On Nov. 15, in the first half of a 52-31 loss to West Virginia, Fitzgerald caught a fade on the sideline as Mountaineers cornerback Adam (Pac-Man) Jones drilled him (resulting in a pass interference penalty) and safety Brian King came over the top and smacked the ball with his hand. "I hit the ball hard and Pac-Man got called for pass interference and he still caught the ball," says King. "I looked at Pac-Man and said, 'We've got no answers for this guy.' " Fitzgerald's first-quarter touchdown catch in the same game also came despite a pass interference flag. "I like to decline pass interference," Fitzgerald says, devilishly.
The Fitzgerald highlight video lacks only one thing: showy celebrations. After each of his 34 career touchdown receptions, Fitzgerald has run to the referee and handed him the football. "Officials have enough to do without chasing the ball after somebody tosses it," he says. "I'm a receiver, I'm supposed to score touchdowns." Fitzgerald has made handing the ball to officials cool; high school kids in the Pittsburgh area have been doing it in recent weeks.
Fitzgerald is only modestly fast by the stopwatch, running the 40 in the 4.5-second range (although he promises that the next time he is timed, he will run in the 4.4s). But he has an unreal ability to react to a pass in the air. "It's like the football is a smart bomb and he's a target," says Pitt offensive coordinator J.D. Brookhart. He has the veteran's full arsenal of tricks, like bumping a defender off balance, not with an extended arm (obvious offensive interference), but a strong, coiled forearm (barely noticeable). According to one NFL scout, "Some receivers have physical ability and some guys have common sense [about how to play the game]. He has both." Some of Fitzgerald's physical gifts are simply amazing. During practice, Brookhart fires 15-yard spirals directly at Fitzgerald, who snags the ball one-handed, point-first, without the point reaching the palm of his hand. Try it sometime.
Remarkably, Fitzgerald played the last eight games of the season with a damaged ligament in his right hand. He suffered the injury in the Texas A&M victory but kept it secret from opponents. He protected his hand by wearing a soft cast in practice, but shed that for games.
In the near future, Fitzgerald will decide whether to join former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in challenging the NFL's rule prohibiting college players from entering the draft until three years after graduating from high school. There's little doubt that Fitzgerald is ready for the pro game. "He'll get picked first, second or third overall, no lower," says an NFL scout who has watched Fitzgerald numerous times in the last two years.
"I'll consider it when it's the right time," says Fitzgerald. It is worth noting, however, that his father's dining room table is littered with information on recent NFL first-round draft picks' contracts.
"Larry will make his own decision," says Larry Sr., who is the sports editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a 50,000-circulation weekly with a primarily African-American audience. "But I've talked to many people, and I think I have a pretty good idea what his ability level is, and what opportunities he'll have."
Whenever Fitzgerald leaves for the NFL, he will rejoin a world with which he is already familiar. From age 12 through high school, he worked as a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings, a gig that included spending six weeks living in a dorm during training camp at Mankato State University and often participating in drills with receivers like Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed. "We had ball boys every year, but very few of them could jump into a drill like Fitz could," says Carter.
"You could see even then, he had incredible hand-eye coordination," says Dennis Green, the Vikings' coach during Fitzgerald's ball boy days. "And he was also learning how professional athletes behave."
On Friday nights, when Fitzgerald's team at Academy of the Holy Angels High would play, Vikings players would often come to watch, rolling into the school parking lot in their massive SUVs, with music rattling nearby windows. "He was a man among boys in high school," says Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper. "I'm telling you, he had it all."