Entering his 13th season in the NFL, Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the best wide receivers on the planet. In 2015, he propelled the Arizona Cardinals to a 13-3 record and tallied a career-high 109 receptions. Now, the nine-time Pro Bowler is poised to reach the Promised Land once again (a place he hasn’t been since 2009) and capture one of the only accolades that has eluded his grasp: a Super Bowl ring.
Fitzgerald doesn’t fit the typical mold of superstar wide out. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t talk smack, and he doesn’t dab or Dougie when he reaches the end zone. He’s old school; football’s version of Tim Duncan. He shows up, quietly dominates, and goes home.
Fitzgerald, one of the league’s ambassadors and longest-tenured stars, has teamed with Riddell to spread the word about the helmet company’s latest technological innovations, as well as its Smarter Football campaign that rewards youth football leagues for employing progressive safety tactics on and off the field.
We caught up with Larry to discuss the initiative and get his thoughts on player safety, super teams, and the toughest defensive backs he’s ever faced.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
I see you’ve worked with Riddell before. What is it about Riddell’s Smarter Football initiative that drew you to it?
My love for the brand started in college when I first wore the Revo (is that a helmet?). That came out and it gave me the best protection, and that’s where my love and appreciation for what they were doing started. It’s such a proactive company. They’re always on the cutting edge of technology and research. Me being a guy who plays football and wants to continue to see it grow—I don’t mean on the professional level, but the smaller youth levels—I understand there’s been a lot of negative talk out there. Riddell is doing everything in their power to ensure the safety of everybody who’s playing sports, and I’m a big believer in them.
How important is it that player safety is instilled in athletes at a young age?
That goes with Riddell and their Smarter Football program that they’re running right now. It’s giving $100,000 to youth programs for new equipment, but not only that, it teaches smarter techniques on and off the field: head up tackling, better nutrition, strength training. It [provides] technology that allows coaches to monitor big hits on the practice field (not just in games). So that’s really where I think football needs to be going. Safety is crucial for everybody participating in it.
Player safety is obviously such a huge topic of discussion surrounding the NFL and football in general. The league has done some things to try to prevent the long-term effects associated with playing football, such as implementing different rule changes. Do you think the league has done enough to promote player safety?
The [NFL] has definitely been working at it with the players. Guys are more conscious of the aim points and where they’re hitting guys because they understand that the fines that are being levied out are pretty significant. Nobody wants to be docked money for something they can control, so a lot of guys are hitting much lower. The tackling definitely had to improve because of how close the games are being called. But in terms of long-term health and the stability of our league, I think the changes needed to be made.
Do you think there’s more the NFL can do to keep its players safer and prevent things like CTE and premature deaths?
I think it’s not just an NFL problem. [Change] has to start at the grass roots programs. Kids are playing Pop Warner football and they need to be taught proper tackling techniques. If they’re being taught proper techniques at the lowest level, then those guys are only going to improve as they get older and their bodies become more developed. In the NFL, the guys that are getting there are the best of the best. They’ve been playing football a certain way for their entire lives. But if we teach them at the youngest levels, it’s only going to improve the quality of tackling.
For sure. As a wide receiver, you’re frequently going over the middle so you’re prone to being on the wrong side of big hits. Have you changed the way you’ve played at all to keep yourself safer?
Nah, not really. I’m an offensive player, so I’m not really dishing out much punishment. I’m most of the time just trying to avoid it. But I think as players, we have to take more responsibility, and if you see a guy who’s impaired and is showing symptoms of head trauma, I think it’s important we’re honest with each other and do what’s best for the guy standing on the left and the right of you because it gives them the opportunity to get the help they need and make sure we mitigate issues that are concerning.
Calvin Johnson just recently retired from the NFL and a lot people believe he did so because of concerns relating to long-term health. Have any thoughts of stepping away from the game early to preserve your health and prevent injury crossed your mind?
No, not really. Life is so short. I mean, you turn the news on and hear about tragedies that happen everyday. I could jump into my car and get into an accident. I don’t really live my life trying to be like, “Man, if this happens, then this might happen.” What’s gonna happen in life is gonna happen. You don’t have any control over most of that stuff, but you do see a lot more of [what Calvin did] now.
I’ve had opportunities to leave Arizona, but it was never really something I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be here. I helped Arizona become better and I do everything I can to help us win a championship and bring in other guys.
Who’s the toughest safety or corner you’ve had to face one-on-one?
Patrick Peterson is special. I have to go against him everyday unfortunately. It makes for a long day. Cam Chancellor, I don’t know if he’s fully human. He’s got a little mutant in him. It’s like trying to move a refrigerator without wheels underneath. He’s really a load.
You came into the league when guys like T.O., Chad Ochocinco, and Joe Horn were revolutionizing the touchdown dance. Now it’s Odell Beckham and Cam Newton. I was wondering, how come we haven’t seen any Fitzgerald shuffles or a dance of some kind?
Cause I can’t dance. That’s the problem. Those guys have great rhythm. I was born with two left feet, which makes it problematic for me to move to the groove.
So we can’t expect any dabbing from you this season?
[Laughs]. No, you’re not gonna see any of that. I give the football back to the referee, get back to the huddle, get some water, and regroup so I can go onto the next series.
What is a catch, what isn’t a catch has definitely been a difficult line for the NFL and its officials to draw over the years. The league just introduced a new and confusing catch rule for 2016, but recently the vice president of officiating came out and said that the NFL encourages it’s officials to “when in doubt” call passes incomplete. What do you make of this “when in doubt” rule of thumb?
It gives officials a lot of wiggle room. I don’t really like it as an offensive player. Like Dez Bryant’s catch [a few years ago in the playoffs] was an obvious catch to me. Calvin Johnson’s catch at the back of the end zone years ago, that was an obvious catch to me. I don’t even think they were disputable. When a guy possesses the ball then makes an athletic move, it’s a catch. But there have been occasions where I’ve been on offense and a teammate just caught a ball and got hit or stripped and they called an incomplete, and I’m very happy for it. When it’s working against you, it’s just not as good.
Shifting gears a little bit, what was your reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors?
I’m excited. Kevin Durant is a once-in-a-generation player. He’s joining a team that already won 70-plus games last season. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch what these guys accomplish. Barring injury, it’s gonna be a high-flying, high-scoring game every single year, every single night.
The NBA talks a lot about trying to promote parity, which is why they’re against the formation of these super teams. You kind of look at football as the league that sets the standard for developing parity. Are you pro these types of super teams in sports or against them?
I think it’s different. Football is completely different. In basketball, the guys are much closer. There’s not as many of them. The relationships are much stronger. You think about Carmelo, Chris Paul, LeBron, and D-Wade—all these guys are really close with each other. They spend time during the off-season together. I don’t think that’s the same in football. A vast majority of guys on other teams, I have no clue who they are. I mean, I know who they are but I don’t know them personally. So the relationships are much different, and I think guys truly like staying with the teams they came in with. I’ve had opportunities to leave Arizona, but it was never really something I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be here. I helped Arizona become better and I do everything I can to help us win a championship and bring in other guys.
If you could form a super team with any NFL players, past or present, who would be on it?
How many players do I get to pick?
Let’s say five guys, with you as the sixth.
Five guys. Okay. I’m gonna start Joe Montana at quarterback. I’ve got to go with Barry Sanders in the backfield, Jerry Rice at wide receiver. On the defensive side, I’ve got to get Lawrence Taylor just because of his pass-rushing ability. And at cornerback, I’m gonna get Deion Sanders who could also help with punt returns and kickoff returns in addition to being a shutdown corner.
That’s a scary team.
They’d be okay.
Going back to the NBA for a second. Players this off-season have signed really exorbitant contracts. I was wondering, is there any chatter among NFL players about how much money these basketball players are making? Or if you’ve sensed any jealousy?
Jealousy, no. Never. It’s always best not to count another man’s money. Be fortunate that you have enough to provide for your family and be happy for the next guy who was able to better his life. But this is where it’s going with sports with the TV revenue and everything that goes into it. You’ve gotta think with basketball, you got a $100 million salary cap and you’re only paying 12-15 guys. You got an NFL team, you got 53 guys who are getting paid. Just the numbers alone, they don’t add up. If you look at it that way, it’s just far fewer guys getting paid.
Also, basketball is different because it’s a global sport. With football, we’re trying to expand and bring it into different territories, but realistically, kids don’t grow up in England and Australia and China and Brazil looking up to NFL players. They’re trying to be like [Lionel] Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, and guys like that because they’re global ambassadors for their game.
That’s a really interesting perspective on it. You were drafted in 2004, you’re now entering your 13th season in the NFL. How, if it all, has your outlook on football changed? Or has it stayed the same?
I wouldn’t say it’s changed much. I think when you’re younger, you’re only concerned about your career. You’re only concerned about your next contract or your stats and things of that nature. Then when you start getting older, you understand that it’s bigger than you. It’s about leaving a great legacy in your community, impacting lives of the people that you can in a positive way. You just change your outlook on life in general. If you’re the same guy at 30 as you were at 20, there’s been no growth, you know what I mean? You just evolve as a human being, and the more causes you’re involved in makes you better for the most part.
If you weren’t playing football right now, what would you be doing?
That’s tough to answer. I have no clue. I’ve always loved the impact that teachers have on children, being positive role models for them. I would like to think that I could make positive impacts on the youth. That would be something that I’d be proud of.
You’ve been playing in the NFL for over a decade. You suit up every Sunday, take your spot at the line, perform in front of thousands of fans live and millions more at home: What it is about football that still gets you so excited to put on your jersey every week?
I really enjoy the competitive nature of the game. Just knowing that I’m prepared and my team is prepared, and now we gotta go out there for 60 minutes and we have to execute. We have to deal with the ups, the downs, the lows, and the highs. That’s really what makes it so much fun. It’s the best reality TV show in the world, in my opinion. You never know what you’re gonna get no matter what the records are. The conditions always change in terms of the weather. There are just so many different variables that make it so much fun.