Larry Fitzgerald wants to continue to raise bar as Cardinals’ Walter Payton NFL Man of Year

Dec 9, 2016, 10:28 AM | Updated: 11:35 am
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) adjusts the hat of one of the people holding ...
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) adjusts the hat of one of the people holding the flag during the national anthem before an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Before Michael Bidwill walked over to the microphone to speak with reporters Thursday afternoon, receiver Larry Fitzgerald announced that it was the team president’s birthday Monday and to offer well wishes.

“It was Tuesday, but that’s alright,” Bidwill answered, to laughter.

It was a rare instance where Fitzgerald swung and missed while trying to do the right thing.

Bidwill then went on to talk for nearly six minutes about Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals’ Walter Payton NFL Man of the year, going over the many charities he is involved with and various acts of kindness he has performed.

It’s a long list.

Whether it’s the First Down Fund or the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund or the trips he has taken to speak with and support members of the military, to visiting hospitals and helping feed the homeless, the face of the franchise has had his hands full giving.

“He’s given here, locally, in so many different ways it’s hard to count,” Bidwill proclaimed. “You look at the different things here as a teammate — everybody knows that Larry has his different foundation fundraisers; we also have a lot of other players that have been having fundraisers themselves. The one player you can count on to see in attendance at every one of those is Larry Fitzgerald.

“And it’s just not for the Cardinals, but you see him at Diamondbacks players foundations, you see him at Suns players foundations, you see him at Coyotes players foundations. You see him at so many different other things that he’s doing around the community, in addition to his own and his teammates’ foundations.”

Bidwill then summed his position up rather nicely.

“There’s no sports star in Arizona history that has done more than Larry Fitzgerald,” he said.

As the team’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, Nationwide presented a $10,000 check to Fitzgerald, while he will receive a $50,000 donation to the charity of his choice and another $50,000 donation in his name to help implement the Character Playbook program in Arizona.

Fitzgerald is one of 32 players from around the league to qualify to be the league’s 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year, with the winner being announced in Houston at the NFL Honors prior to the Super Bowl.

Fitzgerald, who was one of three finalists for the overall award in 2012, called this a “tremendous honor,” and in typical fashion, made sure to thank the Cardinals organization as well as his various teammates who also help out in the community.

“This award, the Walter Payton Award, to me, is the one award that I think off the field represents really what it should be about,” Fitzgerald added. “A lot of times in the media you hear about the negativity,and it’s great to always have a positive connotation when you’re being portrayed in the media, and to be a part of that, it means a great deal to me.”

The idea of giving back to the community has been something Fitzgerald has had since he joined the Cardinals in 2004, with his charity functions and events being a regular occurrence throughout the year. He said his mother, Carol, used to tell him when he was young that everyone had 24 hours in a day, and what they did with that time was up to them.

“There’s a lot of kids and people that just don’t have it great, and I think it’s important for you to get out and try to spread some cheer, spread some love,” Fitzgerald said. “When I go to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and you see children who are battling for their lives and dealing with just unbelievable circumstances, and you see the charisma and the character of the parents and the willingness of the doctors and nurses — that stuff, it really just energizes me, because those people, they could complain, they could be down, their spirits could be down and out, but they stay encouraged.

“When I go and I leave, I feel encouraged; I feel like I need to be a little bit in a better mood when I leave because their attitudes are so positive. And so, I get just as much as I give, to be honest with you, if not more.”

The truth is, everyone benefits.

Fitzgerald’s willingness and desire to help stems from his feeling of responsibility to be a good example in the community. As great as it is to catch touchdowns, he said, football is just a game and it’s important to pay attention to the things that really matter.

“The game of life is much more important, and I think the guys in this locker room understand that, and that’s why I really, really love being an Arizona Cardinal,” he said.

To Fitzgerald, however, the things he has done over his career that helped him earn this award are the things he felt like he was supposed to do. He made sure to point out how he is not the only player to win the award, and is pleased to be part of the tradition.

Kurt Warner, who was the Cardinals’ winner in 2008, ended up being chosen as the overall winner, and received his award prior to Super Bowl XLIII — in which Arizona was a participant.

“Well that was pretty cool because we were all on the sideline right before the National Anthem and Kurt was standing there on the podium with Mrs. Payton and receiving his award,” Fitzgerald remembered. “That was really special; I think he’s got to be the only one that was actually in uniform to accept the award, so to have two Cardinals do that, that would be pretty cool.”

For that to happen, Fitzgerald and the Cardinals will have to do more on the football field. That, everyone would see, but is also a conversation for a different time.

For now, the 33-year-old future Hall of Famer has been honored for what he does off the field, much of which people are aware of.

Bidwill, however, made sure to point out how many of the player’s good deeds go unannounced.

“When I think about probably the day that really typifies what Larry Fitzgerald’s all about, it’s this Thanksgiving, just a couple weeks ago,” Bidwill said. “Larry’s day went like this: at 5:50 in the morning he was out the door to come here (to the facility) to get treatment. He gets his treatment, he goes to his meetings, he goes to a very physical practice that day.

“Immediately after he leaves, he goes and picks up two deep-fried turkeys: one for my dad — he just wanted to visit my dad; my dad’s had kind of a tough year, losing my mom, and I know he wanted to visit him — but dropping off that turkey and spending some time with my father, I thought it was just tremendous. But he knew that here’s an older gentleman that probably needed a visit, and he knew it would lift up his spirits. He did.”

Bidwill noted that from there, Fitzgerald went to his own family’s Thanksgiving. But the receiver’s day was not done.

“And then from there, he went down to St. Vincent de Paul and served food to the homeless and to the underprivileged for hours. And then from there, at the end of the day, when every kid at Phoenix Children’s Hospital thought that all the visits were over and sort of the end of the day’s there, and everybody’s a little bit sad that all the excitement (is over), in comes Larry Fitzgerald and lifts everybody’s spirits up one more time.”

Fitzgerald, Bidwill said, is a guy who could be doing anything he wants on a day like that, but chose to spend his time in service of others.

“When I think about it, in the history of this franchise, there’s no doubt in my mind there’s no player that has done more for the community than Larry Fitzgerald,” he said.

Without Bidwill telling the story, that day — in its entirety — would have gone essentially unnoticed. For Fitzgerald, he probably would have preferred it that way. Never the most outspoken or flamboyant player, he seemed a bit uncomfortable standing by while his boss was heaping praise on him.

“You guys have been around me a long time, I’m kind of very uncomfortable talking about that type of stuff,” he said. “But I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Bidwill. Not only has he drafted me to come here, he’s led by example and really shown me the way just overall as a man.

“We’ve had so many talks about life and just doing the right things, and you know, him setting that example for me and then coming up here and talking about some of the things that I’ve done, it’s truly humbling and it lets me know that it matters, it’s important as a player here, and I need to continue to keep raising the bar.”

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