TEMPE, Ariz. -- By time the 2004 NFL draft was set to start, former Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves and now-deceased head coach Dennis Green had made their decision: If he was there at No. 3, Larry Fitzgerald was going to be their pick.
Fitzgerald, the star wide receiver from Pitt, finished second in the 2003 Heisman Trophy voting. He had been firmly atop the Cardinals' draft board for weeks. Green, having known the receiver for years, had made up his mind to draft Fitzgerald months before when he declared for the draft.
Even with a need at quarterback and future Pro Bowl players Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger still on the board, Fitzgerald's natural talent, great size and incredible hands made him an easy choice. And his can't-miss prospect projections have proven true. Fitzgerald has played his entire 17-year career in Arizona, ranking second on the NFL's all-time receiving yards (17,492) and receptions (1,432) lists, making him a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But as the 2021 NFL draft approaches (Thursday-Saturday, ABC/ESPN/ESPN App), Fitzgerald's football future is uncertain. He's a free agent and will be 38 when the season begins. With his time as a Cardinal perhaps nearing an end, we thought we'd go back to the beginning and inside the draft that brought Fitzgerald to Arizona.
Green with insight
Green had become close to Fitzgerald's father, who hosted Green's radio show when he was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. That relationship led to Green hiring the younger Fitzgerald as a ball boy while he was still in high school. Fitzgerald had a front-row seat to watch and learn from the likes of Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed on a daily basis. It also gave Green his own front-row seat to Fitzgerald.
At one point when Fitzgerald was in high school, Green told Fitzgerald Sr. his son was going to be good enough to play in the NFL.
"[Green] knew the family, he knew all of that, but there was no question about [Fitzgerald's] football ability," Graves said. "Based on all the information we had, we felt that he was the No. 1 player in the country."
Back in February of 2004, Green had told Fitzgerald's father if the younger Fitzgerald was on the board at No. 3, he was coming to Arizona.
Green's exclusive and intimate knowledge of Fitzgerald eventually made the pick an "obvious choice," Graves said.
"That was icing on the cake," Graves told ESPN. "We spend time, often, just trying to get our coaches comfortable with the selection and sometimes they're excited about it and sometimes they make a decision to trust the staff, and we appreciate that. When the coach has that kind of relationship with the player and eliminates all other questions about his character, work habits, and all of those things, then that makes our job tremendously easier than it would otherwise be."
When the Cardinals built their 2004 draft board it consisted of about 130 players, ranked in order of who they thought was the best player on down, Graves said. He and Green had committed to a philosophy of sticking to the board unless they were about to double dip at a position. It took Graves and his staff about six weeks to fine-tune the board.
"Larry ended up, without much debate at all from anyone on our staff, as the top player in the country on our board," Graves said. "Had we been the first pick or even the third pick, as we were, Larry Fitzgerald was still going to be our choice."
Fitzgerald was a slam dunk pick for the Cardinals, but it wasn't made without due diligence.
The Cardinals discussed the idea of drafting either Rivers, who went to the New York Giants at No. 4 but was then traded to the Chargers, or Roethlisberger, who ended up going 11th to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Arizona interviewed Roethlisberger at the Senior Bowl, then Cardinals offensive coordinator Alex Wood remembered, and Wood went up to Oxford, Ohio, to work out Roethlisberger. He also spent a "long, long time" talking to Roethlisberger's college coach, the late Terry Hoeppner.
The moment that Wood knew Fitzgerald was going to be the pick came at the end of the Senior Bowl. Graves called Wood to ask if he'd hang around to interview Roethlisberger one more time. Then Graves called back and said forget it.
Even though Wood doesn't regret the Cardinals taking a receiver that year, all of their issues in finding stability and longevity at quarterback have made him wonder if Arizona should have gone in a different direction in 2004.
"If you had to do it over again," Wood said, "you'd probably take Ben Roethlisberger."
Landing on Fitz
Green was at a private workout Fitzgerald held in March 2004 and was one of three head coaches watching Fitzgerald at Pitt's Pro Day.
Former Pitt coach Walt Harris spent time talking with Green, even offering the suggestion Green call the deep ball to Fitzgerald three or four times a game. Harris remembers that being the extent of the Cardinals' interaction with the Pitt staff.
"If it's a question-mark kid then you're really going to get a lot of questions," Harris said. "But his was all on film."
And, Harris recalled, Green didn't ask any questions about Fitzgerald, the person.
Graves remembered scouting Fitzgerald in person on a "cold, cold wintry night" in November 2003, when Fitzgerald had eight catches for 108 yards and a touchdown as Pitt upset No. 5 Virginia Tech. The Cardinals also sent a "good number" of scouts, Graves said, including current general manager Steve Keim to see Fitzgerald in person. Keim, who was then a regional scout in the east for Arizona, took Fitzgerald and cornerback Shawntae Spencer to lunch for sandwiches at a place called Fat Head’s. Looking back, Keim thinks he saw Fitzgerald in person at Pitt three times.
When the draft rolled around in late April, the first two picks went the Cardinals' way -- the San Diego Chargers took quarterback Eli Manning and the Oakland Raiders took offensive lineman Robert Gallery -- leaving Fitzgerald on the board for them to take at No. 3.
Green, who died in 2016, got his guy.
"There was no doubt in our minds that Larry was going to be a tremendous pro and [that was] certainly the type of receiver that he turned out to be," Keim said. "Not only was he a great one, he was he was as good as they get in the community and in our locker room, as well."