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For Larry Fitzgerald, the Apple (of Giving) Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
Football fans know Larry Fitzgerald Jr. as one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game and a lock for the NFL Hall of Fame. His off-the-field generosity seems to know no bounds. He was recently named the “Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year” for his work with the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund, which made contributions to organizations from Phoenix Children’s Hospital to the Starkey Hearing Foundation, helping fit hearing aids for those in need throughout Africa.
Generosity runs in the family and it’s something that Larry Jr. learned at home. His mother, Carol Fitzgerald, counseled HIV-positive patients at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. When she died from cancer in 2003, his father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr. established a fund in her name to honor her and support the causes she held dearly.
Two popular Valley steak restaurants, Dominick’s Steakhouse and Steak 44, are selling a limited edition — there are only 450 bottles worldwide — of Caymus Cabernet wine throughout February to benefit the fund, the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund.
“I started the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund because hundreds of people loved who she was and what she was about and what she meant to them,” Larry Sr. said. “And they showed it to me by coming to me with money — they just wanted to do something to show how much they cared, in seeing me lose my wife and Marcus and Larry losing their mom.”
Being consistently kind and readily giving of your time to causes doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Frontdoors Media set out to see how one of America’s most generous athletes got his kindness tendency.
His father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., a fixture in the Minneapolis-St. Paul sports media world for decades, explained how his son’s upbringing shaped his approach to the world.
His son has always had a big heart, he said.
“He certainly hasn’t forgotten who he is and how he was raised,” Larry Sr. said of his son. “Our mission with him and his brother, Marcus, was to make certain that the door was always open from a communication standpoint that he understood exactly what our expectations were as a family and what our expectations were for him in terms of going out and trying to be a good person, a good student and someone that could develop a following and be respected. He saw a father and a mother who didn’t just say that; they walked it every day.”
Larry Jr. was a freshman in college at the time of his mother’s death. He flew home immediately after a game he had just played in to be by her side. She was unable to communicate due to a cancer-induced coma. Carol had been battling breast cancer for seven-and-a-half years. In the latter stages, it had spread to her lungs and brain. She died the next day. Larry Jr. said some days he still calls his mother’s voicemail just to hear her voice.
Larry Sr. and Carol met in high school in Chicago. Larry Sr. was born and raised there and Carol had moved to the Windy City from New Orleans, where she was born.
“We became high school friends and later she became my girlfriend and right away I knew she had some unique and special qualities about her that put her, in my eyes, as a real keeper,” Larry Sr. said.
“She was someone that just galvanized me and I love the fact that she came from a faith-based family structure,” he said. “Her mother and father — a father who’s a doctor, a mother who’s an educator — were impressive to me and made her impressionable on me. We found each other when our college careers came to an end I asked her to marry me.”
The two were married in 1979 in Chicago. Larry Sr. by then had already established himself as a journalist in Minneapolis.
“She was just a wonderful woman, a wonderful woman who believed in her community, believed in her church, believed in supporting her community and supporting her church,” Larry Sr. said. “She would help anyone that needed help.”
Carol Fitzgerald worked for the Minnesota Department of Health as a health investigator whose focus was meeting with people who had contracted HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. She would have to share with them the troubling results of their health tests.
“Her efforts to fight AIDS in the African-American community were remarkable,” Dr. Keith Henry told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2003. “Working as a disease intervention specialist for the Minnesota Department of Health (an often thankless job) with compassion, intelligence and enthusiasm, she no doubt prevented many others from becoming HIV-infected and saved many lives in the process.
“So she had to go out and find a way to share some troubling information with them,” Larry Sr. said, “and yet give it to them in a way that was positive and so they understood that she was going to do everything she could, from the Minnesota Department of Health standpoint, to give them the foundation of support that they would need through this fight.”
He continued: “And so that’s who Marcus and Larry grew up watching. That’s who they came home to. That same woman who had that kind of respect, who had that same kind of leadership qualities, and that type of commitment — that was their mom. She would take them to some of the caucuses, the events, the rallies” where health issues would be discussed.
Larry Sr., in his career travels, would have a different influence. “With me, I’d take them to things they’d have fun with, things they wanted to do — to baseball, football and basketball games and practices and so they got to get the best of both worlds you might say.”
Larry Jr. and his brother Marcus would be exposed to a range of athletes and the world of sports “but yet on the other side they were grounded in getting this life lesson that people make mistakes in their health that get them in trouble,” Larry Sr. said. “And so in doing that you have to find a way to deal with it with a kind of humility and a confidence and a faith that you can get through it. I think those were points they learned clearly from being around us, being around their mother. We’re a church-based family. We believe and follow the lead of God.”
It’s from her work with the Minnesota Department of Health that Larry Sr. decided to start the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund – “to benefit organizations that are fighting breast cancer, that are fighting for urban education and trying to help our community grow and understand that we can assist them in their education and to fight HIV,” Larry Sr. said.
His mother’s work inspired Larry Jr. and is why he started the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund. “He wanted to go out and do more,” his father said. “He’s a very competitive young man and I’m a very competitive young man and I put that charge in him and his mother did as well and I’m proud of that. So he has now taken on the initiative to try and help those who need help and that’s why I’m very proud of what he’s doing.”