Whatever wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald does, whenever he does it, his teammates are watching.
Whether it’s diving for catches during a Thursday practice or secretly visiting children in the hospital on Thanksgiving, his teammates are learning from his example.
Fitzgerald’s influence has spread throughout the Arizona Cardinals’ locker room. His teammates have begun practicing like him, dressing like him and trying to impact the community like him.
“You see guys creating foundations and doing things in the community to try to model his, which is tough to model,” coach Bruce Arians said. “But more than anything, all our wide receivers block. Everybody practices hard, especially in that room, and that’s what you ask of all your veterans, is to set an example in your room.
“He’s as good as it gets.”
Fitzgerald’s résumé speaks for itself: 13 seasons, 10 Pro Bowls, seven 1,000-yard seasons, third-most catches all time, ninth-most yards all time. He’d get a pass if he took it easy in practice to keep his 33-year-old legs fresh. Just this season, Arians started giving Fitzgerald Wednesdays off — and Fitzgerald wasn’t a fan at first.
“Just watching him practice, watching him come to work every day, watching him in the training room, he’s the consummate pro,” center A.Q. Shipley said. “It’s incredible watching a guy who’s played as long as he has in the league going out on a Thursday when we’re not in pads, diving for balls, never taking a play off in practice.
“That’s one of the main things I’ve grown to just be in awe of, watching a guy that’s played that long and never misses a treatment session, he’s always practicing — even on Wednesdays, I think they kind of forced him to not practice at this point. Just watching how hard he works every day, it’s no question as to why he’s as good as he is.”
Second-year wide receiver J.J. Nelson took note of Fitzgerald’s work ethic early in his rookie season and it helped shape his career thus far.
“He’s 30-plus and he comes in each and every day to work,” Nelson said. “To me, that made me feel like I don’t have any excuses. I feel like I should do the same thing.”
There are others in the Cardinals’ locker room who have learned the same thing.
When cornerback Patrick Peterson was drafted in 2011, Fitzgerald was among the first veterans to start working with the first-round pick. While training with Fitzgerald, Peterson picked up tips on how to approach his first NFL season, as well as how to handle life off the field — especially when a season doesn’t go as planned.
“The thing about those guys, they stick to the script,” Peterson said. “They stick to the process no matter how bad the season is, no matter how bad the situation may be. They’re still going to do what got them there and being on the team with those guys, that definitely taught me a lot. I believe that’s why I go at the game the way I do (from) just being around those guys.”
In four seasons as Fitzgerald’s teammate, running back Andre Ellington has watched Fitzgerald’s leadership techniques evolve.
“He’s involved more as a leader,” Ellington said. “He’s leading everyone in the locker room.
“I noticed he’s more open. He’s more cool with leading now. He tries to make the best of it.”
Ellington has watched Fitzgerald pull teammates aside. On Wednesdays, Fitzgerald’s day off, Ellington said he’s as much of a coach as he is a player.
Fitzgerald doesn’t like to push “anything on anybody.” It’s not his style as a leader, instead opting to lead by example.
But Fitzgerald doesn’t shy away from talking with players, getting in their ear about what they need to do to flourish in the NFL. He should know. Fitzgerald’s endorsements include Nike, Bose and University of Phoenix, among other national brands.
He’s begun sharing his experiences and personal lessons with second-year Cardinals running back David Johnson, imparting whatever wisdom he can and passing down some of the tips he learned from veterans like Emmitt Smith. One of the most important lesson Fitzgerald learned is how to present himself for the media.
“Like after the game … make sure you’re fully dressed because the public never sees you besides with your helmet on when they’re watching,” Fitzgerald said. “The only time they get to talk to you is when you’re addressing the media. Be sharp, be buttoned up. Somebody might be home, some CEO of a company (might) say, ‘You know what man? Not only is he a great football player, but he’s well dressed, he’s well spoken, I want him to serve as a sponsor for my company.’ You never know.
“Things like that, I just try to talk to him about.”
Fitzgerald did the same with safety Tyrann Mathieu after he was drafted in 2013.
Over the last four seasons, Mathieu has picked up on Fitzgerald’s generosity, which has been channeled into his First Down Fund. But Fitzgerald also does good deeds on his own. On Thanksgiving, he brought a fried turkey to Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill at home before serving food at St. Vincent de Paul and surprising children at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
“He’s still humble by his accomplishments, so I think that says a lot about him as a person,” Mathieu said.