Larry Fitzgerald's place in the record books a long, winding road

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Once it was over, once Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald passed his childhood mentor and longtime friend Randy Moss to move into third place on the NFL's all-time receiving yards list on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, only then did Fitzgerald begin reflecting on what had taken place.

But that wasn't typical Fitzgerald.

He's not the type to bask in what he has accomplished while he's accomplishing it. He likes to say he'll wait until he's retired -- whenever that may happen -- to look back and admire his body of work. But this was different.

Of all the players in NFL history to catch passes, there are only two people -- Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens -- who have more yards to their name than Fitzgerald. Sunday carried extra meaning to Fitzgerald, however, because of the man he passed to get there.

Moss took Fitzgerald under his wing as a ball boy with the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Fitzgerald was a star high school receiver in Minneapolis. Fitzgerald watched Moss from a front-row seat, taking in not just Moss' awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping athleticism but the "humility he showed me."

"It means a lot to have my name there with him," Fitzgerald said.

But that nearly never happened.

A decision almost five years ago helped Fitzgerald get to Sunday, to scale the record books.

When coach Bruce Arians was hired in 2013, he wanted to move Fitzgerald into the slot, just like he had with Hines Ward in Pittsburgh and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. Fitzgerald, who'd been a career edge receiver and developed his reputation by making highlight-worthy catches down the field, moved inside, albeit reluctantly. His numbers dipped, but Fitzgerald felt like his career was extended.

From his rookie season of 2004 to 2012, his last season as a true edge receiver, Fitzgerald's 10,413 yards were the second most in the league to Reggie Wayne. From 2013 to the present day, Fitzgerald has 4,898 yards -- eighth most during that span. But his 448 receptions in the past five seasons were third most.

However, if Fitzgerald hadn't agreed to move inside, his career trajectory may have been, well, slightly different.

"I'd probably be sitting in your chair right now asking the questions," he said. "I think as a player, you are sometimes naïve to the things that you lose and don't always look at yourself the way other people see you. I think that's one of the negatives about being a professional athlete.

"Coach had a bigger picture and I just needed to understand that. Talking to Hines Ward and talking to Reggie Wayne definitely eased my concerns and helped me adjust to the move. When you do something for 10-plus years and you're All-Pro, you do it at a high level, you're one of the best in the business, it's tough to make that adjustment. It's the best thing that's happened to me. Coach, he breathed life into my career. It was going the wrong way."

Since Fitzgerald made the move, his career has gone one way: straight up the record books.

"Anything he gets is tremendous, at this point," Arians said. "There's just one or two other guys in the history of the game that have ever done it, so that kind of speaks for itself."

This is where Fitzgerald had always wanted to be.

When he came into the league as an overly confident, overly talented 20-year-old in 2004, he hoped to become one of the greatest receivers of all time.

"That's what you dream about," he said.

Those around him on a daily basis have seen the work Fitzgerald has put in to become one of the three best receivers to play the game.

"When older guys are taking days off, he's still practicing," center A.Q. Shipley said. "When older guys in practice may not dive for a ball, he dives for a ball. We get Victory Monday, and he's still going to be in here [today] getting treatment on whatever he needs to get treatment on. He does everything the right way."

What Fitzgerald continues to accomplish at age 34 is "remarkable," defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. Not just because Fitzgerald is at a point in his career and life when he should, by most standards, begin slowing down, but because he's doing what he set out to do.

"Guys want to talk about being great, but being great is a process to get there and it's a lot of work when no one's looking and obviously, he put the work in and that's why he's getting the success he has," Rucker said.

Fitzgerald's teammates know what they're watching.

They understand the historical significance, even when Fitzgerald tries to brush it off.

In 20 years, Shipley knows he'll look back at playing with Fitzgerald and think "it was pretty awesome to play with that guy."

Linebacker Karlos Dansby, who was part of Fitzgerald's draft class in Arizona, said it's "a beautiful thing" to watch history unfold in person.

"Oh man, it's awesome," Dansby said. "Third on the all-time list, man. You know how many years of football there's been? And this man is No. 3. That is huge. People be trying to put it as an understatement. Man, that's huge. A lot of legends that came through this game, they came and left, and they're not even near the top five. For him to be in his 14th year and still playing at this level, credit goes to him.

"You couldn't write it any better."