TEMPE, Ariz. -- Larry Fitzgerald knew he didn’t need a college degree.
At 32, he has enough money, fame and connections to find a career after football.
He could’ve explored the world for the past decade without the deadlines of a term paper or project lingering over his head. He could’ve spent his international flights enjoying the comfort of 35,000 feet without a reading for class in hand.
But there was the promise he wanted to keep.
Before Fitzgerald’s mother, Carol, died in April 2003 from breast cancer, she made her oldest son promise he’d finish his college degree. Fitzgerald remembers her saying, “Son, education is the one thing nobody can ever take from you. I know you have a passion to play ball, but education is something you can carry for the rest of your life.”
“I told her I would do it,” Fitzgerald told ESPN. “I wanted to make sure I was doing what I promised her I’d do.”
After making the promise, he spent one more season at the University of Pittsburgh before leaving for the NFL as a sophomore. Fitzgerald has quietly chipped away at his degree online over the past 12 years, taking a class here and a class there.
Fitzgerald received a degree in communications with a minor in marketing on Saturday from the University of Phoenix.
It may have taken Fitzgerald almost four times longer than the average student to finish his degree, but there was a method to the academic madness that is college.
He’d take 400-level classes during the offseason, opting for easier 200-level classes that required only two or three assignments per week during the season. Having a more structured schedule during the season gave Fitzgerald the time to get school work done. He said Mondays and Tuesdays were good days for homework because the Cardinals had lighter schedules. He’d also fit in school work on Fridays after practice and sometimes on Saturdays if he had the energy.
“If it wasn’t for online, there’s no way I would have been able to finish it,” Fitzgerald said. “I just wouldn’t have had the time to do it in the classroom."
Aside from being a nine-time Pro Bowler with nearly $130 million in career earnings who’s almost a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Fitzgerald was your typical student.
He’d work early in the morning or late at night, taking as much or as little time as he needed on an assignment. And like all of us, he had classes that were a thorn in his side. One was a communication rhetoric class. It required reading two or three books in six weeks and a lot of writing, he remembered. He was on pace to fail it twice before dropping it. He passed it on his third try.
“It was just very demanding in terms of the time I had to put in,” Fitzgerald said. “I had to really bear down and put focus on that.”
He also had group projects, in which he’d finish his part but would worry about his partners pulling their own weight.
But here’s one of the major differences between Fitzgerald and most every other college student: When he traveled, he often did homework or met with this group through Skype from another country.
Fitzgerald, whose offseason international vacations have become renowned throughout the NFL, would log in across the world. He remembered turning in assignments from Thailand and Brazil. He remembered emailing a professor from Ethiopia about the internet connection being weak and getting permission to send it in when he arrived in a country with more stable internet access.
“It wasn’t an easy process,” Fitzgerald said of the entire college experience.
But he stuck with it.
Education was important to Carol and Larry Sr. Her side of the family was well-educated. She was a teacher, as were her mother and two of her sisters. Her father was an optometrist.
“Everybody in her family got degrees, too,” Larry Fitzgerald Sr. said.
Larry Sr.'s mother graduated from high school and his father finished grade school, he said. But they made school a priority with their kids, all of whom went to college, Larry Sr. said.
“That’s how you make it in America,” Larry Sr. said. “That’s what my parents taught me -- education is how you go about being successful in life, so they made it a priority.
“We just do the same thing for our children. It’s important. That’s how you’ll be able to get from one stage to another. If you have dreams to try to do something, you got to do your grades first. That’s what they always emphasized with me and my brothers and sisters. So, all we did was sing the same song when I had a family: Just get it done.”
Carol was “very tough” when it came to homework, Larry Jr. said. With all her commitments -- her philanthropic work, the organizations she worked with and her full-time job -- Larry Jr. said he and his younger brother, Marcus, would usually do their homework at after-school programs.
By time Larry Jr. got to high school and became a budding football star, he thought he could rely on everything but his books to get by.
“I was a piss-poor student in high school,” Larry Jr. said. “Didn’t apply myself at all. Very average. Just did enough to get by. Thought I was going to be able to just slide by on good looks and charm, which didn’t work. That’s what landed me at Valley Forge Military Academy.”
His father said it wasn’t as bad as Larry Jr. remembers.
Carol was diagnosed with breast cancer when Larry Jr. was a freshman in high school and his grades started to slip.
“That’s when he realized things can happen if you’re not really focused,” Larry Sr. said. “He went through something tough when he kind of lost his focus and he thought his mom was going to pass, and his GPA dropped.
“And it hurt him.”
While schools continued recruiting Larry Jr., it started to become clear he was going to need to take a different route. Larry Sr. could empathize, and told his son he had to transfer to junior colleges before ending up at Indiana State University to play football.
“When you share your stories with your children about what you did, you let them know there are consequences if you’re not able to get things done in terms of your GPA,” Larry Sr. said. “He battled and got it back to as close as he could.”
In order to right his grades, Fitzgerald spent 18 months at Valley Forge, a prep school outside Philadelphia. There, he said, he became an honor-roll student.
“I was really good once I decided it was something I wanted to commit myself to,” Larry Jr. said.
“I had to put the work in. You know how some students didn’t do any work and it was just easy to them? I wasn’t that student. I had to work my ass off for my B.”
The days of studying are finally over for Larry Jr. No more sleepless or long nights doing school work.
His mother and father made education a priority with him. Now, with his degree in hand, Larry Jr. can follow in their footsteps and make it a priority with his two sons, Devin and Apollo.
"I’m proud of myself but now it just gives me a foot to stand on when I’m talking to Devin and Apollo about the importance of education," Larry Jr. said. "I'm not saying, 'Son, I want you to get your degree because it's important. I want you to do it because I did it.' I'm talking to them about it because it was important enough for me to do it.
"Did I need it no? No, I didn't. But it's something that I wanted and I put my mind to it and I focused on it and I was able to achieve it. That's the biggest lesson and the most important one for me."