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Cardinals' Fitzgerald may one day be best ever

TAMPA, Fla. - Larry Fitzgerald Sr. knew early on that his son was capable of becoming an elite athlete.

"To be honest, I'm not surprised that he's this good," the elder Fitzgerald said of his son, star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. of the Arizona Cardinals. "I saw at the age of 10 that he was gifted. He always dreamed that he could get it done, and I never told him he couldn't."

Sunday night, the elder Fitzgerald will watch his son compete for football's greatest prize as the Cardinals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. He will watch his son from the press box, where the longtime sportswriter will cover the game for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

It will be one of the strangest, most exhilarating moments of his life.

"It's been emotional, rewarding, gratifying, special, wonderful," he said. "It's been an experience that you just really can't imagine. I really can't find one word that captures it all. After covering all these Super Bowls all these years, it's something that's very unique."

His son understands the moment.

Thanks to his father's job, Larry Fitzgerald Jr. has been around great athletes from the time he could walk.

"It gave me a lot of opportunities to be around professional athletes as a youth," he said. "I remember going into the locker room and meeting Ken Griffey Jr., meeting Mark Mc.Gwire, meeting Jose Canseco. I met Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett and remember having conversations with Mike Modano after North Stars games. I lived the dream as a child being around some of my heroes."

He hung around the Vikings and got to know two of the NFL's greatest receivers: Cris Carter and Randy Moss. He also got to know coach Dennis Green, who eventually became the Cardinals' coach and made Fitzgerald the third overall pick in the 2004 draft.

"I remember saying to myself that this would be a dream come true to be an NFL player," Fitzgerald said.

The dream has become reality, and Fitzgerald is emerging as one of the greatest receivers in NFL history. With 419 receiving yards in three playoff games, he has eclipsed Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice's record for a single postseason. With another big performance in Super Bowl XLIII, he could be mentioned in the same breath as Rice, the greatest receiver of all time.

But Fitzgerald knows that only one thing will put him in that class. "The Lynn Swanns, the Jerry Rices, you think of them doing things in the Super Bowl," Fitzgerald said. "Not the NFC or AFC Championship Games. Not divisional games. Not the wild-card round. If you want to be one of the better players, you have to do it on the bigger stages."

The stage cannot get any bigger than this. Fitzgerald embraces the moment, knowing millions of people will be watching. The athletes he grew up admiring and often meeting in person excelled under pressure.

"You've got to play a big game on this stage," he said. "The Michael Jordans, Michael Johnsons. You see a lot of guys who want pressure on them. I want that. I look at pressure as a privilege. It's an honor. It's my duty to go out there and perform."

Fitzgerald has performed at an elite level since Green drafted him. He has had at least 1,400 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in three of the last four seasons and has elevated his game to another level in the playoffs. In the Cardinals' three wins (over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia), he has caught five touchdown passes among the 23 receptions accounting for the 419 yards.

So what is behind his greatness?

Talent? Sure. He's arguably the most athletically gifted receiver in the game.

Physical stature? That, too. At 6-3, 220 pounds, he has prototype size to go with terrific speed.

Preparation? Yup. He continually watches video and catches up to 200 passes every single day of practice.

But as much as anything, it's Fitzgerald's obsession with his pursuit of the greatest receivers in the game that separates him from all but a few. It's almost as if he thinks he's never quite good enough.

"I always feel like I'm chasing," he said. "I'm chasing Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Terrell Owens. You're always trying to close that gap."

Even when it was suggested to Fitzgerald that one day he might be the one others are chasing, he suggested that will never happen. At least not in his mind.

"I'm always going to be chasing," he said. "You never arrive."

That's why Fitzgerald is continually trying to improve. Take the first year Kurt Warner got to the Cardinals in 2005. Warner noticed early on that Fitzgerald could be much crisper in his route-running.

"When Kurt got here, I had to change my style," Fitzgerald said. "Before that, I just wanted to run down the field and make the acrobatic catch. He taught me to become a better route-runner, so you always have to improve on that."

But it is never quite good enough. There are times even now when Fitzgerald will watch himself on video and become mortified at how he ran a certain pattern.

"I look at film and sometimes I cringe," he said. "It's like you're playing golf and you're on a par 3 and you think you've hit a great shot and you say, 'Yeah, I stuck it.' Then you go up to the green and see you still have a 10-foot putt, and you realize you could have done better. You can always keep pushing the bar higher."

The Steelers need to pay particular attention to Fitzgerald, who matches up well against their smaller cornerbacks. Safety Troy Polamalu likely will have to drift toward Fitzgerald to provide some double-team help.

"The guy makes some amazing plays," Polamalu said. "You look at him and he's outjumping people who are draped all over him."

It's that acrobatic style that probably is the most difficult thing to contain, especially when Warner throws the ball high. If this were basketball, Fitzgerald would be one of the best at playing above the rim.

"I don't see a guy who is capable of adjusting to the ball while he's in the air better than Larry," said Warner, who has enjoyed a career renaissance this season. "He does a phenomenal job moving his body to just the right spot as he's jumping. I've never played with a guy like that before."

No showmanship, either. Owens, Chad Johnson and other more demonstrative receivers orchestrate hey-look-at-me celebrations. Fitzgerald smiled when asked why he doesn't make such displays. "By the time I get to the end zone," he said, "I'm too tired."

Besides, one of the guys he admired most growing up never felt the need to do anything other than flip the ball to an official after scoring a touchdown.

"I like Barry Sanders, and he never did much celebrating," Fitzgerald said. "I don't believe in showing up your opponents."

In Fitzgerald's mind, it's getting to the end zone that counts, not what you do afterward.

He's hoping he gets there again Sunday night in the biggest game of his life.


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