard games and a lot of wins and scoring touchdowns. It’s much more difficult to lead when things are not going your way.”
In what has been his darkest stretch professionally, Fitzgerald has endured so well that even players on other teams notice and are led by Fitzgerald’s example. Just this week, Bills running back C.J. Spiller told Seattle reporters on a conference call that despite his frustration with losses and not getting the ball more, he was “eying” Fitzgerald’s composure.
“You look at that guy and he is not complaining,” Spiller said. “They do not have the best quarterbacks over there, but he is still going out there, getting his job done and being a professional about his business. “[I'm] just trying to take some tips from how he handles it.”
Fitzgerald’s evolution as leader was years in the making. The idea he would be a captain one day was once a far-fetched notion. Fitzgerald is not a boisterous man. He isn’t going to yell and scream, nor is he going to issue a team-wide scolding in the press.
But Fitzgerald won’t always fall into cliché, and he gets his point across. His leadership style, as he sees it, is just him. Over the years, he has played or been around different kinds of leaders, styles he saw growing up in Minnesota hanging around his father sportswriter and then later as a player.
There were the quiet, like Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith or Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett or North Stars forward Mike Modano. Cris Carter was louder, while Kevin Garnett, whom Fitzgerald watched in the early days with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, frequently got in teammates’ faces. Meanwhile, Kurt Warner “wasn’t as demonstrative as some would imagine,” Fitzgerald said.
“I’ve been around both ends of the spectrum,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to do what fits your personality. It’s important to be who you are.”
The Larry Fitzgerald that arrived in Tempe as a rookie was young – he didn’t even turn 21 until the very end of August, well after training camp had ended – and wasn’t in a position to take the lead. Some of that was circumstance, but some of it was personal choice.
“I couldn’t have cared less about leadership, as long as I was having success, making my plays, I could sleep well at night,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what I was concerned about.”
It went a little deeper. Fitzgerald’s father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., and then-coach Dennis Green were close. It didn’t go unnoticed inside the locker room.
Fitzgerald Sr. said his son felt the pressure, not only of performing to the level expected as a high pick but also to help change the culture around the Cardinals in Green’s first season.
“At the beginning, he didn’t want to say too much, do too much,” Fitzgerald Sr. said. “I always told him, ‘Speak when spoken to, come when you’re called, when you win you say little, when you lose you say less.’
“He was going through that transition of, ‘OK, am I a leader on this team?’ And he was being teased by his teammates, ‘Your Dad’s buddy drafted you,’ stuff like that. I think that bothered him a little bit, even if he didn’t say it. He was able to get over that. Look at him now. He’s a leader.”
The change fully came in 2008, but Fitzgerald’s metamorphosis began when coach Ken Whisenhunt arrived in 2007. At that point, Fitzgerald acknowledged, “I was a loner and kept to myself.” He hung out with the trainers and equipment guys in the locker room, but “not too many of my teammates.”
Whisenhunt told Fitzgerald he reminded Whisenhunt of another wide receiver he had been around in Pittsburgh, Plaxico Burress. Burress kept to himself as well. Fitzgerald wasn’t sure how to take the comparison, but he began to make a conscious effort to cultivate relationships with his teammates.
His performance level made him an obvious choice to be a leader, but Fitzgerald finally embraced it. He noticed it during the Super Bowl run in 2008, how teammates were looking to him to see how he was going to handle situations. It didn’t hurt that his son, Devin, was born around the same time, so that Fitzgerald’s grasp of the bigger picture also kicked in.
Fitzgerald led, and when Warner and Anquan Boldin were no longer around by 2010, his role grew larger.
“He’s definitely grown,” said Carter, the former Vikings receiver and close friend of Fitzgerald’s. “He’s not as much of a follower. He’s a leader, a trailblazer.”
Fitzgerald doesn’t think he has changed as a person in the years that he’s been in the NFL. He does know his priorities have changed.
“After that 2008 season, getting that close, I think it really hit me,” Fitzgerald said. “This is not about just catching 100 passes a year and getting to the Pro Bowl. It burns to sit at home and watch the playoffs when you’re not involved. It really eats at you. The personal accolades are nice, but you are remembered for wins and losses and championships. That’s what I want my legacy to be.”
The start the Cardinals had this season suggested playoffs, but that dream slowly died over the weeks. Fitzgerald understood the spotlight on him, dutifully meeting the media after every game and each week, talking about his team’s troubles.
Leadership can be a vague thing in professional sports. Grown men playing a game for money puts them in a different mindset than lower levels. Self-motivation on this level is paramount.
That’s why Fitzgerald’s path to lead starts on the field, grinding out each day. He doesn’t complain about not getting the ball and he doesn’t talk about playing elsewhere, even if on both counts no one would blame him for losing it once in a while.
Friday, when someone told him he was due for a big game, Fitzgerald nodded his head. “That’s why I keep working.”
Even through a losing streak. That’s what teammates need to see from a leader.
“I’m not in it by myself,” Fitzgerald said.
For the Lions, defensive tackle Nick Fairley (shoulder) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (ankle) are both doubtful after missing practice all week. Safety Louis Delmas, downgraded to DNP Friday with a bad knee, is questionable.