Receiver piled up records in 2 seasons

Updated: February 9, 2004, 11:18 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

PITTSBURGH -- Larry Fitzgerald finally made the decision everyone expected: to enter the NFL draft.

The Heisman Trophy runner-up said Monday that he would forgo his collegiate career at Pittsburgh to turn professional. His announcement came four days after he was declared eligible for the draft.

Fitzgerald, who will turn 21 in August, is projected to go early in the draft. Though the receiver played just two seasons with the Panthers, that was enough time for him to break several school and NCAA records.

"The main reason people come to college is to better your chances of making a living, and I think that my two years that I've had here, I've given myself a good opportunity to make a good living ... for myself and to support my family," Fitzgerald said.

The record-setting receiver is the top-ranked prospect in the nation at his position, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. In his latest draft projections, Kiper believes Fitzgerald could be the No. 2 player taken overall, by the Oakland Raiders, behind Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning (San Diego Chargers).

He petitioned the NFL to allow him to enter the draft despite two seasons of play. Fitzgerald left the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn., midway through his senior year in 2001 and transferred to Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy to boost his grades for college.

The NFL cleared the way for Fitzgerald to enter the April draft because he is three years past his senior year of high school.

"I'm very confident in my ability," he said. "I know there's going to be skeptics and there's going to be people out there criticizing this and criticizing that, but all-in-all I know I can play the game of football."

The league's decision on Fitzgerald came on the same day a federal judge ruled running back Maurice Clarett could also turn pro despite playing only one season at Ohio State.

In that ruling Thursday, the judge said NFL rules regarding its draft violate federal antitrust laws. The ruling overturned the league's rule barring players from being eligible for the draft before they were out of high school for three years.

The 20-year-old Fitzgerald was dominating last season. He finished a close second to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White in voting for the Heisman Trophy, nearly becoming the first sophomore to win the award.

He was the most proficient receiver in Pittsburgh history and set three NCAA records, including most consecutive games with a touchdown catch (18), most touchdown catches for a freshman-sophomore (34) and most yards receiving by a sophomore (1,672), besting Randy Moss' 1997 sophomore year. He tied the record for most games catching a touchdown pass in a season (12).

In 2003, Fitzgerald caught 87 passes and led all NCAA receivers with 1,595 yards in 12 regular-season games. He had 22 touchdown catches, at least one in each of Pitt's regular-season games. He had five catches for 77 yards in Pitt's loss to Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl.

He played in all 13 games as a freshman and became a starter in his third game. In 2002, he had 69 receptions for 1,005 yards, easily surpassing Antonio Bryant, who caught a then-record 51 passes for 844 yards as a freshman in 1999.

Fitzgerald finished 128 votes behind White in the race for the Heisman. He did win the Biletnikoff Trophy, awarded to college football's top receiver, last season and the Walter Camp Award as the nation's best player.

Fitzgerald told Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris that he was going pro Thursday, when the NFL ruled him eligible.

"We have been blessed to be around such a special person and outstanding athlete in Larry Fitzgerald," Harris said. "Not only was he an unbelievable receiver, but he also set a great example of how players should respect the game."

Despite his domination at the college level, Fitzgerald usually trotted off the field without much celebration after his 34 touchdown catches.

"Not showboating on the field is the way I was raised," Fitzgerald said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE