Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (center) poses with Monique Connor (left) and Raoul Encinas (right) after awarding them a trip to Hawaii on his dime.
The initial meeting was long over, the part when Raoul Encinas and Monique Connor first found Larry Fitzgerald in the parking lot of a Scottsdale restaurant and their Cardinals jerseys earned them an all-expenses trip to Hawaii from the Cards' Pro Bowl wide receiver.
That had been the part Fitzgerald and his brother, Marcus, had been expecting.
About an hour later came the surprise.
Sitting at Sopporo for dinner – along with Vikings receiver Jaymar Johnson and Marcus' young son – Encinas told the Fitzgerald brothers he had just finished a course of chemotherapy seven months earlier to battle a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Fitzgerald's "random" winner had battled cancer – just like his mother.
"Out of all the people in the world, out of all the Cardinal fans in general," Marcus said, "to have a cancer survivor here with me and Larry, it was like, 'Can you believe this?' "
After Larry was named to his fifth Pro Bowl Sunday as an alternate, he and his brother decided they wanted to come up with a way to show Larry's appreciation for the fans. A Twitter giveaway of a Pro Bowl trip sounded good.
It sounded better after hearing Encinas' story.
"I was touched after he told me how much weight he lost and the battle to stay alive and how his wife was there every step in the way helping him to get back to health," Larry said. "That's how we supported my mother as a family.
"God is good."
Even without Encinas' medical history, the story of how he and his wife will be joining Fitzgerald in Hawaii is a fascinating one that speaks to the power of social media and the direct contact it can provide an athlete with his fans.
The plan was simple, hatched by the Fitzgerald brothers while watching TV. Larry would drive to a spot – it turned out to be just outside the Sandbar in Scottsdale – after having primed his followers Monday that he would be somewhere in the city between 5 and 6 p.m.
Encinas actually saw Fitzgerald's original message about the giveaway as a fluke. He went on Facebook to wish his sister a happy birthday when he happened to see Fitzgerald's note about being in Scottsdale. With Connor such a huge Fitzgerald fan – she insisted Encinas draft Fitzgerald in a fantasy league – they didn't want to pass up the opportunity.
A short time later, when Encinas saw the Twitter message about it being at Sandbar, "I almost dropped my phone." Turned out the couple lived just about a mile away. So with Connor in her Fitzgerald jersey and Encinas sporting one for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they drove "reasonably" to the corner, expecting a swarm of fans.
Instead, they were the first to arrive.
Originally, Marcus suggested he and his brother go sit on the Sandbar patio to wait for a winner, but Larry declined, instead choosing to sit in the car and wait to see who showed. As Encinas and Connor started walking to the front door, the Fitzgerald got their attention.
"You never expect to win anything like this," Encinas said. "Who is ever the 12th caller into the radio station?"
Soon after, a rush of people showed up. Fitzgerald shook hands and took pictures of those fans who didn't make it in time, and Encinas and Connor – after giving Marcus their contact information – left. About 20 minutes later, Encinas' phone rang. Larry was inviting the couple to dinner.
A year before, Encinas had been lucky to be able to keep down a milkshake. Now, he was having dinner with a NFL superstar, and his wife – who he said had it harder than he did while he dealt with the cancer – got to meet her favorite player.
"Finding (Raoul's story) out was the highlight of the night for me," Larry said. "I'm proud to know I could touch someone's life who had overcome a disease like cancer."
The "prize" will continue for Encinas and Connor. They will fly out Friday to Hawaii, and getting another chance to hang out with Larry there is part of the package.
There is a part of the 39-year-old Encinas that feels like he already had his luck, given how his battle with cancer has gone thus far. He acknowledged that if he had won such a trip with more lead time, he would have seriously considered finding someone more deserving.
"We just feel fortunate to have gotten through this horrible past year," Encinas said. "We're big on the 'Pay it forward.' Good comes out of this because we will continue to give even more."
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