Fitzgerald overcomes painful offseason

Updated: August 26, 2003, 9:48 AM ET
By Elliott A. Wiley. Jr. | Special to ESPN.com

Forget about Pittsburgh sophomore wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's topping his record-setting freshman season. Fitzgerald wanted to -- at least, for a little while.

What else could he do? This is the guy who, just before going out to practice on April 9, got a call from his dad saying there was a ticket waiting for him to fly home to Minneapolis. Larry Fitzgerald, Sr., never told his son why to he needed to come home, but Fitzgerald knew.

Still, he went on to practice that day.

"It was probably the toughest practice I had to go to," Fitzgerald said. "Football wasn't important that day."

Larry Fitzgerald
Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald was simply unstoppable for most of the season.
This is the guy who, later that evening, flew home to find his mother unable to communicate due to a cancer-induced coma. After battling breast cancer for seven and a half years, which spread to her lungs and brains towards the latter stages, Carol Fitzgerald was dying at the age of 47. She died the next day.

"If somebody hasn't lost a parent you can't understand what it's like," Fitzgerald said. "Some days I call my mom's voicemail just to hear her voice."

Fitzgerald stayed home for a couple of days to be with his family and ended up missing three practices and the spring game. Then, just over two months later while still dealing with his mother's death, Fitzgerald learned sophomore wide receiver Billy Gaines died on June 19 by falling through a church ceiling, landing on a pew.

The day before, Fitzgerald and Gaines worked out and did their running together. That was also the day Gaines he left his mailing address in Fitzgerald's locker so the Fitzgerald family could send the Gaines family a thank you card for their support.

"I didn't know why didn't I go out with him that night or why didn't I talk to him more," Fitzgerald said.

It's funny. Before the deaths of his mother and friend, Fitzgerald was focused mainly on growth on the football field. Despite having arguably the best freshman season in Big East history -- he caught 69 passes for 1,005 yards (14.6 ypc) and 12 TDs -- he noticed aspects of his game needed work. Fitzgerald decided he needed to learn more. During his freshman season, he thought he was making the correct moves, but actually he was not executing assignments.

"He may have played slower last year because of uncertainty in certain (situations)," said

Fitzgerald's Freshman Season
Rec. Yds. Avg. TDs
69 1,005 14.6 12

Pitt offensive coordinator J.D. Brookhart, who also coaches the wide receivers.

To combat this, the receiver is trying to not rely on his athletic ability as much and he started to watch film.

Brookhart feels that Fitzgerald was "untapped physically" when he came to Pittsburgh last year. But that's changing now. Fitzgerald bettered his 40-yard dash time from 4.7 to 4.5 seconds. His bench press increased 100 pounds this year from about 250 to 350 pounds. In addition, the 6-foot-3 receiver could barely lunge with 135 pounds freshman year, but now hoists a more than respectable 405 pounds.

Through his early offseason work, Fitzgerald is starting to take to heart the Panthers workout phrase: "Love the process of the locker room."

"He is very committed to be a great player," Brookhart said. "He learned to love the process of getting ready for Saturday. Monday through Friday's are keys to success. Preparation is everything. It's finally started to make sense to him."

Now Fitzgerald used the hardships he had in the offseason as fuel toward the fall. After his mother's death, in mid-April, Fitzgerald returned to school to finish the second semester of his freshman year. Instead of being hindered by constant mourning, Fitzgerald says he was inspired by his mother's death.

The wide receiver said that his mom did not like him to miss school, so in her honor, worked harder than he ever had during the last month of school to finish with a 3.3 grade point average.

On the football field, Fitzgerald continued adding to offseason workout he begun before the two deaths. After all, he still wants to show teammates he is there to win big ball games.

"You can't have an off day or a bad days when you're trying to be a leader," Fitzgerald said.

While Fitzgerald says he is still continuing the healing process of his mother and teammate's deaths, his stern work ethic is a direct result of his upbringing.

"Larry is a unique talent in the sense that I tried to raise him knowing there are things in your life that you can't control," Larry Fitzgerald, Sr. said. "When things happen, you have to keep your mind on the things you have to do. I've seen that since the funeral."

Head coach Walt Harris believes Fitzgerald will make plays, is a leader, but is not too vocal. Fitzgerald, Sr. expects his son to bleed leadership.

"I expect him to go out and lead. He knows I'm a big believer in leading," Fitzgerald, Sr. said. "Winning is not something you do by yourself, you share it with all 50 and 60 players and coaches."

Fitzgerald says his mother Carol, who started the African-American AIDS Task Force in Minneapolis to help support blacks that contact the virus, played a tremendous role in his life. She pushed Fitzgerald in school and supported him on the football field. Even after she died, she still made him realize that he should have a good time everyday and not complain about small problems.

"Some days are harder than others like one- and two-month anniversaries, the scars are still healing," Fitzgerald said. "It's constant reminder to me that life isn't guaranteed to anybody."

Fitzgerald believes he is stronger, faster and smarter on the field. He knows what coaches want from him. He also realizes that everybody expects him to make big plays, but, regardless, Fitzgerald still has mental lapses when thinking about his mother.

On the flipside, Fitzgerald says his mother's death also makes it easier for him to work out. He says he compares unpleasant physical feelings incurred during workouts with the amount of pain his mother felt when fighting with cancer. This contrast generally puts Fitzgerald's workout in perspective and makes it easier for him to continue.

With or without lapses, Fitzgerald has a lot of football to play this season. Fitzgerald, Sr., who played for the New York Giants, believes Fitzgerald, Jr. is "hungrier" because he does not want to let himself down combined with the pain he still feels from his mother's death.

"As a football player, I drive to become the best player I can be," Fitzgerald said. "That's the way my mom was driven to be the best person she could be; that's the way Billy was driven."

And it's certain to push Fitzgerald to make this a season to remember.

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