Larry Fitzgerald, Jr.
Larry Fitzgerald, Jr., one of football’s all-time best wide receivers, was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2004 and has spent his entire professional career with the team. He helped lead it to its first Super Bowl, XLIII; has been selected for the Pro Bowl nine times; and is one of just 10 players in National Football League history with more than 13,000 receiving yards and 90 touchdown receptions in his career.
But this 33-year-old star has more than fast legs and hands: he has heart. “As a professional athlete, I know that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own success and in the materialistic things that come with it,” he says. “But life isn’t about how much money you have, or what cool things you own—all those things are temporary. The only thing that really matters is the type of person you are and the good you can do for other people while you’re on this earth."
Fitzgerald—who spends much of his free time doing philanthropic work—learned about giving back from his grandparents and mother, who all did charity work. To honor his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2003, he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support breast-cancer survivors and research. His First Down Fund makes a weekly donation to a fan-nominated charity, and he has recently made grants totaling $100,000 to schools to fund books, science supplies, and field trips, and to purchase technology. Additional donations have provided vision care to those who otherwise would not have access to it.
When we met with Fitzgerald in his hometown of Paradise Valley, Arizona, we asked him about his charitable work and also about his football career and frequent business jet travel.
Your father is a sports reporter. What did he teach you when you were growing up?
Just being around athletes, I learned a lot. I saw the guys who were gracious in defeat and humble in victory. I tried to base myself on what I saw.
What did your mother teach you?
My mother founded a couple of [charitable] organizations and volunteered at others. She’d drag my brother and me to all these events even though we’d prefer to play ball in the park. She took us to AIDS walks and ribbon cuttings on facilities for the Boys and Girls Clubs or Big Brothers Big Sisters. It became part of our fabric, so now, if I see an organization that has a need, I try to help.
Who was your role model growing up?
I didn’t have to look outside my house for people to emulate. My dad was a very stoic, stern, hardworking, honest man. A great mentor. And my mom was so selfless; she had such compassion for people. Also, my grandfather, an optometrist, gave away glasses and contacts to young people even when it was tough to provide for his wife and six kids. He always made life better for people around him, and I think that’s where my mother got her attitude. She passed it on to me and I’m going to make sure I teach my sons those same lessons.
You were drafted by the Cardinals while you were a first-semester sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, and you just recently graduated from the University of Phoenix. Why did you go back to school?
Because I made a promise to my mother, and because education is one thing no one can ever take from you. I can hurt my knee and not be able to perform as a professional athlete, but I’d still have my mind. I could still get a job and provide a living for myself and my family. Also, I’m the only one in my family who hadn’t graduated, so it was also a sense of pride. I didn’t want to be excluded from the party, and I wanted to set an example for my sons.
You’ve played with the Cardinals for 13 seasons. What will you take from your career?
It has nothing to do with the plays on the field but about the relationships I cherish. There are a lot of people—from our equipment staff to our training staff to all the people behind the scenes—who mean a great deal to me. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without their support.
Would you take a knee during the national anthem like [San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin] Kaepernick did?
I don’t have a problem with what he does, and I commend him for exercising his rights. Our soldiers are putting their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, including freedom of speech. But when my grandfather passed away, the flag was laid on his casket, and a lot of my family served in the armed forces. So, it’s not a stance I would be willing to take.
A couple of years ago, you pulled two hamstrings and toughed it out, and the same thing happened when you recently hurt your foot. What kept you going?
A Navy Seal wrote an article saying that when you’re tired and your body starts to break down, you have about 65 percent work capacity left. Your body is trying to protect itself because it knows it’s low on energy but you still have a lot left to give. I always think about that when I’m hurting. It comes down to the will to continue to fight.
What do you think about the controversy regarding football and brain injuries?
The National Football League is doing a good job of getting more information out so players are informed about the long-term ramifications of injuries. I don’t like to make military comparisons because what we do is nowhere near what they do, but when military people put their lives on the line, they understand there’s a risk they may never come home. It’s the same with an athlete. You understand that at any time it can come to an end, but you make a good living doing it and you enjoy what you do.
And what is it that makes you passionate about football?
I love being part of something bigger than me. I love that I have to play my best and also motivate other guys to reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you do it together with one common goal.
You’ve said you couldn’t watch yourself on TV because you’d be too critical of yourself. When you lose, how do you get over it?
I’m hard on myself almost to a fault; I don’t see too many good things, but the things I can improve on always jump out at me, which is a gift and a curse. It keeps me hungry and motivated. I never feel as though I’m where I could be.
How do you mentally move forward after a loss?
There’s an old saying: it’s impossible to focus on your future when you’re looking in the rearview mirror. You’ve got to focus.
You’ve been to 96 countries. What’s next on your list?
I want to get to Scandinavia. I’m going to Greece and Iran this year, and I want to go to Prague again. I would like to go to the Republic of Georgia again, and Mongolia; I’d like to go to the Maldives before the ocean continues to rise. I love to travel, not only for leisure but to see what’s going on in the world; and if I see an issue, I try to help the best I can. Every leisure trip I take includes a humanitarian portion, no matter where I am.
You’ve also gone on five USO tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s fun to go on those tours and spend time with the troops. There’s no draft; they don’t have to be doing what they do. They do it because they want to, and that makes it even more special to be able to tell them face-to-face, Thank you, I appreciate that.
How long will you keep playing football?
I’ll play until I physically feel I can’t go out there and execute my assignment to the best of my ability.
And then what?
That’s a great question. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do after, but I’ve done several internships. Some interest me but nothing yet wakes me up in the middle of the night and says, “Man, this is your calling; you need to do this.”
What kind of internships?
I did a weeklong internship with JPMorgan and enjoyed spending a couple of days on the trading floor. I learned about bonds and all types of investment tools. It was a good experience. Real estate development also interests me.
Besides travel, you like golf. Do you see golf or football as a metaphor for life?
Golf for sure. After playing a four-hour round with somebody, you learn who that person is. You’re going to see the best of a person when they hit a great shot or make a long birdie, and then when they hit the ball in the trees or miss an easy putt, you’re going to see that frustration and pain. I love to see how people respond to the good and the bad in golf because that’s usually how they respond in life. I don’t like playing golf with people who don’t respond well to adversity. They’re not fun to be around.
How often do you fly privately?
I probably charter 50 to 75 hours a year.
Do you have a favorite plane?
I love the Challenger 605 in terms of configuration and comfort and the look of it from the outside. But I think the CJ3 is probably the most practical. I also love the Citation X. It’s so fast. I mean, I was flying from New York back to Phoenix, and it was four hours and 10 minutes.
How has flying privately helped you?
I can do things much more efficiently. For example, my buddy had a golf event in Vegas, and my son had a baseball game that I could not miss from noon until 2 p.m. the same day. But my buddy’s event didn’t start until 4, so I could be there for my son. Then I flew to Vegas and was able to get back in time to put my kids to bed. Those kinds of things make private travel the only way to go.
How are you different from your public image?
I’m a little more introverted than you would think. I pretty much stick to myself until I get to know people and then I’m like a class clown, a practical joker. But out and about I’m quiet, even at work.
What has been the biggest moment in your football career?
I’m hopeful that it’s still ahead of me.
Thanks to David Jones of the travel design company Nomad Hill, in which Larry Fitzgerald is a partner, for helping to arrange this interview, which has been edited and condensed.—Ed.
NAME: Larry Darnell Fitzgerald, Jr.
BORN: Aug. 31, 1983 (age 33), Minneapolis.
POSITION: Wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League since 2004.
HONORS: Selected for the Pro Bowl nine times. Ranks fourth all-time in NFL history in receiving yards (76 yards per game).
EDUCATION: Attended University of Pittsburgh prior to being drafted; graduated from University of Phoenix in 2016 with a Bachelor’s in Communication.
TRANSPORTATION: Charter flights via Wheels Up, Sentient Jet, and Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alante Air Charter.
PERSONAL: Lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona with sons Devin, 8, and Apollo, 3.
HOBBIES: Travel, photography, golf.
CHARITIES: The Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund, which supports youth education and recreation, and families experiencing health challenges; and the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund.
Will Fitzgerald Retire?
Having finished 2016 as the NFL leader in receptions, Larry Fitzgerald is reportedly contemplating whether to retire. “Obviously, I have my fingers crossed that he does [continue with the team],” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians recently told ESPN. At press time, Fitzgerald was expected to make a decision in February.