Larry Fitzgerald, as an NFL star wide receiver (left) for the Cardinals (left) and as a teenage ball boy (right) for the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1990s.
Larry Fitzgerald, a Viking.
Even Fitzgerald said it's true.
OK, OK, everyone settle down. It doesn't mean Fitzgerald wants to be a Viking. He was talking about his days of youth, when he was a teen growing up in Minnesota with his job as a ball boy for the team. He wasn't on the roster, but that didn't mean he didn't think of himself in that way.
"I thought I was a part of it, the reason why they won and everything, just like every fan does," said Fitzgerald, whose team returns to Minnesota Sunday to play the Vikings. "They were always my favorite team growing up and I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't pull for them every game we don't play them, because most of my closest friends play on the team. It'll be fun to compete against them."
The receiver may have been a Viking then, but …
"I am a Cardinal," Fitzgerald bluntly said, making sure his message was direct.
These are interesting times for the Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver. He heads home this week in a game always important to him, where he has played once (in the regular season) during his NFL career and piled up 172 yards on 11 catches. The Cards lost that game in 2006.
Last season, when the Vikings came to Arizona, Fitzgerald exploited the defense for 143 yards on eight receptions during a Cardinals' win (He also went 5-52 in a home loss to the Vikings in 2008).
What Fitzgerald gets this weekend is anyone's guess. The Cards' passing game is improving, and Fitzgerald did have his first two-touchdown performance against Tampa Bay last week. But he is also searching for his first 100-yard game of the season, and has yet to have a signature big play – last week, he was wide open on a deep ball that was overthrown by Max Hall, a play that would have gone for 64 yards and a miss that has been unfortunately too common for the Cards this season.
Fitzgerald insisted the offense is making progress and, by extension, remains optimistic his production will pick up.
"You have to earn everything you have in this business," Fitzgerald said. "I've got to continue to work hard, practice hard and things will work themselves out. I'm not a complainer; I'm not going to put my head down. I'm not going to do any of that. I'm a man. When the good times I roll with them and when the bad times come, I roll with them. I will deal with it."
Quarterback issues and the difficulty in getting Fitzgerald the ball (he has 35 receptions for 403 yards and four touchdowns in seven games thus far) have created a concern in the fan base about Fitzgerald's desire to stay with the team. There has also been undercurrent of worry about Fitzgerald's connections with the Vikings and whether he would leave to play at home.
Those fears were eased back in 2008 when Fitzgerald signed his current contract extension, although Fitzgerald will go into the last year of that deal in 2011 and the worry has resurfaced.
The Cardinals, however, are expected to work hard to sign Fitzgerald to a contract extension before he reaches free agency (and the deal will make him among the highest paid, if not the highest paid, receivers in the game).
That will make trips back to Minnesota just that – a trip, with the accompanying story of playing at home.
"There's not any extra special work he is doing this week (but) I know it means a lot to him," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think every time a player goes back home it means something to him."
Fellow wide receiver Steve Breaston said he remembered how important it was for him to play in Pittsburgh during the 2009 preseason (Breaston is from North Braddock, just outside Pittsburgh).
"I can't imagine what it's like for him, being a ball boy," Breaston said. "Knowing Larry, he's going to want to put on a show out there. He always comes to play, but this is the extra, you know, you still have those die-hard friends, 'I'm rooting for you but I still want the Vikings to win.' He's going to try and prove them wrong."
Fitzgerald shook his head about doing anything special this weekend, noting he has a house in Minnesota and lives there part of the offseason. "This is a business trip," he said. "This is strictly business."
Nostalgia can wait.
"Fitz probably knows so much about the team and organization, he probably has a special feeling," Breaston said. "He was so close to that organization, it's different (for him). But he's a Cardinal, and he's playing for us come Sunday."
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