For Fitzgerald, Receptions Speak Louder Than Words

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, January 19, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. The question is, why doesn't somebody just catch Larry Fitzgerald by his pretty flying hair and yank him down? But then, you'd have to get close enough to him to grab hold of a braid, and so far no one in the NFL playoffs has been able to do that, certainly not the Philadelphia Eagles, who paid for it with a loss in the NFC championship game.

Confetti showered down from the ceiling of the University of Phoenix stadium as if on a beauty pageant, some of it catching in the locks of Fitzgerald as he skipped off the field and toward his place in the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner howled a "Thank you Jesus!" over what seemed the world's loudest sound system, after which heavy metal blasted through the speakers like detonations, while fans in red and white twirled into candy cane patterns in the bleachers.

And yet for all of the audio and visual pandemonium in the aftermath of the Arizona Cardinals' 32-25 victory over the Eagles, the most alive and electric images, the ones that lingered, were those of Fitzgerald and his breathtaking nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns.

Fitzgerald, a 25-year-old, fifth-year veteran, is one of the more shy enigmas in the league, the kind of guy who ducks interviews and spends his offseason hiking the Inca Trail and climbing to Machu Picchu. He's the son of a Minnesota sportswriter and broadcaster, and a former ballboy for the Vikings, who was raised to understand "it wasn't about the 'me,' it was about the win, the team," he said.

But he is going to have to make his peace with stardom, because it's irrevocable after what he has done in this postseason: set a record for receiving yardage, and help convert a once-hopeless team into one of the most powerful quick-strike offenses in the league. In three playoff games, Fitzgerald has amassed 419 yards to take possession of the postseason record previously held by Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. And he's still got a game to go.

Afterward, when things had calmed down a little, Fitzgerald appeared in a gray-and-light-blue plaid jacket with a starched white collar, a pastel blue handkerchief poking out of his blazer pocket, and rimless spectacles. His hair was conservatively pulled back. His only nods to glamour were the two great diamonds in his ears and a violet stripe in his necktie.

"Oh man, it's been five years, a long time, and some bad years," he said. "To see all that red, to see that stadium, it's just an unbelievable feeling."

That Fitzgerald even showed up to talk to reporters afterward was perhaps a nod to his new status. In the past he has been so attention-averse that he was fined by the league for refusing to talk after a game. "Larry Fitzgerald is at a press conference!" Warner said in fake shock.

Fitzgerald's demeanor off the field was the perfect opposite of his demeanor on it -- where he was absolutely eye-catching, all game long. "Phenomenal," Warner called him.

No matter how much attention Fitzgerald commanded from the Eagles, they couldn't catch him or stop him. His first score came with 20 seconds left in the opening quarter. Warner struck him across the middle on a nine-yard pass, and the Eagles' Brian Dawkins hit him with shuddering force. But Fitzgerald simply bounced off Dawkins as if he were a car bumper and tumbled forward to the end zone.

"I don't know how many huge plays he's made for us in the playoffs," Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think that his confidence has grown. You have to give Larry credit because he never had too big of an ego that he didn't want to work on things, either, and that has really made him a dangerous receiver."

Fitzgerald turned the Eagles' vaunted blitzing defense into nonsense. With 13 minutes 19 seconds to go in the second quarter, he and Warner teamed up on a 62-yard piece of magic. It was a flea-flicker that started as a toss from Warner to running back J.J. Arrington, who then threw it overhand back to Warner, who set his feet and chucked it downfield.

Fitzgerald, sprinting just ahead of safety Quintin Demps, reached up, and Demps staggered like a man blinded by the sun. Fitzgerald bobbled the ball for an instant, then gathered it in and spun and danced into the end zone.

"That was a play that we had seen on tape that got past Philadelphia in past years and we thought it would be something that we might be able to hit them with," Fitzgerald said. "We know their safeties like to hit it hard on the run, coming up and supporting. I was able to get behind the safety and Kurt just threw the ball up and allowed me to go up and find it."

His third score came with 3:06 still left in the first half, when he was wide open for a one-yard lob from Warner after putting a triple-shoulder fake on cornerback Sheldon Brown. With that, Fitzgerald helped stake his team to a 24-6 halftime lead. They would need all of those points as they withstood the Eagles' own three-touchdown surge in the second half.

"We came out and played a lot better," Dawkins said, "but some of the damage had been done."

Perhaps just as meaningful were Fitzgerald's catches on Arizona's last, pressurized 14-play, 72-yard drive deep in the fourth quarter, after the Cardinals found themselves trailing 25-24, and needed to find a way back on to the scoreboard. Although it was Tim Hightower who caught Warner's fourth and last touchdown pass, it was Fitzgerald who made two key grabs, on a 19-yard dash over the middle and a leaping six-yard snag, to put them into scoring position.

"The demeanor in the huddle didn't change at all," Fitzgerald said. "Nobody wanted to be the guy to let this team down."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company