Sometimes the last, small steps to greatness begin deep in the soul, in a private place coaches and teammates can never reach. A year ago, as a freshman wideout at Pittsburgh, Larry Fitzgerald caught 69 passes for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns and was named All-Big East. He was a very good player, but well short of dominant. A year later he is one of the best college players in the country, a transcendent receiver who demands that defenses rewrite their game plans, fans remain anchored to their seats and Heisman voters write his name somewhere on their ballots. This ascent began in a most unlikely manner, with a heartbreaking telephone call.
Early last April, Fitzgerald's mother, Carol, 47, lay in a Minneapolis hospital, racked with a cancer that had taken root in one of her breasts six years earlier, spread to her lungs and now reached her brain. Fitzgerald's father, Larry Sr., called his son and told him, "You've got to come home."
The words terrified Fitzgerald. "Coming home meant missing school," he says. "My mother never let me miss school. If I'd have had a broken leg, she'd have wheelchaired me to school. So I knew it had to be the worst." He flew home from Pittsburgh on the morning of April 8, as his mother was about to have surgery to relieve the swelling—and the pain—in her skull. Fitzgerald needed to see his mother. When he had last visited during spring break in March, they had argued over a matter that Fitzgerald prefers to keep private, and they had spoken little since then. When Fitzgerald arrived at the hospital, his father told him that Carol had stopped breathing before the surgery had begun and was being kept alive by a respirator. "He never got to talk to his mother, and they never got things set-tied between them," says Larry Sr. Two days later, after doctors said that Carol had no chance of recovering, she was removed from life support and died.
Two weeks ago Larry Sr., an offensive tackle at Indiana State from 1975 through '77 and still a bear of a man—300 pounds, he says, "give or take a biscuit"—sat in a wide recliner in his south Minneapolis living room, weeping softly as he recalled his wife's death and his son's reaction to it. "He was so overwhelmed with grief because they never patched things up," he said. "I told him, 'Don't you carry that with you, Larry. Your mother loved you and you loved her. Don't take any other feelings out of this room today.' "
That would not be easy. "It still troubles me," says Fitzgerald. He went back to Pittsburgh, sought solace in training and plunged headlong into preparation for his sophomore season. Other players lifted weights for two hours; he lifted for four. Other players went out at night; he studied tape at the football complex. He put up a wall around himself and reinforced it when his teammate and close friend Billy Gaines, a sophomore wideout, was killed in a freak accident last June. Gaines fell to his death from a catwalk in a Pittsburgh church.
"I wanted to do anything to avoid being alone with my thoughts," says Fitzgerald. He put 15 pounds onto his 6'3" frame to get up to 225 and at the same time improved what Pittsburgh strength coach Dave Kennedy calls his "speed burst." Through every long day, he tapped his grief for strength and emerged as the best receiver in the college game.
Last Saturday night, as wintry winds sliced through Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Fitzgerald's brilliant season ended with a thud in a 28-14 loss to Miami that cost the Panthers (8-4) a piece of the Big East championship and their first BCS bowl berth. In a demonstration of why it's so difficult for a receiver to control a game (and win the Heisman), Miami sacked Pitt senior quarterback Rod Rutherford nine times and draped two defenders on Fitzgerald all night, a cornerback in press man-to-man coverage and a safety sitting behind him. Fitzgerald caught just three passes for 26 yards but still was able to extend his NCAA-record streak for consecutive games with a touchdown catch to 18.
Even that lopsided defeat was a testament to Fitzgerald's ability, a reminder of what he has achieved on a flawed team. He finished the regular season with a school-record 87 receptions and leads the nation with 132.9 receiving yards per game. He has done all this for a team that supports its passing game with a rushing attack that is ranked 98th (115 yards per game) and against opponents that have concocted special defensive schemes just to stop him. "Almost every week teams showed us some defense they'd never shown anybody before," says Rutherford. "So we'd go to the sideline and chalk up some way to get Larry the ball."
These improvisations have often yielded spectacular results. In an audiovisual suite filled with monitors and VCRs on the second floor of Pitt's football complex, Panthers video coordinator Chad Bogard cues up The Best of Larry Fitzgerald like a kid giddily climbing through the highest levels of Tomb Raider.
There's the diving touchdown catch in last year's 38-13 Insight Bowl victory over Oregon State, in which Fitzgerald sprinted under a Rutherford bomb, then pitched himself forward to catch the pass while parallel to the ground. Or the post pattern in Pitt's 37-26 win over Texas A&M on Sept. 27, in which Fitzgerald, sandwiched between two defenders on a dead run, leaped and corkscrewed his body to make the catch at the back of the end zone. The official called him out of bounds, but the video shows otherwise, as Fitzgerald extends his left foot onto the turf, inbounds, as if it were disconnected from his leg.