by Mike Waggoner, Buffalo Sports Page
I think any of my former co-workers at ESPN and NFL Network would agree with me. When you worked as long as someone like I did in sports TV, you get asked a lot of the same questions over and over, almost as if you were an athlete or coach. Weddings are always a popular place to get bombarded with these types of questions because it’s a place where you are least likely to have any other media people around, and it’s good reception chatter when the drinks are flowing.
“What’s it like to work with such and such?”, “How much money does this guy make?”, and the always popular “Who’s the biggest asshole at ESPN?” Other times we are asked for our expertise, which in all honesty the majority of us don’t really have, any more than someone sitting at home watching games.
….and then sometimes we get the simple question, “Who is your favorite person you’ve ever done a feature on?”
In my last couple Chronicles, I talked a little bit about being a feature producer on College Gameday for a few seasons. One of the remarkable aspects of working on a show like that, and I know anyone else who was fortunate to do the same would say the same thing, is that you are able to follow the pro career of that particular kid in college you profiled. It’s a little sad when it doesn’t pan out though, because the majority of these players are young, shy and generally good kids. In the end, it’s too hard for many of them to make that transition from college to the pros.
Not so with future Canton first ballot “Lock-of-Famer” Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. (Note: “Lock-of-Famer”… I just came up with that. Maybe it will gain recognition like G.O.A.T. did not too many years ago.)
Anyhow… so in the early part of my career producing ESPN pieces, as an associate producer for Gameday, I was given the opportunity to travel to Pittsburgh and spend the day with Larry Fitz, at the time a Pitt Panther sophomore receiver who was making a name for himself by catching everything thrown in his direction — I’m talking pre-Odell highlight reel stuff, earning Heisman-worthy praise each week. 22 touchdowns, 92 catches. I don’t remember his QB, and I don’t even care to look up who it was. (Go for it.)
A Memorable Experience & A Great Story
This was clearly my most memorable experience working on Gameday. Partly because we were able to come up with two separate stories on one shoot that day with him, but mostly because of Fitzgerald himself. You have to understand how the schedule works leading up to Saturday’s Gameday show. Not only is there extensive preparation for the “road show” you see every Saturday morning, but a lot goes into the content of the show as well. Every Monday we always had a staff ideas meeting which included the show bosses, producers, associate producers, and of course the trio of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso. The show had to be on top of the news-iest stories going on around college campuses around the country. Obviously, Fitzgerald’s play spoke for itself on the field, but we then discovered Fitz had a unique story.
He had tragically lost his mother to cancer not long before becoming a star receiver at Pitt. (Note: The trademark dreadlocks he still sports to this day, is Larry paying homage to her own hairstyle throughout her life.) Being able to thrive at the level he was playing at while going through such adversity in his personal life was a natural story for us to cover. Then we also found out that in his hometown of Minneapolis, his father Larry Fitzgerald Sr., was a local sportswriter. With his dad making the connection, young Larry landed any Minnesota kid’s dream job… being a ball boy with the Vikings. These were the Randy Moss/Cris Carter Vikings so, yes, for an aspiring pass catcher? Nice gig.
So we basically had a perfect OFF the field Larry story parlayed with an ON the field Larry story. A definite bonus that worked out perfectly.
The day of the shoot, he couldn’t have been a nicer, humble, well grounded kid. I remember after the interview, which was about 30 minutes, he spent over an hour doing what we call a “specialty” shoot, which is when we had him do poses, utilized different camera moves toward his face, and other stuff, really just to spruce up the quality of the piece. I think I asked him to put on and take off a #84 Randy Moss purple jersey like 10 times. Despite more and more takes, he never looked bored, and kept smiling that Larry Fitz smile he still has today. Not an ounce of agitation, entitlement, or negativity. Again, this guy lost his mother the previous year.
About 10 years later, during Thursday Night Football interviews for NFL Network in Arizona, he did happen to be one of the people to sit down with our crew to preview the game. Shockingly to me, it took about one minute for him to light up when I brought up the Gameday shoot. This was 1000’s of interviews later that he probably had. Most times when I’ve done the “remember when” to guys I had covered in the past, it’s usually a “aw yeah? Cool” blow-off type of thing, but with Fitz he genuinely did remember. We talked about his dad, his brother, and some other small talk. It’s the type of experience that makes the job special.
Gronk-Spike Time For Fitz
Fast forward to this past weekend. Known amongst his NFL peers as Larry Legend, in his 15th season with a now sorry Cardinals team, he scored his 112th NFL touchdown, seventh most ever, leading the 2-and-6 Cardinals to a comeback 18-15 win against San Francisco. Who would have thought, that on his 112th trip to the opponent’s end zone, after 111 TD’s of flipping a ball to the ref and jogging off the field, he would spike the ball, Gronk-style, for the very first time.
His reaction when asked about it was classic Fitz.
“I never spiked a football in my life. To all the kids that were watching out there, I’m sorry. I set a bad example.” (He was smiling so let’s take his comment for what it’s worth)
This is the era when the league now ENCOURAGES players to perform overblown celebrations in the end zone. Now I don’t want to get all gushy about him, I guess I already did, but it is kinda cool to remember meeting this guy as a teenager with the future career he had in store for himself, and see how his path has stayed the course… a course of class, unmatched by anyone I can think of. Yes, the celebrations these days are creative and fun to watch for the most part, depending on your opinion, but sometimes in sports it’s gratifying to appreciate the good guys, performing in the small markets, playing the most diva position in all of sports, and succeeding at the level #11 has.
If only he had slipped to the Bills at 13 that year. (Yeah right.)