TAMPA - Larry Fitzgerald’s connection to the Pittsburgh Steelers — via the University of Pittsburgh — began with a downpour.
Fitzgerald, a Penn State fan as a kid because his hometown Minnesota Golden Gophers “were terrible,” was driving to Happy Valley on a recruiting trip when a thunderstorm forced him to spend the night at a Pittsburgh hotel.
That’s when his high school coach told him he should check out the University of Pittsburgh in the morning.
“He said Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino and Mike Ditka went there and there were a lot of great players who went there,” Fitzgerald recalled. “So, we went over to their facility and their coaches didn’t know we were coming. I met the coaches, and we gave them my tape, and that’s how the relationship was started.”
While Fitzgerald was becoming an All-American at Pittsburgh — he finished second in the 2003 Heisman Trophy voting behind Oklahoma quarterback Jason White — he often visited the Steelers to try to bum free lunches from the cafeteria.
“They had great food over there,” he said.
Now it’s the Steelers who are trying to take food off his table, so to speak. How well Pittsburgh defends Fitzgerald — if it’s possible to defend him at all — could play a large factor in Super Bowl XLIII Sunday.
“Nobody has really been able to contain him at all yet,” Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said.
As every Cardinals’ fan is well aware, Fitzgerald has arguably become the best receiver in the NFL. His 419 receiving yards are nearly twice as many as any other wideout in the postseason, and no one has caught more passes in the last four regular seasons.
And to think, when the season began, there was some debate as to whether Fitzgerald was even the Cardinals’ best receiver.
“I think the sky is the limit for Larry,” fellow Cards receiver Anquan Boldin said. “He’s still young and still learning about this game. I don’t think he’s reached his full potential yet.”
Fitzgerald’s numbers this postseason are so ridiculous they’re almost hard to believe:
• Six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta.
• Eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown against Carolina.
• Nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns against Philadelphia.
What might he do for an encore Sunday?
“When you have a guy like Larry Fitzgerald who can out-jump two guys to get the football, there is nothing you can do about that,” Polamalu said. “You just have to realize that he is a great player, they have a great quarterback, a great scheme, and he makes great plays. I think it would be big to limit those plays.”
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor will get the primary assignment on Fitzgerald, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn’t about to leave Taylor in one-on-one coverage too often.
“This guy is special,” LeBeau said. “We are working on a short stepladder for Ike to carry around with him so he can get higher in the air.”
Fitzgerald became a fan of the Steelers during his time in Pittsburgh – “from the very top guy in the organization, Mr. (Dan) Rooney, to my buddy Todd who worked at the reception desk, they were all class,” he said – but that allegiance will have to die hard on Sunday.
He has a Super Bowl to win.