Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald shakes the hand of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the teams played in 2012.
There were times over the years, Calais Campbell acknowledged, when he wasn't sure if Larry Fitzgerald would end up playing in Arizona the balance of his career.
Those years where the Cardinals struggled to find a quarterback post-Kurt Warner, and the win totals dipped and eventually Fitzgerald's stats dipped, it became an annual offseason occurrence for speculation to blossom.
"I mean, there were some times you'd think about it," the veteran defensive tackle said. "But you'd hope it wouldn't be the case because we saw what he could do every day at practice. He's laying out, making unbelievable catches his whole career. I could tell he never lost a step. You see the way he works. I always wanted to make sure we did what we needed to do to keep him."
A few times over the years, it was a popular offseason storyline that Fitzgerald might/could/would be traded to the Patriots –
the team the Cardinals open the season against Sunday night. Fitzgerald would team with Tom Brady, work under Bill Belichick.
With this notion, Fitzgerald smiled.
"Early in my career it seemed like there was always some talk about me being traded somewhere else, but you know how that stuff is," Fitzgerald said Thursday. "Lot of rumors and speculation, but not too often does it come to fruition."
If Fitzgerald was ever going to go, it would have been before the 2015 season, when his salary cap number had gotten unwieldy while his numbers had fallen. But the receiver meant more than just statistics to the franchise, and part of the renegotiation was a meeting between Fitzgerald and team president Michael Bidwill. Soon after, a deal was struck, although the idea Fitzgerald could leave seemed only grist for the speculative internet mill and nothing more.
"As I have said all along, we want to see him retire a Cardinal," Bidwill said at the time. "He doesn't belong in any other color other than Cardinal red. When you think about the Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald is one of the first players you think about. He embodies what we want a Cardinal to be."
Fitzgerald, who in training camp signed a contract extension through the 2017 season, is staying in Arizona. He'll begin his 13th season after setting a career high with 109 catches in his 12th, statistically spiking for his first 1,000-yard season in four years and further cementing his legendary status in the NFL.
Within Arizona, Fitzgerald was already a legend.
It's rare for a player to remain with one team his entire NFL career. Veteran running back Chris Johnson had been a long-
time star in Tennessee, but eventually was let go, playing for the Jets before coming to the Cardinals.
"A lot of that it goes on the shoulder of the organization, the GM, the owner, and the type of relationship you have with them," Johnson said. "From Fitz's perspective, he's still making plays. Anytime you have all those things combined, you have the perfect world. Making plays, we're winning and you have a good relationship upstairs, it works out like that."
Had Fitzgerald somehow ended up with the Patriots, it would have made for an interesting pairing. Belichick has often brought in star players for a second act in New England, and it was clear when asked this week that Belichick has tremendous respect for Fitzgerald.
"Hall of Fame career, great career," Belichick said. "Just does everything well. Great competitor, blocks, makes big catches, very consistent, unbelievable hands, big plays in the red area, scores touchdowns, unselfish player. I think he is a Hall of Fame receiver."
The question no longer is whether Fitzgerald is going to remain a Cardinal, but how much longer. He is contracted through 2017 but that doesn't eliminate a retirement possibility. The NFL has become a year-to-year proposition for the 33-year-old, who is focused on winning a Super Bowl above all else.
He still wants his catches, but after his 109-1215-9 stat line in 2015, "I'd be lying to you if I told you there were 100 balls out there for me again." Fitzgerald believes that, as long as the receiving corps is healthy, he'll be more of a complementary piece in 2016.
It wouldn't make him any less important against the team Sunday that Fitzgerald actually played his first home game against in 2004, in the heat at Sun Devil Stadium.
"They couldn't give the seats away," Fitzgerald said, recalling that loss to Brady and the Patriots. "Now you look at the tickets, they are $250 to buy a ticket now.
"A lot has changed in 13 years and it's great to be a part of that."
Images of Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who turned 33 on Wednesday