- Matt Wong, NBA
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Larry Fitzgerald's a mythological character, pulling a Narcissus as he gazes in admiration at his image -- the one on the cover of NCAA Football 2005, with his eyes fixed on an incoming football and his hands ready to receive it.
His two-dimensional self has him powerless to look away, luring him down the road of athlete gone diva.
But hold up. His eyes are widening and widening and interpreting, and it becomes clear that he's actually studying the picture, not his photogenic qualities or his old Pittsburgh uniform, but the creation of the image -- the one that was manipulated to his satisfaction.
"It's amazing what computers can do," Fitzgerald says. "They strapped my gloves up, put my chinstrap on and buckled my belt.
"But they should've made my dreads longer out the back."
He's smiling now, a character and a kidder -- but far from a kid. Beyond his All-America resume, his engaging personality is what Electronic Arts saw in Fitzgerald when they chose him to represent NCAA Football, which last year was the second best-selling football game behind EA's Madden 2004.
"Selecting the cover boy is like 'American Idol,'" says Sandy Sandoval, EA's director of athlete relations. "You want to find that one with a special quality."
Someone like Fitzgerald, who after meeting Sandoval and his wife at the Super Bowl, kept in touch and ended every conversation with, "Tell your wife I said hello."
Someone like Fitzgerald, who, despite being just 20 years old, looks whoever he's talking to in the eye, initiates conversation and makes a room full of strangers feel like long-lost buddies, no matter the differences in age.
Someone like Fitzgerald, who, even as former ball boy for the Vikings, a scoring machine throughout college, and the son of a prominent sports writer in Minnesota, refuses to use an in-your-face touchdown celebration.
Not even as he tried out an advanced copy of the game, which is due out in July, and he quickly finds the end zone.
All he says is, "That was pretty impressive." But he's referring to the player movement in the game, instead of boasting about his control-pad skills.
It's an unexpected response, especially since he's proud of his game-playing abilities, proud of how he was able able to win a few dollars while honing his skills against his college teammates (at the expense of his homework on occasion).
"Dudes used to get into fights over games," says the 6-2 wide receiver, the third pick in the NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. "We had rules and you don't mess with the rules -- you don't press the pause button mid-action."
Unless, perhaps, the game is World Series Baseball on the DreamCast and the challenger is his younger brother Marcus.
"Man, he figured out how to hit the ball up the middle, right past my pitcher every time," Larry says.
"He used to wear me out."
But that was then. Nowadays, nothing seems to shake Fitzgerald.
The pressure of training camp? "It's not that difficult. Man, I play football for a living."
The pressure of learning the NFL playbook when he doesn't even read the instructions for a video game? "They compensate me."
The pressure of teaming up with Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson and being tagged the best young receiving corps in the NFL? "On paper we look good, but we just have to go out there and show people."
The pressure of playing for Denny Green, who was the Vikings' coach when Larry was a ball boy? "For all he's done for my family, yeah, I want to play well for him. It's extra motivation for me to contribute and help the team win the best way I can."
And there's even the pressure of representing a video game that's all about dealing with pressure as EA introduces the Match-up Stick, which takes into account a player's ability to perform despite a hostile crowd.
Nope, that's not a big deal to Fitzgerald either. And he's ready to prove it all when the NFL season kicks off.
"Not only can I handle the pressure," he says, "it will be done."