On April 24, 2004, the Arizona Cardinals made Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald the third overall selection in the NFL Draft.
He was chosen after QB Eli Manning and OT Robert Gallery, and before QB Philip Rivers, S Sean Taylor and QB Ben Roethlisberger, among many others.
To say the Cardinals made a good pick would be an understatement, as Fitzgerald has gone on to become the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving touchdowns and receiving yards while helping the organization reach heights it had never come close to.
But Fitzgerald, now 32 and about to enter his 13th season, has not always been “Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals great.” Just more than 12 years ago he was a 20-year-old football player with dreams of making it to the NFL and, while projected to be a high pick, had nothing guaranteed to him.
Thinking back to that time, Fitzgerald wrote an open letter to the 2016 NFL Draft class for the Players’ Tribune, and in it he explains to this year’s draft hopefuls that they should appreciate the situation they find themselves in — about to enter the NFL — while understanding how stressful this moment is.
He also offers words of caution:
I know many of you have been preparing for this opportunity since you were little kids. You’ve dreamt of seeing your name flash across TV screens around the country after hearing it called from the podium. That’s the payoff for a lifetime of hustle and determination. But this next leap is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. We all went through that shock early in college when you realized that you weren’t playing against high school kids anymore. You adjusted, and eventually excelled. But now in the NFL, there are no weak links. You’re playing against men – against professionals – and every single one of them is probably just as driven and passionate about this game as you are.
As a rookie, Fitzgerald caught 58 passes for 780 yards and eight touchdowns. He was good — not great — but it was not a shock to anyone that he would need some time to adjust to playing at the professional level. The following season he caught 103 passes for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns, and had officially arrived as a star.
It does not always work out that way, though, and Fitzgerald said one of the biggest things a young player can do is avoid putting too much stock into analysis of them — good or bad — because none of it will matter once they put on the pads and go to work. Fitzgerald noted how as a young player he surrounded himself with people who would not coddle him, and instead would tell him how things actually are. That went for on the field and off it.
If you do something bad, you need to have people in your life to call you out on it. If you’re blowing your first paycheck on flashy jewelry and taking out credit lines that you don’t even fully understand, you need someone to give you a damn wake up call. When I came into the league, I worked hard to keep my inner circle both small and honest. I recommend that you do the same. Some people won’t make the cut, but that’s just life.
The nine-time Pro Bowl selection went on to say that yes, the players should take some time to celebrate being drafted, but then need to turn their focus to making sure this is not the high point of their NFL career. To that end, he said it is important to, as a rookie, keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.
When I first came to the Cardinals, I tried to make sure I only caught the attention of the veterans because of my play on the field. I was fortunate to share a locker room with Emmitt Smith, and I was struck by the way he conducted himself. This guy was the leading rusher in NFL history, and he played 14 years in this league. I figured he must know a lot of things I didn’t, so I watched him closely. I watched the way he ate, how he trained and how he generally handled himself on a day-to-day basis. I learned so much just from watching Emmitt, and I’m really thankful that I had the opportunity to learn from him.
Smith played just two seasons for the Cardinals — the last two of his NFL career — and in 2004 ran for 937 yards and nine touchdowns. While his impact on the franchise was undoubtedly minimal in terms of statistics, to hear Fitzgerald tell it, the Hall of Famer played a significant role in the player he ultimately became.
One other thing Fitzgerald mentions is how important it is to work hard, and he singled out a couple of his current teammates as prime examples.
I’ve worked with several guys who worked extremely hard. Two of the best players on our team right now are Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were also two of the hardest working rookies I’ve ever been around. You never heard a thing from either of those guys. Never. They didn’t speak a lot, but when it came to practice and conditioning, they were always first. First guys in the building, last guys to leave. They had the mindset that they were going to come in and be productive players. They didn’t say it, they showed it. That’s a good example to follow.
Fitzgerald finishes the letter by acknowledging how overwhelming this time can be for a young player, chances are this will not be the last time they do not know where they will be playing next. He points out how it is rare for someone to play a long career with one team, so it would be wise to expect a little more uncertainty down the road.
From there, the receiver then imparts one final piece of wisdom, saying once drafted, the time for the real work will begin.
Continue to push yourself to become a better athlete and a better person every day. And recognize that you are now a pillar of your community. A lot of kids are going to look up to you, so recognize that and try to serve as a good example for them. Be an asset to your organization on and off the field, and you’ll have a very long career in this league. I promise you that.
Congratulations for what you’ve accomplished thus far and for what’s to come. You’ve earned it.
See you on Sunday,
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