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Larry Fitzgerald wins first Art Rooney Award for sportsmanship

PHOENIX -- Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t go out of his way to be respectful of his opponents.

It just happens. And they noticed.

Players from around the NFL voted the Arizona Cardinals receiver the first winner of the Art Rooney Award, which was established this year to reward one player for his sportsmanship. Fitzgerald received the award Saturday at the NFL Honors in downtown Phoenix in front of a crowd of his counterparts at Symphony Hall.

“Any time you get recognized by your peers, your teammates, it’s really humbling,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not a popularity contest, just guys’ authentic feelings, and it means a lot to me to be recognized as the first recipient of the Mr. Rooney Award.”

The sportsmanship Fitzgerald shows on the field -- helping opponents off the field or not trash talking a defender -- was developed when he played Pop Warner football.

“It’s just who I am,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s the way my parents raised me. I can always remember back to my first year of Pop Warner football. My coach, Don, he used to always preach sportsmanship to us. No matter if we win, we lose, we draw, you always have to respect your opponents and give them the respect that they deserve because they are competing and playing the same game that you are.”

The award, named after the founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who died in 1988, came with a $25,000 donation from the NFL Foundation to a charity of Fitzgerald’s choice. Fitzgerald was the Cardinals' nominee, was chosen as one of eight finalists across the NFL and eventually named the winner by a panel that included Warrick Dunn, Curtis Martin, Karl Mecklenburg and Leonard Wheeler.

Fitzgerald beat out Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway, Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, New England special-teamer Matthew Slater, Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith and Denver defensive end DeMarcus Ware.

Fitzgerald developed a unique connection to Rooney’s Steelers when Fitzgerald was at the University of Pittsburgh because the two teams shared a training facility.

“We saw them practice every single day and (I) got to know (Steelers owner) Mr. (Dan) Rooney very well,” Fitzgerald said. “I remember after we lost the Super Bowl to Pittsburgh, Mr. Dan Rooney came up to me and found me and shook my hand and still, just the class of that family and the way they run their organization, it was something that I recognized at an early age.”