GLENDALE, Ariz. – They hovered around the 30-yard line, a receiving line of sorts for the dignitary in red and black. There was Matt Cassel lurking behind Frank Ragnow, LeGarrette Blount and Don Muhlbach hanging on the periphery; Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs off to the side.
Lion-by-Lion they waited for a couple of moments with Larry Fitzgerald. Some wanted to congratulate him. Others wanted to catch up. A rookie told him how much he looked up to him.
Detroit beat Arizona 17-3, but the game’s seminal moment came with a fairly innocuous catch in the third quarter. It was Fitzgerald’s first against the Lions, a 14-yard haul that broke Jerry Rice’s mark for receptions with a single team.
Rice had 1,281 catches with San Francisco. Fitzgerald now has 1,286 catches for Arizona and the moment – and the man – has a place in the minds of many Lions players even though he’s an opponent instead of a teammate.
“I wish we would have stopped the game and gave him a round of applause,” Slay said. “But we didn’t. You know what I’m saying. I would have. That’s a special moment, man. He’s one of the greatest players to probably wear a Cardinals jersey.
“So yeah, he’s amazing.”
The Lions played Fitzgerald well, keeping the future Hall of Famer to five catches for 55 yards. It was the first catch that mattered, the one that gave State Farm Stadium its loudest cheer all day.
It’s just the Aura of Larry. Fitzgerald is the same guy who congratulated Diggs on his contract extension – signed earlier this season – during the game. It’s why Diggs was comfortable congratulating Fitzgerald on his accomplishment in the course of play, too. Fitzgerald is the guy who actually prevented Nevin Lawson from possibly ending up in a situation that could have led to an injury Sunday – “he pulled me out of it.” When Fitzgerald did that, Lawson thought to himself, “that’s a good guy.”
There’s a level of respect that seems different than other players. The NFL is full of prideful men. When it comes to Fitz, there’s no trash talk. There’s just the understanding Fitzgerald is going to try and outwork you and be as classy as he can doing it.
“I wish they stopped the game. He needs that,” Diggs said. “Man, he’s the man. He’s the man, brother. Any time you can share the field with a Hall of Famer and anybody so humble as him, man, it’s a blessing. I’m just thankful to be here and to be able to compete against guys like that.”
And that goes back to the line after the game. It wasn’t just the cornerbacks and safeties waiting on him.
Ragnow, the rookie offensive lineman, told Fitzgerald he looked up to him growing up and that, like Fitzgerald, he was a Minnesotan. After Fitzgerald broke the mark, he couldn’t help but notice “it’s cool to see how much the fans freaking love that guy.” In their brief conversation, Ragnow said Fitzgerald told him “us Minnesota boys gotta represent.”
Cassel, occasional offseason golf buddies with Fitzgerald, used it as time to congratulate him and to catch up briefly about families.
“To be able to go up and congratulate him,” Cassel said. “Especially considering him one of my friends, was a pretty cool moment.”
Muhlbach, who came out of college the same year as Fitzgerald, told him “congrats, old man.” Muhlbach said he laughed. The two of them have faced each other going back to college at Pitt and Texas A&M.
Muhlbach recalls now “he tore us up and been watching him this whole time.” (Fitzgerald had seven catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns for Pitt in one of the games.) He’s also one of the few players who had been around Detroit when Calvin Johnson broke another Rice record – the single-season receiving yards mark. He understands what the gravity of the moment is, no matter what team you’re on.
“Oh yeah, it’s super special,” Muhlbach said. “He’s been doing it at that high a level for that long. It’s something that should be celebrated.”
A combination of Slay, Lawson and others matched up on the 35-year-old throughout the day. Lawson said Fitzgerald actually encouraged him throughout the game whenever they matched up on each other.
“What’s more important to me to say is that I got to match up against Larry Fitzgerald,” Lawson said. “I’m able to tell my kids that, ‘Hey, I played against Larry Fitzgerald.’"
One of the last players to talk with him was Blount, who embraced him in a large bear hug. Told him after the game it was good to see him and that they’d talk in the offseason when Blount ends up back out in Arizona.
Like everyone else, he got exactly how big of a deal Sunday was for Fitzgerald and even for those who just got to witness it.
“You have to realize how special it is,” Blount said. “It’s something that you can’t not acknowledge. You have to acknowledge how special it is and how great of a player and how great a career he’s had so far, 224 games with a catch, that’s unreal. There’s guys out here who haven’t even played half that many games, not even a quarter of that many games. So to have that many games in a row to have a catch, that’s ... ”
Then Blount trailed off for a second and made sure he got his thoughts exactly right.
“And sometimes God just makes special people,” Blount said. “He’s one of those.”