The NFL Through the Eyes of a Parent
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With Father's Day recently passing, I'm so reminded of how tough my father was on me growing up. I was born in Chicago, and my parents were born in the Deep South—Natchez, Miss. My parents made education a major priority for me. In fact, my dad was so serious, he thought I was wasting my time playing football.
You see, my parents owned a couple of grocery stores. When we were not in school, we were working in the family-owned business. When I moved to Minnesota in 1978 and started my career, I was determined to be successful. Noted sportswriter and sports anchor Wendell Smith of WGN-TV was my idol.
I married my high school sweetheart, Carol Johnson, in September of 1979. We did everything as a family. We both worked and supported each other.
We have two sons, Larry Jr. and Marcus. My boys grew up in a middle-class home with two loving parents. Larry Jr. and Marcus started playing football at ages 10 and eight, respectively. Larry was always energetic and loved to compete. From the time he was born, he had sports in his sights.
My wife went against my wishes and signed up Larry and his brother to play on the King Park pee wee football team. I wanted to wait until high school for them to play football because of the potential for injury. When I found out Marcus had broken his leg, we had family issues.
I've been in the sports media business for 35 years. In their early years, I spent a lot of time teaching Larry and Marcus the mental game of sports—how to dream and visualize playing in the different situations encountered during a game. It has always been about team and winning and being a leader, not a follower. We worked on getting everybody to perform together as a group.
Many times I took Larry with me to work at practices and games. I told him if he was serious about playing football or basketball, I would do all I could to help him reach his goal. He wanted to be really good, and he was, even at age 10.
I never let him know how good I thought he was. It was about him and how hard he was willing to work. I introduced him to many players and coaches. He had plenty of time to decide if sports was something he liked or wanted to do one day.
When Larry was younger, I feared him getting hurt because he was very aggressive. My wife and I used school and work around the house to keep him and his brother in check.
Larry Jr. had concentration issues early. We pulled him out of Burroughs Public School and put him in a private school, Pilgrim Lutheran. It was smaller and it helped a lot. He was on the basketball team and led his eighth grade school to the New Ulm State Championship, the first time his school had ever won.
He was rewarded with a scholarship to Minnehaha Academy, an excellent school. Larry played defensive back on a good freshman football team, and it was that fall that he found out his mom had breast cancer.
I could see the change in Larry when he thought his mom was going to die. We visited several doctors, and we found one my wife connected with. After surgery and treatments, we felt good about beating it.
Larry’s team lost one of its games 75-6, and I was so angry about it I told my wife that we have to get him in a better situation with a chance to compete. Holy Angels was the right school, and it worked. He started playing wide receiver, and his team was good.
It was during this time that Dennis Green was hired to coach the Vikings. Larry and Marcus, who recovered from the broken leg, became ball boys for the Vikings while I was hosting and producing Green’s weekly radio show. So, while in high school, Larry Jr. got to work with Randy Moss and Cris Carter and all the coaches and players.
Larry was late for curfew one night in camp and security told me about it. I quickly pulled him off the job as a ball boy. I made him sweat it out and reminded him he had embarrassed me with Coach Green, who was doing me a favor.
Eventually I let him return. Vikings players like Daunte Culpepper would go to his high school games to see him play. It was like a circus with all the Vikings at his games. I remember when Green told me my son, as a senior, could play in the NFL. He was All-State and All-American, but I never let him know that Green told me that.
Everyone was after Larry Jr. it seemed—Nebraska, Miami Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, to name a few. Pittsburgh made a strong impression on Larry with head coach Walt Harris—they had a really good passing reputation.
Unfortunately, my wife and I learned that Larry Jr. would not qualify, as his GPA was too low. He was OK to graduate on time but couldn’t go straight to a Division 1A school on scholarship.
We looked at every possible option and came up with prep school at Valley Forge Military, 15 miles outside Philadelphia in Wayne, Pa. It was expensive, nearly $15,000 for one year. It seemed a high price to pay, all because his GPA had slipped during his freshman year at Minnehaha when he found out his mom had breast cancer.
I learned that Hall of Fame defensive end Chris Doleman had attended Valley Forge. I talked to him about the experience, and it was helpful for our decision to know someone who had been through it. We decided to do it. That meant Larry Jr. had to leave Minneapolis in December of his senior year to start in January at Valley Forge.
We told Larry we loved him and believed that he could do it. It was tough, a military environment a long way from home, but he did great playing basketball, baseball and football—and graduating with honors. He was still committed to the University of Pittsburgh, and that’s where he signed to go, even though Ohio State and Michigan State made strong pushes at the end.
It was during Larry’s freshman year at Pittsburgh that my wife had her relapse with breast cancer. She got to see him play his freshman year, when he was All-American. Pittsburgh played Oregon State in the Insight Bowl in Bank One Park in Phoenix on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas 2002.
My wife died less than four months later on April 10. Later that year, Larry nearly won the Heisman Trophy; he finished runner-up to quarterback Jason White of Oklahoma.
After two years at Pittsburgh, Larry decided he was ready to try the National Football League. We had to work with the NFL and show them that Larry, a sophomore, would have graduated with his high school senior class. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave us the league’s support, and Larry Jr. was drafted No. 3 overall by the Arizona Cardinals. Dennis Green was Arizona’s head coach.
We were invited to the 2004 NFL draft in New York. While we wanted to go, we decided to enjoy it instead as a family in Chicago. We had two family members in poor health at the time, so we had a private party for family and invited guests at the Hilton. My father, Robert Fitzgerald, and my father-in-law, Dr. Robert Johnson, were ill, and this made it easier for them to share this special once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
People always want to know how Larry’s mother and I dealt with the possibility of injury. Honestly, I have never really worried about Larry Jr. getting seriously hurt. First of all, I have great faith, and because of that I never worry. As a journalist, yes, I understand the potential for injury is there, but as a father it's not something that I worry about. I know the game of football is violent, but I don't personalize his game. Larry Jr. and I talk about it, of course, and I check with him frequently to ask how he's doing.
Larry Jr. has been blessed; he’s had some back issues and knee and ankle sprains. However, he and his teammates have always had a team of medical advisers, trainers and therapists in season to help treat soreness from aches and pains.
You may recall the now-famous Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears in Dennis Green's last season. Larry Jr. was hurt and did not play. In fact, we were headed together to the game three hours before and had a car accident. A bus slammed into our car.
I was shaken up. The vehicle was damaged and not drivable. I stayed with the car and waited for the tow truck. Larry Jr. took a cab to the game. I regret not being there, considering Coach Green's postgame comments, which overshadowed the game. It was a bitter loss, and my friend Coach Green was fired at season's end.
I hired Larry Jr.’s entire management team: Eugene Parker (agent), Ann Viitala (attorney), the late Dave Anderson (accountant), along with his financial adviser and real-estate agent. They are all very talented and have done great work on behalf of Larry Jr. throughout his career.
After his first four years in the NFL, I backed off and Larry Jr. has taken over, carefully watching his money as he should. He has spread his wings and has protected his image. Larry Jr. is even keel and has never vented to me about his job, a losing situation or personal issues.
The year Arizona made the Super Bowl (2009) was really incredible. Larry Jr. and the Cardinals caught fire in the playoffs. He was sensational, breaking many of Jerry Rice's records on the road to the Super Bowl. For me personally, it was so enjoyable and rewarding to see our son playing like a superstar.
Professionally, I have covered well more than 30 Super Bowls, but this one was special. Larry Jr.'s team’s success suddenly put the spotlight on me as the first sportswriter in history to cover his own son in a Super Bowl.
Some people suggested that I should just watch the game as a fan and not cover it. I thought that was crazy and never considered it. I take what I do seriously, and I do not live through my son's success. Reporting on the Super Bowl is something I’ve built my career on, and I’m proud to have this historical designation.
As a child, Larry Jr. was taught to play every game like it was the Super Bowl. When it actually happened, he was prepared for the spotlight and to try to win it. Losing was a bitter pill to swallow, as close and tough as it was. We both savored the week and all the records he broke along the way. We took the good with the bad and moved on.
It's unbelievable how time flies, but now it’s nine years, three head coaches, seven Pro Bowls, one Super Bowl and many quarterbacks later. It's been one heck of a ride from my press-box seat watching my son grow as a man and become one of the best.
Larry Jr. is also recognized as a really good person. It was never easy and took a lot of divine intervention and faith, but I'm proud that our son trusted me and his late mother and listened to all the things we asked him to do.
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