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Larry Fitzgerald wants to retire while still able to play at high level

Larry Fitzgerald speaks after Arizona's second training camp practice Sunday. (Twitter photo/@mikejurecki)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — As he does after nearly every Arizona Cardinals home game, Larry Fitzgerald walked up to the podium to answer some questions.

Only this time instead of a game, the team’s all-time leader in receptions, touchdowns and receiving yards spent most of his time prior to the team’s second training camp practice talking about the future.

Or, more specifically, his future.

Fitzgerald is beginning his 14th NFL season, and after considering retirement following Year 13, naturally, people wonder if this will be his finale.

Not surprisingly, the future Hall of Famer was not ready to make any declarations as to what his intentions are, but he did shed some light on his thought process.

It begins with making sure that when he does walk away, he does so while still being able to play at a high level.

“The end is never really pretty for elite athletes; it never looks good, most of the time,” he said. “You watch Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform or see Tony Dorsett playing for the Denver Broncos or Shaquille O’Neal playing for the Boston Celtics — I mean, it’s weird because you’re used to seeing them when they’re at their most dominant stage.”

Fitzgerald added Willie Mays, who was a shell of his former self in the final years of his career, as someone who’s end was “not pretty.”

“For me, I really want to be able to play and do things at a high level and be able to walk away and still be someone who can play at a high level. That’s something I pride myself on.

“I don’t want to be a stealer — I don’t want to steal like that.”

The third overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald’s career has taken a handful of turns and featured a good many high points.

Along with being productive, he is also incredibly popular, as evidenced by the deafening cheers from fans as he walked onto the field for the first training camp practice as well as the applause every time he catches a pass.

He is also known for his charitable work off the field, as he was named the co-winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for 2016.

A 10-time Pro Bowler, Fitzgerald has continued to remain productive even as his role and abilities have changed, and last season his 107 receptions led the league.

“When you get to 100, special things happen,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, after noting 80 receptions would constitute a good season. “He embraced (the role change) — he was always a student of the game — but he’s a better student of the game.”

If a decline is in Fitzgerald’s future, there has been no evidence to suggest it is nigh.

Yet, the 33-year-old does not plan on waiting for that to happen before making a decision, and with his contract up after the 2017 campaign, speculation will surely continue that this could, in fact, be his final season.

“I feel good right now,” Fitzgerald said when asked if that would be the case. He added that when he does call it a career, the announcement will not come at a podium with any fanfare or tears.

“That’s not how I am,” he said. “I’m just one player out of 1,600 in the National Football League and it’s a lot bigger than me. It’s never going to be like that.”

Arians said he will have no say in Fitzgerald’s decision, pointing out that retirement is up to every individual player and whether or not the fire to play still burns inside.

“I think both he and Carson (Palmer), they’re as young as anybody out there right now,” he said.

While Arians said he will not be in Fitzgerald’s ear about it, Fitzgerald said he often turns to other athletes for guidance and advice.

He cited Patriots QB Tom Brady, who is still playing, as well as Peyton Manning and Tony Gonzalez, both of whom retired after long, successful careers.

The goal is to pick their brains in order to better understand when the time will be right, because while the last thing an athlete generally wants to do is walk away too soon, Fitzgerald also does not want to hang on a year too long.

Sticking around to be a fourth option in the passing game who barely resembles the player he has been something he would struggle with.

With regular season totals of 1,125 catches, 14,389 yards and 104 touchdowns and another 57 receptions, 942 yards and 10 scores in the postseason already on his resume, whenever Fitzgerald walks away, he will do so as one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game.

He will also not be short on post-career options, as he said he has a “plethora” of interests outside of football. He is still passionate about the game, though, saying he enjoys being part of the team.

Fitzgerald understands it will not always be this way, and again, he would rather leave on his own terms, like former Lions star Calvin Johnson or San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan.

“There’s a lot of guys who just for some reason they say they want to move on and it’s time, not because they can’t play or because they were showed the exit,” he said. “Most times, athletes don’t have the chance to retire — they get retired.

“So when you do have the chance to retire, I think it’s a privilege and you have to understand that if you hang around too long you will eventually get retired, so I think you have to be honest with yourself and always kind of assess where you are.”

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