Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald breaks away from Vikings linebacker Everson Griffen during a recent workout at Fitzgerald's Minnesota camp.
MINNEAPOLIS – For a moment, Everson Griffen's eyes seem to bore through Larry Fitzgerald's head just before the snap, in a mismatch apparent to everyone but Griffen – the Vikings' defensive-end-turned-linebacker.
Defensive players are scarce here at Fitzgerald's annual camp, held on the football practice fields at the University of Minnesota during the part of the offseason where players are actually supposed to be off. Most of the time, the 25 or 30 pros here are going through intense conditioning work, or lifting in the weight room. Positions don't matter.
But in the middle of the workout comes practice routes for Fitzgerald and the group, which is dominated in numbers by receivers. Defensive players can only do so much, especially a big guy like Griffen, who decides to jam one of the tight ends off the line so hard the route can't be run. The other receivers start harassing Griffen for breaking an unwritten rule and the trash talk is unleashed.
Fitzgerald steps to the line, always the first to go every new cycle of routes. Griffen practically toes the line of scrimmage. "I want competition!" Griffen barks. "I'm about that!" He stares at Fitzgerald, who quietly prepares to go.
Fitzgerald bends the route inside, sells it hard, then comes back outside over the top. He makes the catch, only to have Griffen brag that he stayed close. Griffen bellows "I'm on him! I'm on him!" A more subdued Fitzgerald yells "Get some of that, though" as he signals for a first down.
Jacksonville wide receiver Laurent Robinson is next for the intense Griffen, who spouts, "I'm going to guard whoever!" As Robinson starts his move, Griffen's jam is so hard Robinson goes sideways and out of bounds. The group laughs.
This is exactly the vibe Fitzgerald wants. The workouts can be fun, but they will always be competitive. It's another way to be ready when training camp begins in just a few weeks.
"I love to compete," Fitzgerald says after one workout. "It's fine to do it on your own but to come out and do it with other guys with the same goals as you do, it makes it more fun."
WORKING AT HOME
Fitzgerald is not a thief, although he allows that the idea for his mid-summer Minnesota workouts is stolen property.
Bill Welle, the trainer who runs the conditioning segment for Fitzgerald, once did the same thing in Boca Raton, Florida. Welle co-owned a company with Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter with Carter the star receiver running a camp. Vikings stars like Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper would come, and eventually, so too would be a young Vikings ballboy with whom Carter was close. The ball boy was named Larry Fitzgerald.
!Fitzgerald and Welle got to know each other, and when Fitzgerald learned Welle was moving to Minnesota a few years ago, he approached him with the idea of a similar bridge-from-official-offseason-work-to-training-camp setup. The two worked out a deal with the University of Minnesota, giving them access not only to fields but also the UM weight room and a covered field in case of bad weather.
The camp has grown, Welle said, from four participants in the beginning to when it mushroomed to around 50 last year during the lockout. It doesn't hurt that the guy organizing it works as hard as anyone.
"Larry won't miss a workout," Welle said. "If he is going to be gone, he'll be sure to ask, 'Can I make them up?' He knows every single rep counts."
The schedule is simple. Arrive at the practice fields before 8:30 a.m. to stretch and get loose. Welle's work starts at 8:30 and goes for about an hour, constant conditioning that breaks only a few brief times, for water. On this particular Monday, for instance, the players work the legs and on explosion with a series of bungee cords and, when exhaustion is imminent, they close with a stunning 18 110-yard runs.
Wide receivers still make up the chunk of participants, so a round of route running for another hour or so is next. Then, to close out the workout, comes more than an hour in the weight room.
"We grind," Seahawks running back Leon Washington said. "We are blessed to have a job that most people dream of having. I get paid to come out here and work out and stay in shape. You can't beat that."
Invitations aren't necessary anymore. Fitzgerald allows word of mouth to work its magic, and he understands it's not automatic guys will show. It's easier for him and Cardinals rookie Michael Floyd, for instance, because Minneapolis is home for both and they live minutes away. That's why there are Vikings like Griffen or ex-Vikings like Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, or Minnetonka native Craig Dahl, a safety for the St. Louis Rams.
Jaguars receiver Laurent Robinson came last summer for the first time and he went on to have his best NFL season with Dallas, earning a huge free-agent deal with Jacksonville. He didn't want to change his routine now. Cardinals receiver Stephen Williams came to the work as a rookie and then didn't last year, leaving him in worse shape and making it one of the reasons he believes his play fell off. He promptly returned.
"I learned my lesson with that," Williams said.
High-profile guys like Packers receiver Greg Jennings have been known to come, and Fitzgerald works on other help. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin made an appearance to work with the wideouts this week, and Fitzgerald is hoping former coach Jon Gruden will do the same for the quarterbacks.
Regardless, the conditioning and the weight training isn't going anywhere. Fitzgerald, who along with teammate Andre Roberts, was consistently near the front of those 110s, clearly leads by example.
"He works his butt off," Robinson said. "He works like he's going to get cut the next day. It's a lot of work, but you have to train with the best to be the best."
Fitzgerald seems to know everyone in the NFL these days, but that's not why players show up.
"Guys can like you or respect you, but if you're not putting the work or the time in to get better at your craft, guys aren't going to come," Fitzgerald said.
ON THE FIELD
The chatter that rose up from Griffen and the rest of the players was inevitable. There's too much time spent to not have someone say something, whether it is a straight needle or a fun comment that usually has a point to it.
When a string of dropped balls infected work, someone piped up, "A lot of money on the ground! today." Fitzgerald chided a young tight end about an attempted seam route. It's not just about the conditioning, but the actual grind itself that hopefully helps.
"I know this is a lot of physical, but to come out here and beat yourself up every day, it's hot and humid, for a month, I feel I am gaining a mental edge," Cardinals quarterback Rich Bartel said.
Fitzgerald opens his house to the pros when the day is over. He lives about 15 minutes away, on a lake. The first half of the day is about the work, and the second half of the day is about the relaxing and the play. Roberts, who has become a good friend of Fitzgerald, stays in a hotel when in Minnesota but his post-workout free time is mostly spent at Fitzgerald's house. Safe to say Roberts has become proficient on a jet ski.
Fitzgerald understands why most Cardinals aren't going to come, and knows most are working out wherever they are. (Along those lines, Fitzgerald insisted the Cardinals' chemistry is unaffected by the Cards who are or are not there, a sentiment Roberts independently noted.) The importance of the work isn't necessarily how difficult it can be – although the sweat pouring off each guy just 10 minutes in makes that clear – as much as the work ethic to get things done during "off time."
"Most guys at this level are used to it being a year-round thing," Roberts said. "People around me ask me, 'How is your vacation coming?' And I'm like, 'What vacation?' "
Fitzgerald talks about the fraternity of NFL players. There are only 1,600, he says more than once. Everyone has the same goal, to win a Lombardi Trophy. Mixing in players from different teams doesn't matter. It's not like they are breaking down playbooks.
It's easier to go through the workouts with others, sometimes providing moments like Griffen's challenge of Fitzgerald. Ultimately, Fitzgerald would be doing the same kind of work regardless. Other players have just realized it's a path worth taking.
"The program has benefitted him," Williams said. "You have to follow the leader."