By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Usually it was on Saturdays when Larry Fitzgerald took his two boys to work with him. Fitz was (and still is) a sportswriter and radio talk show host in Minneapolis, so going to work meant to a North Stars skate, Twins game or Vikings practice. Little Larry, who was about 8 at the time, and younger brother Marcus were ridiculously well behaved because Big Larry and Carol didn't tolerate any foolishness. But still they were curious, active little boys.
So even though Big Larry would inevitably tell his sons, "Sit right there, watch practice, and don't move," he'd sometimes come back and find they were gone. Young Larry might be running a pass route or learning how to get his hands out in front of his body to catch the football.
Big Larry could not have known then that he'd become the most envied sportswriter in America among his peers. Like a lot of us, Big Larry played some ball when he was young, in his case football at a junior college in Iowa and then at Indiana State University. But unlike anybody we can identify, when Big Larry reports to the press box in Tampa a week from Sunday, he'll be the first sportswriter covering his kid in the Super Bowl. And Little Larry, now 25, isn't just in the Super Bowl; he's a headliner. The Arizona Cardinals wouldn't be here without his son, the all-pro wide receiver, the one who broke Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a single postseason.
The son is rich enough that pop doesn't have to write columns anymore for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a 50,000 circulation paper with a mostly African American readership. And he certainly doesn't have to put up with the stress of hosting, producing, selling and distributing a radio syndicate. But when folks in Owatonna, Brainerd and Litchfield, Minn., turn on their radios next week, the voice they'll hear reporting from Super Bowl XLIII will be Big Larry's. "He asks me sometimes, 'Why are you still doing this?' " Big Larry said, "And I tell him: 'Because I love it, because I built it and survived doing it. Because this is what I do.' "
When the Cardinals beat the Eagles in the NFC championship game last Sunday, Big Larry worked that game, too. At game's end, Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star sent Big Larry a text message that read, "Every journalist in this press box is envious of you today."
The son calls the father "Mr. Emotional" but Big Larry manages to, by and large, sit stoically during Cardinals games. "You've known me long enough to know I'm not going to show up with pompoms," he told me the other day. "I'll be sitting there at his table [during team press conferences] trying to get my questions in like everybody else."
Big Larry is 53. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He went to Centerville, Iowa, for junior college, and played for an Indian Hills Community College team that lost something called the Wool Bowl by a point to a team from Mesa in Rosewall, N.M. In two years at Indiana State (alma mater of Larry Bird), the coach switched his position to tackle. "I never amounted to anything," he says now. "I lost my desire."
He told Larry the horror story of having his dreams dashed. "I told him, 'As long as your heart is in it, you'll be fine.' When he was in high school, recruiters started saying, 'We're going to make you a really good linebacker.' One of my good friends is an [NFL] scout and he'd say, 'Larry's going to be a tight end.' But he kept his weight down, so he wouldn't be like his dad, within a biscuit of 300 pounds."
I've known Big Larry 25 years, since I first went to Minneapolis for an Orioles-Twins game back in the Kirby Puckett days. He was the only sportswriter of color in Minneapolis then, certainly the first black reporter with a talk show. He was hired then fired by KFAN, the local sports-talk radio station. "It was a big loss to lose a three-hour radio show when you have a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old," he says now.
He decided to do something on a smaller scale, which was nonetheless ambitious, and wound up building something called the National Programming Network. Big Larry did a radio show with Dennis Green, then the Vikings' head coach. You couldn't go to a game of any kind in Minneapolis, from the Gophers to the Twins, without running into Big Larry. He'd bring his sons to practice on some Saturdays. During basketball season, junior would pick up things from Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. In the fall he'd shag balls or get an earful from Cris Carter, Chris Doleman, Henry Thomas, Matt Blair, Greg Coleman, Joey Browner. He'd listen to the assistant coaches, who included Tony Dungy and Brian Billick.
"We were blessed, when you think about the coaches who were here during the time," Big Larry said. "It could never happen without the relationships that resulted. And we were fortunate that people were patient with us. When Denny Green came, he said: 'Let 'em run around and play. Bring 'em out here; it's fine.' Some employees did. It was a real family atmosphere."
Before he was even 12 years old, it was looking like young Larry had the physical talent, the discipline, demeanor and certainly the professional tutoring to play big-time college football. "And it was my job," Big Larry said, "to not let him know that I thought that. He slept with his football; I think he was 10. And I told him, 'Larry, you have to work hard and dream.' "
The Vikings players he shagged balls for as a little kid soon enough were attending his high school games. Big Larry is sure, even now, that being around that much greatness, from Carter to Puckett to Kevin Garnett to Mike Modano made an enormous difference. "He picked up stuff that was amazing," the father said.
Big Larry wasn't doing this alone, mind you. Carol, a disease intervention specialist for the Minnesota Department of Health, was there for every step of it, until cancer spread from her breast to her lungs to her brain in 2003. The Fitzgerald boys had seen their share of death because their mom had founded an AIDS task force in the Twin Cities and an HIV support group.
But it's folly to suggest they've gotten over her death, even though he has had "someone special" in his life in recent months.
"It's the only downer, the hardest part," Big Larry said of his late wife not being able to see her son at the Super Bowl. "She meant everything to me and the boys. Everything." His voice trails off and the sobbing is soft but unmistakable.
Little Larry carries his mother's driver's license with him even now. She was everything to him, too. "I know," Big Larry said, "that she'll have a box seat next Sunday."
In every other way, the Fitzgerald men are doing fabulously. The old Vikings and Twins have called Big Larry this week. When he answers the phone he mostly hears laughing. "Can you believe you're going to cover your kid playing in the Super Bowl?" they ask. No, Big Larry cannot. All the afternoons and evenings watching high school games, college games and NFL games featuring his son couldn't have prepared him for this. "I'm still pinching myself," the dad said. "I've covered so many important games, so many great athletes. There are a lot of wonderful feelings going on inside me. It's just gratifying."