MINNEAPOLIS - It was here — or more specifically, the Academy of the Holy Angels High School on Friday nights — where Larry Fitzgerald and NFL stardom were first wed.
Fitzgerald was already a longtime ballboy for the Minnesota Vikings. But when he started tearing up Minneapolis-area prep defenses, Vikings stars like Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Robert Griffith would show up at his games, stand in the end zone and marvel at the young receiver.
The fans would be impressed with seeing Daunte Culpepper or Randy Moss at a high school game. The Vikings’ players were impressed with Fitz.
“He was just killing them,” said Griffith, now Fitzgerald’s Cardinals’ teammate. “We’d come just to watch him put on a show.”
The show finally returns to Minnesota today.
Fitzgerald hasn’t played in his home state since leaving high school, unless one counts his brief appearance in the 2004 preseason opener between the Vikings and the Cardinals. That was shortcircuited after just one catch (for five yards) when Fitzgerald suffered a serious ankle sprain.
This time, perhaps a Holy Angels-esque performance awaits. Fitzgerald is returning home a Pro Bowl receiver, albeit one in the middle of a rocky third season. His numbers (33 catches, 446 yards, two touchdowns) are way down from his spectacular (103-1,409-10) 2005 season, in large part because of the hamstring injury that kept him out of three games and most of a fourth.
Fitzgerald said his hamstring isn’t an issue anymore. Asked if a stumbling offense, struggling behind rookie quarterback Matt Leinart, is an issue, Fitzgerald chuckles.
“We are getting better week in and week out,” he said. “I’m just going to say that.”
Coach Dennis Green noted that Fitzgerald and Leinart have had precious little time working together because of Fitzgerald’s injury, and even Leinart conceded, “It takes a while to build chemistry and get on the same page.”
But if Fitzgerald is going to have a breakout game, today would be the day. Green, himself coaching in Minnesota for the first time that counts since leaving the Vikings, has reasons to try and build Fitzgerald’s statistics.
“(This game) means a lot to me, but I’m not going to take it like that,” Fitzgerald said. “If we can win and I can do it at home and I can have a big game . . .”
Fitzgerald doesn’t finish, instead letting a wide grin punctuate his thought.
If Fitzgerald does go off, the Vikings would have no one to blame but themselves. Or at least their former players.
Fitzgerald understood the NFL life long before he was in the NFL. He became close to a few Vikings who took interest in mentoring Fitz, especially Carter. He made some good money washing players’ cars, at least a few hundred dollars a week by Griffith’s count.
He also soaked in the nuances of being a receiver hanging around Carter and Reed and Moss.
“Just watching you learn a lot,” said receiver Troy Walters, another former Viking who not only attended a couple of Fitzgerald’s Holy Angels games but was once a Vikings ballboy himself.
“When I went back to high school, I was well ahead of everyone else. Fitz can probably attest to the same thing.”
By the time Fitzgerald was ready to star at Holy Angels, he put that preparation into practice.
“Everyone paid attention,” said former Viking and current Cardinal cornerback Robert Tate, another player who would take in Fitz’s high school games.
Even Fitzgerald, who was used to having NFL players as his friends by then, acknowledged having such high-profile fans put him “on cloud nine.”
“It meant so much to me having those guys come out and support me,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald may be wearing Cardinals colors today, but he will still have plenty of people rooting for him.
Still, Fitzgerald isn’t thrilled with some of the ancillary aspects of coming home. He was on the hook with finding 60 tickets for family and friends, and he eventually turned off his cell phone because of the barrage of calls he received.
“Everyone I have ever known called me this week,” Fitzgerald said.
Attention is one thing Fitzgerald would rather not have. Give him victories and his touches, and he’d be fine. The interviews, the spotlight on his return home, those are things he could do without.
But in Minnesota, Fitzgerald has long been a headline. That hasn’t changed.
“I am proud of him,” Griffith said. “Now that I am thinking about it, I am about to get teary-eyed. He’s like a little brother, you know?”
Cardinals at Vikings
When: 11 a.m. today
Where: Metrodome, Minneapolis
TV: Ch. 10
Radio: KMVP (860 AM)