DAN BICKLEY

Larry Fitzgerald takes plunge into stepping out of comfort zone

Jun 12, 2020, 6:05 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2020, 8:43 pm
Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, gives a tribute during memorial service ...
Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, gives a tribute during memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, Pool)
(AP Photo/Matt York, Pool)

Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t make enemies or political statements. He doesn’t polarize the audience. He works diligently to assure his headlines are made on the field. He is Arizona’s goodwill ambassador. He is America’s trusted friend. His entire career should be a training manual for young athletes.

But entering his 17th season in the NFL, Fitzgerald is taking the plunge. He and his 12-year son marched with protesters through downtown Minneapolis. At age 37, he is stepping out of his comfort zone for matters larger than the end zone.

This isn’t like him. But that’s exactly the point.

“One day, I pray we’ll be able to look at the color of a person’s skin no differently than the shirt you are wearing or the shoe color you have, or the color of your eyes and hair,” Fitzgerald said during a Zoom conference with the media on Friday. “But it’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some understanding. It’s going to take a lot of education and people opening their hearts to things they didn’t think were possible in the past.

“But with the way things are going right now, it’s a lot more feasible than it was at any other time in history.”

This is a brave step for Fitzgerald, whose activism officially began with an op-ed piece in the New York Times. He told reporters on Friday that George Floyd was killed by police less than a mile from where he spent “the vast majority” of his childhood. He took plenty of time before speaking out on the issue, thereby amplifying his words.

Fitzgerald had a strong obligation to share his thoughts, at a time when silence is considered complicity. He’s part of a new breed of Cardinals, a young football team now featuring star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, one of the strongest social activists in the NFL.

Fitzgerald is also one of Minnesota’s leading hometown athletes, a designation he wears like a badge of honor.

He did not disappoint. And it’s a fresh, new look for the most popular athlete in Arizona history, a man who is very opinionated off the record but rarely critical of anyone in public settings, always choosing to say nothing rather than nothing good. Except when jabbing sportswriters, including his own father.

On Friday, he explained why:

“I really don’t care what somebody that can catch a football or dunk a basketball says, to be honest with you,” he said. “I just don’t. I’m not influenced by some singer or rapper. I’m just not influenced by that. The people that we want to hear from is the politicians on the federal level and the local level, because at the end of the day, they’re the ones that truly affect the way we live our lives, the way our communities are policed, the sentencing of people who commit crimes. All the things that are playing out on a day-to-day basis are all direct results of our elected officials.

“I’m not naïve to the fact that people look up to people in positions with platforms. And I’m not naïve to the fact that we can potentially make an impact. I’m just talking about me personally. I’m not really moved one way or the other by the opinion of somebody that’s not legislative or is not somebody that’s been voted in by the public.”

As he nears retirement, Fitzgerald has lined up a goldmine of post-career business opportunities. He befriended Suns owner Robert Sarver, a relationship that led to his purchasing a small chunk of the team. He hangs out with CEO’s and ex-Presidents and America’s power elite. He golfs with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, a pair of icons who have mastered the art of not angering the fan base.

Could you imagine Fitzgerald taking a knee during the national anthem, a beloved athletic figure risking that kind of inevitable backlash, the kind he’s avoided his entire career?

Fitzgerald said he’ll cross that bridge at a later date. Besides, he is exactly the kind of athlete this moment requires: a user-friendly superstar who specializes in networking, connecting people of all backgrounds, capable of moving large crowds in the right direction. He’s a unifier.

And before he was done on Friday, he said something powerful, something about the cheapness of words, the kind he’s long avoided.

“Now it’s about the action, right?” he said. “It’s about serving the community. Closing the divide.”

With that, Fitzgerald officially broke from the mold. When he returns to Arizona, he said he’s “definitely going to make sure my presence is felt.”

Welcome to the wild side, Larry. Here’s betting you’ll be great; much-needed; well-received; and right on time. Like always.

Dan Bickley

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Larry Fitzgerald takes plunge into stepping out of comfort zone