Larry Fitzgerald feels 'a responsibility to the game' to pass on knowledge

Just as veteran players did for him coming up, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, right, has become a mentor to players such as A.J. Green. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Larry Fitzgerald has one rule when it comes to mentoring players: He doesn't reach out to them. He lets them come to him on their own.

Early in his career, Fitzgerald remembered veteran receivers giving him unsolicited advice. Sometimes he listened. Sometimes he didn't.

But when Fitzgerald needed help or just to vent, he knew he could reach out to the older players he'd befriended.

Hall of Fame pass-catcher Shannon Sharpe has helped Fitzgerald through some of the most important periods of his career, from when Fitzgerald was seriously contemplating leaving the Arizona Cardinals to chase a ring elsewhere to when Fitzgerald was moved from an outside receiver to the slot by former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians in 2013.

"We've had some very in-depth conversations, some very hard conversations," Sharpe said. "I think the thing with me and Larry is he knows I'm going to give him the truth, and I feel that's what he would want me to do, not sugarcoat it, not tell him what he wants to hear.

"But tell him what he needs to know."

Throughout his 15-year NFL career, Fitzgerald made a habit of establishing friendships with fellow receivers, both older and younger than him. He's been mentored by some of the best in the game -- Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, Torry Holt, Sharpe -- and has become a mentor to the next generation of star receivers -- Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green, Jarvis Landry, Dez Bryant, Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Demaryius Thomas and Keenan Allen, among others.

"I've always reached out to the guys ahead of me because they've done everything that I was trying to do and they went through everything I'm experiencing so I could get that good information," Fitzgerald told ESPN.

Holt, who played 11 years for the Rams and Jaguars, said he's never seen a player network like Fitzgerald.

As for the current crop of younger receivers, Fitzgerald, 35, said he's "cool" with pretty much all the top receivers except the "really, really young guys."

Fitzgerald feels an obligation to pass his wealth of knowledge onto younger receivers, just as the older players did with him.

"I remember Cris Carter told me when I first got in the league, he said, 'Make the game better than it was when you got in. You have a responsibility to grow the game,'" Fitzgerald said. "When I see these young guys getting these big contracts, it was me and Calvin Johnson that set that bar. You have a responsibility to continue to grow the game financially, on the football field, raising the numbers, giving guys a higher mark to set for.

"We all have a responsibility to the game. The relationships you're able to develop with people outside of the game and things you're able to do because of the game of football, these are all knowledge I want to impart to these guys."

And he has.

Green met Fitzgerald through a mutual acquaintance while at the University of Georgia. From there, a relationship bloomed.

"The guy has been playing for a long time at a high level, so anything I need to ask, I always hit him up and he'll hit me up right back," Green said.

Fitzgerald's best advice to Green: "Stay humble and do your job."

Similar to the guidance he offered Hopkins.

"He's given me great advice about being a pro's pro," Hopkins said. "About how to carry yourself on the field and off the field, so the best advice he has given me was just to be a professional all around, not just when the lights are on.

"He's who I look up to as a player, as a person off the field."

Fitzgerald learned from his own mentors. The first time he met Holt was after Fitzgerald's first NFL game in 2004. By then, Holt already had been keeping tabs on Fitzgerald, a prolific college receiver at Pittsburgh who went third overall in the 2004 draft. Holt knew they shared a position but then found out they shared something else: Both of their mothers had died from cancer.

"That, in itself, was very natural for us to build the relationship with each other because we both experienced the losses of our moms," Holt said.

Fitzgerald and Holt have stayed in touch, talking "fairly often." They've helped each other's charities, and Fitzgerald used to call Holt for scouting reports on defenses and defensive backs like Holt used to reach out to Isaac Bruce, Ricky Proehl and Ray Agnew. Holt, like Fitzgerald does now, felt an obligation to pay it forward, so he mentored the likes of Anquan Boldin, Chad Johnson, Steve Smith and Fitzgerald.

But it was Fitzgerald who was the most persistent and consistent of that group, Holt said.

"He's a student of the game; he's a student of life," Holt said. "Even though all the success he's had as a player to this point, he's still trying to get better. He's still reaching out to veteran guys."

Five years ago, when Arians moved Fitzgerald inside for the first time in his career, Fitzgerald called Sharpe, a tight end who often played out of the slot, and the two talked for 45 minutes about changing positions and coaches.

"I said, 'Look at it like this: They think more of you. They got a lot of guys they want to get on the field that they don't feel comfortable putting in the slot.' I just explained to him, 'Fitz, you're great. It doesn't matter where you play -- you're going to be great,'" Sharpe said. "And I think it's helped him. I think he's added value to the team.

"He's still Fitz. He's still No. 11. He's still one of the best receivers of his generation, and he's going to have a gold jacket five years after he hangs them up."