Published July 06, 2010
Growing up in Minneapolis, Fitzgerald was a ball boy for those talented Minnesota Vikings teams of the late 1990s. As he matured into quite a prospect in his own right, Fitzgerald would fly to Florida in the summer to work with Carter and Moss and see how two elite receivers prepared themselves for the grueling NFL season.
"I was able to see Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper and Robert Smith and so many other very talented players working and you saw them on Sunday making all these spectacular plays," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "But you saw the foundation was built out there on the practice field working."
Now entering his seventh NFL season, Fitzgerald has turned into the mentor and turned his hometown into the place to be for professional pass catchers in the weeks before training camp begins in August. With a star-studded list of instructors, Fitzgerald invites players of varying experience to train with him at the University of Minnesota.
What started as a group of about five or six players a few years ago has swelled to about 40 athletes, all working on an efficient and demanding routine that lasts for three weeks.
Greg Jennings, Brandon Marshall and Sidney Rice have participated in the past. On Tuesday, Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley, Seattle rookie Golden Tate, New Orleans defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis and Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson were among those in the group, which changes from week to week.
"As young as he is to have the ability to influence as many guys as he has, coming here to work out with him, it's incredible," said Michael Irvin, a guest instructor this year. "He has a mission to continue to do what he does. And those guys are looking up to him. Most guys don't get this until after they're out of the league. Very few do this. It speaks to his maturity."
Fitzgerald's workout, coordinated with his longtime trainer, Bill Welle, is an exhausting regimen that includes agility, footwork and conditioning drills and is followed by route-running and pass-catching.
Legends like Jerry Rice, Carter and Irvin stop in to help teach youngsters like Tate and Denver rookie Eric Decker the tricks of the trade. One of Irvin's lessons, for instance, was for receivers to anticipate the snap count rather than waiting to hear it from the quarterback to gain a split-second in the never-ending search for an edge.
"You see how people are evolving at the position," Irvin said. "We hear quarterbacks being students of the game and they get credit for it all the time. But if a quarterback is going to have success, he's going to have to have a receiver that's exactly what he is — a student of the game."
Tate jumped at the chance to get some pointers on what to expect coming out of Notre Dame.
"Anything right now, as a young guy, to better my game I want to do," Tate said. "That's exactly why I came out here. Michael Irvin, Hall of Famer. Larry's going to be a Hall of Famer at some point and is one of the best receivers in the game right now."
Finley decided to come after receiving a rave review from his teammate Jennings, who came last year.
"You've got Hall of Famers out here and Pro Bowlers," Finley said. "Everybody can learn from everybody. That's what I did. I just came out here, listened to Mike and took things from him. I'm going to go with it and see what I can do."
As Fitzgerald walked off the field, a fourth-grader who accompanied Irvin on the trip was right on his heels, literally following in every footstep the four-time Pro Bowler took on the way to the weight room. He's become a role model off the field and one of the most feared receivers in the game on it.
So there's no stopping now.
"I notice the better I've been able to get and the more respect I get from my peers and the people around you, the bigger bulls' eye that's on your back," Fitzgerald said. "So you have to continue to raise your level of play and your work ethic has to continue to get better because guys every week are (saying), 'Hey, I have to stop Larry Fitzgerald. I can't let him do this.'"