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Larry Fitzgerald, Bill Belichick Remain Constants Amid Change

Star wide receiver and coach have been mainstays with Cardinals, Patriots

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, left, with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after an NFL game in 2012 in New England.
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, left, with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after an NFL game in 2012 in New England.

The game of football thrusts a nomadic existence onto most in its orbit.

Cam Newton is the quarterback for the Patriots, a sight unforeseen a year ago. The Cardinals have churned their roster so much the past few years that Haason Reddick is simultaneously one of the most-tenured players on the team and still on his rookie deal.

But amid that constant evolution, two permanent fixtures have remained.

On Sunday afternoon, Larry Fitzgerald will take the field for his 261st regular season game with the Cardinals, the longest active stint in the NFL. Across from him at Gillette Stadium, Bill Belichick will coach his 331st consecutive regular season game for the Patriots, easily the longest tenure among active head coaches.

"It's incredible to have that type of run, whether you're a coach or a player, in this day and age in the NFL, where teams are trying to turn out players for more bargain deals, if you will," said second-year Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury. "To be that big of a contributor, like Fitz has been – on all levels – for that long, it will be hard to duplicate, particularly at the wide receiver position, which is so physically demanding. You're talking about speed, athleticism, toughness, playing 50-to-60 snaps and running as fast as you can every play. It's phenomenal.

"We all know what coach Belichick's done. It's been unmatched. The division titles and the run he's had there. He’s the best coach of all-time. I don't think we'll ever see a run like he's had again."

Fitzgerald, now 37, always dreamt of playing a long and distinguished career, but early on, didn't much consider the locale. As he continued to put down roots in Arizona, that mindset shifted.

Fitzgerald has said many times in recent years that he won’t play for any organization other than the Cardinals.

"I don't know early in my career if I said that," Fitzgerald said. "I know as I got a little bit later in my career, it was something I definitely wanted to do. I think moreso not even from a football perspective. When you're able to stay in the same place, you're able to develop long-lasting relationships with people. You grow with people. I've known (broadcaster Craig) Fouhy since '04, and (writers) Darren (Urban) and Kent (Somers). There are so many people and organizations: Big Brothers and Big Sisters; Boys & Girls Club.

"You're able to develop relationships, and you're able to do things in the community to make your presence felt. I think you feel an obligation to those organizations, the people you come into contact with, the relationships that you've developed, to continue to build on those and do your part. Obviously it wouldn't be possible if you weren't performing on the field, but I think it goes hand-in-hand. Moreso than anything, that's what you take pride in and appreciate the most."

Patrick Peterson is in his 10th season with the Cardinals, and Fitzgerald is the only teammate that's been with him the whole time. The Pro Bowl cornerback said he couldn't have found a better person to emulate than the wideout who was already a superstar when Peterson showed up.

"It's a blessing, man," Peterson said. "I'll always loop back to the story when I first got picked up by Larry from the airport, me dragging all my luggage out of the airport and stuffing it into his Bentley. From that moment on, it was a bond that never needed to be spoken upon.

"Larry's been a great big brother for me to watch over the years. How he handled himself, how he faced adversity, how he treated people around the building. For a guy of his caliber, you don't see that very often, but Larry treats everybody with the same respect. As a young guy watching -- I was obviously nowhere near his stature at the time -- it was like, 'If you want to be in this league a long time, if you want to be successful in this league, that's the guy you want to model your game after.'"

Fitzgerald and Belichick don't square off much on the field because they are in separate conferences. However, they have known each other for some time, originally meeting because Fitzgerald's uncle went to high school with Belichick.

"I got introduced to him probably 12, 13 years ago and I've stayed in pretty good contact with him," Fitzgerald said. "I have a lot of respect for Coach as a man and as a Hall of Fame football coach. The greatest mind to ever coach the game."

At a Wednesday press conference with the New England media, Belichick showered lofty praise on Fitzgerald.

"He's, I would say, to receivers what Peyton Manning was to quarterbacks, in terms of the type of total obsession of knowing everything about the position and how to do things and convey those to his teammates," Belichick said. "He's had tremendous production. I mean, other than Jerry Rice, those two guys are really at the top of the production list in pretty much every area. His longevity has been remarkable. … He's a tremendous player. He's had a tremendous career. I don't know how you could do much more than what he's done in the amount of time he's done it in."

Fitzgerald may not be the same superstar of years past, but he's fresh off a game in Seattle where he led the Cardinals in both catches (8) and receiving yards (62).

His sure-handed grabs have been a ubiquitous site on Arizona television screens for 17 years, just like Belichick's hoodie has been omnipresent in the Boston area for the past 21.

"Obviously I haven't had the same success as coach Belichick has in New England, but you still appreciate every single day you have the ability to do something you truly enjoy and love," Fitzgerald said. "I think we both share that same sentiment."

Images from practice at the Dignity Health Training Center, presented by Hyundai.