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It's been six years since Larry Fitzgerald's wife died, and yet when you call his house, it's her voice on the message machine.
"My sons asked me to keep it," says Fitzgerald, father of All-Galaxy wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., of the suddenly Super Bowl-bound Cardinals. "If they were having a tough day, they wanted to be able to call and hear her voice. It's comforting to them."
That's what makes his son's trip to Tampa bittersweet for him. Every year since 1981, the longtime Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder sportswriter has covered the Super Bowl. Beginning in 1983, his wife, Carol, joined him. "She loved the Commissioner's Party," he says.
Now he's going to be covering a Super Bowl in which their elder son is the most electrifying player in it. He's already broken Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a single postseason, and he's still got one game to go. So it's going to be murder for Larry Sr. not to violate that no-cheering-in-the-press-box rule.
"I won't cheer," Fitzgerald says. "I'm going to stay objective. I've come too far to suddenly show up in the press box with pompoms. But if you could put a monitor on my insides, you'd find a whole fan club in there."
If it were my son, I'd go into the bathroom every three minutes and scream into the blow dryer, but not Fitzgerald. He's so old school he's going to be two people during the big week, parent and sportswriter, and never the twain shall meet. "I'm not crossing any lines," he says. He'll take Larry Jr. to dinner at night off the record and interview him during the days on, the first sportswriter anyone can think of to ever cover his own son in the Super Bowl. "I'll be at his interview table, trying to get my questions in, just like everybody else."
OK, the older guy. Kinda looks like me. Go ahead.
What's ironic is that the young Fitzgerald is a rather beige interview — and we have a sportswriter to blame for it. The old man always preached: Answer the question that's asked. But only the question that's asked. Don't add anything. When you win, say little. When you lose, say less. Pass the praise around.
Hey, Larry, you trying to get kicked out of the guild?
The 25-year-old Fitzgerald calls the 53-year-old one "Mr. Emotional" and this past week the meter was pinned on High. Larry Sr. was supposed to go to the Obama inauguration, but then his 6-foot-3 son helped torch the heavily favored Panthers, forcing Dad to blow off political history for football history—the first NFC Championship in Arizona. For a man who grew up in Obama's Chicago, who was once fired by Minneapolis radio station KFAN, who sued for discrimination and then settled out of court, that wasn't easy.
"I always had this dream that Larry would play in a Super Bowl," he says, "but never, ever did I think we'd have a black president."
Obama is a football freak, so he'll be watching next Sunday when the world finally gets a load of Fitzgerald's son — the anti-T.O .— a receiver who catches everything and brags about nothing, who climbs his own invisible staircase to get to footballs, who dresses and speaks impeccably and travels the world alone in the offseason, taking in museums.
"He looks so much like his mother," says Larry Sr. "He has her humility, her smile and her stubbornness."
Carol died of a brain hemorrhage while battling breast cancer on April 10, 2003. "She hated for her boys [Marcus is 23 now] to miss even a day of school. By the time I got Larry back [from the University of Pittsburgh], she'd slipped into a coma. You make your decisions and you live with them, but it's still difficult."
No wonder Junior still carries his mom's driver's license in his wallet. No wonder he wears his hair in long dreads — as she did — to honor her. And now this Samson comes into the Big Bowl as one of the main pillars the Steelers have to topple.
"I tell you, I've been sticking needles in my skin just to see if this is all real," says Senior. "I've been in this business so long, covered so many great athletes — from Jordan to Magic to Kirby Puckett. And to see your own son understand what greatness is all about, to have him be the one who says, 'Listen guys, we're going to win this. Follow my lead.' Man, it's just … gratifying."
And if the seven-point-dog Cardinals happen to win it, and you happen to see some reporter come up to No. 11 and hug him until he cries, forgive the guy will you?
Some lines you can't help cross.