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Fitzgerald wins Humanitarian Award

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By Mike Holbrook

Authentic. Selfless. Humble. Caring. Enthusiastic. Funny. Giving.

These are a few of the words used to describe Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, the winner of the 14th annual Pro Football Weekly Arthur S. Arkush Humanitarian Award, annually presented to the NFL player whose contributions to the community and charitable organizations are especially outstanding. (To see a video presentation of this year's Humanitarian Award winner, click here.)

“I’m extremely honored and extremely humbled,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s a lot of guys who do a lot of great work around the league and I don’t think guys get enough credit for all the good things they do. You just hear about the negative.”

Negative is not a word that you will hear used when Fitzgerald is mentioned. Not only is he an All-Pro talent on the field, but he’s an exemplary citizen off of it.

Fitzgerald’s charitable work is remarkably extensive and far-reaching, not only in terms of the variety of needy people he helps but in terms of geography:

• The Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund pays for positive activities for kids during the summer and throughout the year, with programs in Arizona, Minneapolis and Chicago. It also makes significant contributions — in time, money and resources — to numerous organizations throughout the United States.

• His work with the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund, which was established in honor of his late mother, who passed away from breast cancer in 2003, offers support of causes that Fitzgerald’s mother held dear, including educating urban youth about HIV/AIDS and breast cancer issues. 

• He has served as NFL spokesman for the league-wide breast cancer awareness initiative “A Crucial Catch” for three years running and hosts a number of events throughout the year that benefit the fund named for his mother. Every October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Fitzgerald has made donations to breast cancer organizations based on his touchdowns and receptions in the month.

• He holds youth football camps in Arizona and Minnesota each summer and his First Down Fund teamed with the Lieberman Foundation to build basketball courts for kids in Phoenix and Minneapolis.

• He is a big supporter of the military and has visited U.S. troops abroad, in addition to raising awareness of the need for financial support for injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

• He has traveled to Africa multiple times, both on humanitarian missions with his good friend Anquan Boldin and on behalf of the Starkey Hearing Foundation. His most recent trip to the continent was in late July right before training camp when he flew to Uganda to assist former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, fit hearing aids for those in need.

• During the 2011 season, he made a donation each week to a charitable organization nominated by a fan, contributing to 18 different organizations.

• His use of social media has been exemplary. Through Twitter and Facebook he connects with his fans while also benefiting others. For example, he created “Gimme 5 Fridays with Fitz,” in which he tweets to his huge following (more than 1.3 million followers as of this writing) and asks “Team Fitzgerald” to text HAND to 50555 to donate $5 to Phoenix Children’s Hospital (PCH).

• He visits PCH on a regular basis, spending hours playing video games, giving out gifts, having his photo taken and talking to the kids and their families.

• And he hosts several events throughout the year that benefit both the First Down Fund and Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund.

“Larry is a selfless and dedicated individual,” Ravens WR Anquan Boldin says. “What stands out the most is that he’s so consistent with everything he does. His work over the years, not only in Arizona but also Minnesota, has benefited many people. He’s one of those guys who I can rely on whenever I have a charitable function going on. So, when I had an opportunity to team up with him to go to Ethiopia, it just made sense. I don’t think you should limit where you help, and I’m glad we could expand our reach and assist the people there.”

Fitzgerald credits his parents as having the biggest impact on his altruistic ways.

“They had the greatest impact. My mother was really active in our community. She was actively involved in AIDS groups, also cancer support groups,” he says. “My brother and I would rather be outside playing basketball, playing football or riding bikes with our friends, but at a very young age we understood the importance of giving back, not only with resources, money, but with your time, which is much more important, I feel — because time is the one thing that none of us can ever get back. You only get 24 hours in one day, so what you do with that can greatly impact others lives. And I saw that, just the time she put in, it made a difference in peoples’ lives. I try to do that each day.

“God has blessed me as an athlete with a great platform and you can do a lot of things with a platform. You can make a fool out of yourself and do all the wrong things or you can do some things that are right and try to make a positive impact.”

Fitzgerald’s father, Larry Sr., says he’s proud to see his son carrying on the example he and his late wife set in giving back to the community.

“It impresses me and I’m proud of the fact that he’s doing that and taking the initiative to do what he can do because he’s in a position to do a lot,” Larry Fitzgerald Sr. says. “It’s just a continuation of community. He got it from me, he got it from his mom. We shared everything we had with the community, with young people. So, he saw that it was important to us. As we got better and stronger as a family, financially and otherwise, we did more. And so, I think he saw that. And now that he’s in a position to do a lot of things — he gets asked a lot, he gets pulled on a lot, not only by players but communities and different cities — Minneapolis, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, they’re all after him. So, he has to really be careful, but he’s doing a lot of things because it’s a passion for him to be able to help people.”

That passion is evident every time Fitzgerald gets involved in a cause or an event. Just listen to Maureen Hanna, a breast cancer survivor whose life was personally touched, and changed, by her dealings with Fitzgerald.

“In 2010 Larry met with 50 breast cancer survivors whom were part of the American Cancer Society/NFL Crucial Catch breast cancer awareness game.  He individually met with the 50 survivors for a photo and autographed their event T-shirts. It was the highlight of our evening! I was one of those 50 survivors and so appreciative of the time he took to spend with us.

“(Then) in early 2011, Larry reached out to the American Cancer Society to take two breast cancer survivors to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. I was one of those lucky recipients. The evening before that game he personally met with me and wanted to know about my cancer journey. He was noticeably taken back when I told him I had just been given the news I had one year to live.

“Larry inspires others with his superior qualities and never-ending commitment for a good cause,” she adds. “He has inspired me to become a top fundraiser for the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Phoenix. Opportunities are available every day. We just need to act on them.”

While blessed with good humor and an easygoing way that puts people who meet him immediately at ease, Fitzgerald definitely is happy to let his actions speak louder than his words.

“Just be the best and improve. When I say ‘be the best,’ there’s a lot of things in life you have no control over, but your effort you can control at all times. I tell my son (Devin, 4) that. … Your effort is the one thing you can control. If you give a great effort, usually you’re going to get great results. I take that same approach to the practice field, game field, the work I try to do offseason, during the season. That’s just the approach I take in life — try to give maximum effort and hope for the best.”

Kurt Warner has traveled with Fitzgerald on missions to help the less fortunate, and the two former teammates remain close, including attending each other’s charity events. He never ceases to be amazed at Fitzgerald’s maturity beyond his years and his selfless attitude.

“I think what I admire most about Larry is that he lives his life with the motto, ‘I can do more.’ Whether that is talking about working harder on the field, or taking in a young player under his wing and giving him direction or looking for a new way to use his platform or wealth to impact the life of another. I love this about Larry and hope that one day others will say the same about me. We should all be that fortunate.”

Fitzgerald had that “I can do more” attitude ingrained in him as a youngster, especially by his late mother. It is a message that he carries with him to this day in tribute to her.

“When your mom passes away at 47 years old, it really smacks you in the face,” he says. “It lets you know that life’s not guaranteed, tomorrow’s not guaranteed. So, live to the fullest. Whether it’s a matter of trying to help people here in the United States or going halfway around the world to Africa or wherever. People are people. We’re all God’s people at the end of the day. I feel as though I have a responsibility to do what is right.

“And I know if my mother was here today, she would be continually pushing and challenging me to go out there and do more, because I can. And I will continue to do more. That’s just how my mother was — she was a motivator. She was an inspiration to me, always pushing me.”

That helps explain some of Fitzgerald’s motivation for his tireless charitable efforts. But his personable manner and ability to make strangers feel comfortable and at ease around him are special qualities for a star of Fitzgerald’s stature.

“There is no bigger sports celebrity in AZ than Larry; yet he has no ego when it comes to his charitable work,” says Teri Lane, director of cause-related marketing for Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation. “He is real, truly believes in giving back and has the biggest heart and best sense of humor. Larry is our hero, not because of who he is on the field but who he is as a person. He uses his celebrity to really make a difference. The smiles we see on our kiddos’ faces when they meet Larry is priceless. He creates memories for our patients and families that they treasure.

“Larry Fitzgerald is the real deal.”

Says Andy Kramer, president/CEO of Banner Health Foundation — yet another beneficiary of Fitzgerald’s efforts: “What strikes me as most admirable about Larry is his authentic desire and quest to help better people’s lives. For example, Larry is often one of the last guests to leave a fundraising social because he knows there is one more autograph to be signed, one more fan who wants to shake his hand, and one more cancer patient who wants to share their cancer story with Larry. Larry listens like no other person; he makes everyone he talks to feel like there is nothing else more important on the planet than the conversation taking place between the two individuals. 

“Lastly, I suspect what Larry evokes in me happens to other people who spend time with him: When I meet with Larry I often find myself reflecting on how I could become a better person, how can I positively impact someone’s life, and how important family is to me.”

Warner cherishes his friendship with Fitzgerald and is impressed each and every time the NFL star visits.

“To share a couple of examples. The first one comes from MY charity event this past year. Not only has Larry come to my event EVERY year, but last year we were auctioning off a trip for four to Cabo to raise money for the foundation. We had gotten to a point where the bidding had come to a standstill and out of nowhere Larry shouts, ‘I will pick up first-class flights for the winner!’ Now, it was already generous that he had committed to come and be a part of our event, but I believe this example shows the giving spirit of Larry. Or I could share about all the times he has come over to the house to hang out and before leaving he always gets into a conversation with one of my kids about something they are interested in. Every time, within a week something shows up at our house, a pair of shoes, a jersey, a toy, etc. ... He looks for opportunities to share his success with anybody and everyone he comes in contact with and that, to me, speaks much louder than all the amazing things he has done on the football field.”

Needless to say, the Cardinals are thrilled to have Fitzgerald representing the organization both on and off the field.

“I remember the day we drafted Larry (third overall in 2004). You always have high expectations when you take a player that high in the draft but we were especially excited about Larry’s potential and what he could bring to our franchise. As great as those expectations were, he has far exceeded them,” Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill says. “As a receiver, he’s rewritten every franchise record and established himself as one of the best ever to play the position. But even more special has been watching him evolve from a young, raw, shy 20-year-old rookie into the leader and person he is today. He’s demonstrated a commitment to our team and our community that is the model for every other member of our organization to follow. He not only lends his name and his notoriety to a number of great causes but is extremely generous financially and especially with his time. All of us consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have Larry Fitzgerald as an ambassador for the Arizona Cardinals and the NFL as whole. I can’t think of a better one.”

It’s not hard to get the people who know Larry Fitzgerald best to speak glowingly of his good nature and generosity. But what would the man himself like people to say about him when all is said and done?

“Just to have people say that he was a good man. That’s all that matters.”

He’s living proof of that.

Other candidates
Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins
Antoine Bethea, Colts
Matt Birk, Ravens*
Rob Bironas, Titans
Reggie Bush, Dolphins
Chris Canty, Giants
Mason Crosby, Packers
Thomas Davis, Panthers*
Vernon Davis, 49ers
Fred Jackson, Bills
Malcolm Jenkins, Saints
Derrick Johnson, Chiefs
Davin Joseph, Buccaneers*
Brett Keisel, Steelers
James Laurinaitis, Rams
Roy Lewis, Seahawks
Brad Meester, Jaguars
Zoltan Mesko, Patriots
Brandon Moore, Jets
Corey Peters, Falcons
Adrian Peterson, Vikings
Marcel Reece, Raiders
Philip Rivers, Chargers
Matt Schaub, Texans*
Charles Tillman, Bears
Andrew Whitworth, Bengals
Wesley Woodyard, Broncos
Usama Young, Browns

* — One of five finalists.

Past winners
    2011    Israel Idonije/ Bears
    2010    Jason Witten / Cowboys
    2009    Gary Brackett / Colts
    2008    Keith Bulluck / Titans
    2007    Drew Brees / Saints
    2006    Roy L. Williams / Cowboys
    2005    Brian Moorman / Bills
    2004    Kevin Carter / Titans
    2003    Tony Richardson / Chiefs
    2002    Ruben Brown / Bills
    2001    Derrick Brooks / Buccaneers
    2000    Chris Sanders / Titans
    1999    Will Shields / Chiefs

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