Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Fitzgerald Soaring To Super Heights
TAMPA - He already seems like the Superman of Super Bowl XLIII - yes, he's able to leap tall cornerbacks in a single bound - but somehow, even the hyperbole can't do justice to Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. His on-field grace is swan-like - or is it Swann-like? His reliable hands are the surest bet since Secretariat. OK, enough of that."Really, what more can be said about him?" Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. As the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers await Sunday night's showdown at Raymond James Stadium, Warner's point is well-taken. The football words have been exhausted. So let the imagination soar. Think basketball, the game where one man sometimes rises above all the rest, where flights of fancy often take your breath away. "He looks like Michael Jordan out there," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. "You just throw it up in the air and Larry Fitzgerald comes down with it." "It's like watching LeBron James," Cardinals reserve receiver Early Doucet said. "He's got three guys on him, here comes the alley-oop, and he just goes over them, gets the slam. Bam! And you're like, 'Did he just do that?'" "Larry goes after the ball like Dennis Rodman used to go after the ball," Cardinals strength and conditioning coach John Lott said. And this from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: "He plays like he's 7 feet tall." Learning His Craft Larry Fitzgerald is not that big, but large enough by the standards of an NFL wide receiver (6-foot-3, about 212, some 15 pounds lighter than last season, a calculated physical transformation that made a huge difference, according to Lott). He's not even that fast. At the 2004 NFL scouting combine, his 40-yard dash time of 4.63 seconds was below average for an elite player at his position. Here are more numbers: •Fitzgerald is the youngest player ever to reach 400 career receptions (25 years, 119 days). •He already has surpassed Jerry Rice's receiving records for a single postseason - 23 catches for 419 yards and five touchdowns - with the Super Bowl remaining. They are the product of a life in training, first by refining his hand-eye coordination with drills designed by his grand- father, who was an optometrist, then by his exposure to professional athletes through his father, a sports writer. Once, Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings. He hung out with Cris Carter and Randy Moss, soaking up their secrets. "Fans saw them on Sundays," Fitzgerald said. "I got to see their work ethic, practice, film work, how they took care of their bodies, what they ate." Lott, the strength and conditioning coach, noticed Fitzgerald's dedication. "I have a saying, 'I hear what you're saying, but I see what you're doing,'" Lott said. "It's about what you do. Larry has been doing an awful lot. He has a will to be great." Determined To Rise Hasn't NFL greatness already been achieved? Fitzgerald's face scrunches. He talks about becoming a better blocker, making more yards after the catch, maybe even going an extended period without a dropped pass (not one!). "I hope he's just scratching the surface of his ability," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "But when you have a player of his caliber constantly working on the little things, that sets an example for everyone." And that gets noticed by the likes of Deion Sanders, the former All-Pro cornerback. "Now you're putting his name alongside T.O., Chad Johnson, Moss," Sanders said. "He's in that top-five conversation." The nation has discovered Fitzgerald, much the same way it stumbled upon Rays center fielder B.J. Upton, who turned the 2008 baseball postseason into his personal playground. "When you're on a roll like that, you feel like you can do no wrong," Upton said. "You're finally performing on the big stage. I felt it. I think that's what Larry is feeling." The other day, in a media session, someone asked Cardinals receiver Sean Morey to describe Fitzgerald in 30 seconds or less. Impossible, Morey thought. Then the words spilled out. There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise. The human soul can not be permanently chained. They are the words of William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois, a scholar and civil-rights activist who died in 1963. When Morey was at Brown University, he spoke to a fifth-grade class. One girl wrote him a thank-you note, which contained the words of Du Bois. "I love those words and when I was trying to sum up Larry, they came into my mind," Morey said. "They seem to fit. We've all seen it. He is definitely determined to rise." It's his time to rise. It's his time to shine. "It's the same game I've been playing since I was 7 years old at Martin Luther King Park back in Minneapolis growing up," Fitzgerald said. "But the implications are much bigger." Fitzgerald never had a dream this big. He has grown into a whole new world. LeBeau had it right. He plays like he's 7 feet tall. By late Sunday night, if he has a typical jump-out-of-the-gym performance, Super Bowl XLIII will have its Superman.
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.