Fitzgerald led the NFC in receptions and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons and last year tied for the league lead in touchdown catches with 12. It was all merely a warmup to the greatest postseason ever by a wideout. He set playoff marks for catches (30), yards (546), touchdowns (seven) and TD catches in consecutive games (four). As Arizona went deeper into the playoffs, Fitzgerald dug deeper into the record book to know what marks were within reach. "Everybody aspires to play big in the biggest games," he says. A three-time Pro Bowl selection and a 2008 All-Pro, Fitzgerald studies the greats who preceded him—he can recite Jerry Rice's stats as if they were his own—and uses their numbers and stories as motivation. "I need to be great," says Fitzgerald. "It's been my goal since I started playing ball."
Also pushing him is former Eagles and Vikings wideout Cris Carter, who's third alltime in receptions with 1,101 and has mentored Fitzgerald since Larry was a ball boy on the Vikings' sideline in the '90s. Carter knows how Fitzgerald is wired, which is why he refuses to join the rush to crown him the game's best receiver. He lists Randy Moss of New England, Andre Johnson of Houston and Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis as better. Fitzgerald knows what he has to do to join that club.
"I'm not even in my prime yet," says Fitzgerald, 26. "My best football is still ahead of me. That's exciting as heck. I've been able to raise my level of play every year, and I don't expect anything different this year or next year or the year after that. I'm going to continue to raise that bar."
In 2004, when Arizona selected Fitzgerald at No. 3 out of Pitt, the Minneapolis native was 20 years old—one of the youngest players ever to enter the NFL. Early on as a pro he still had much to learn, in particular he sometimes failed to push himself in practice or to extend himself in games when a play took him beyond his comfort zone. Over the last several seasons Fitzgerald's attitude changed dramatically. And he understands that greatness means making those around him better as well.
In the off-season he invited a handful of young teammates, including 2009 first-round pick Chris (Beanie) Wells, to stay at his house in Paradise Valley, Ariz., during workouts so that they could focus on football. And when Fitzgerald was home in Eden Prairie, Minn., in July, he put up Dominique Byrd, the Cardinals' newly signed tight end, and trained with him. Fitzgerald also organized a receivers camp for teammates and other NFL players, including Greg Jennings of Green Bay, Lee Evans of Buffalo and Brandon Marshall of Denver, paying some of their travel costs and securing a discount at a hotel near his house so the players could eat, Jet Ski and play basketball together.
"He's trying to take his game to a Hall of Fame level," says Cardinals G.M. Rod Graves, "and he realizes that some of these guys can help him get there."
The Supreme Athlete
At 6'3" and 217 pounds Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the league's best-conditioned players. The strength of his game is his ability to make leaping catches (he has a 38-inch vertical jump), particularly along the sideline or in the corner of the end zone on fades. He also has great hands and uncanny body control.