Football on the Field Close Up

"has there ever been a more cruel and unusual punishment than serving life as an Arizona Cardinal?"

It was one picture posted on social media, a muscled man with braided hair holding a microphone and speaking to a group of school kids seated on the gymnasium floor. 

The photograph was not professionally taken. Indeed, no press release had been issued and no news photographers invited, which was the point made by the journalist who posted the image.

This is how Larry Fitzgerald spends his weekday hours away from the gridiron — giving back, connecting with his community. 

Last week — not too long after logging eight receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown in the Arizona Cardinals’ improbable comeback tie versus the Detroit Lions — Fitzgerald could be found down on Durango Street south of downtown, spending time with the students of Academia Del Pueblo, donating tablets, inspiring.

Though I was not in attendance, I was moved enough to spend some time thinking about the graceful, beloved superstar this Valley has come to call Fitz.

Here’s the question I have been pondering for days:

Has there ever been a professional athlete less fortunate than Larry Fitzgerald when it comes to spending an entire career with one of pro sports’ worst franchises?

Who, I ask you? 

Who has had it worse than Fitz all these years? 

Who in the history of sport has toiled longer for one comically awful team without a championship or a ring to show for such Herculean efforts and loyalty? 

You could perhaps make a case for Dan Marino, who toiled 17 years with the Miami Dolphins and never won a title. Like Fitz, Marino made it to a single Super Bowl, losing 38-16 to the San Francisco 49ers in 1985. 

Marino, however, made it to the playoffs in 10 seasons to Fitz’s paltry four. And Marino quarterbacked his teams to 155 wins, a .601 winning percentage.

Larry Fitzgerald’s Cardinals, by contrast, have lost 121 times in his career against 112 wins and a pair of ties. One of those two ties came in the 2019 season opener and served to underscore the supreme waste of talent we have witnessed since the Cardinals drafted Fitzgerald in 2004. 

Fitzgerald’s new quarterback, the rookie Kyler Murray, played three of the worst quarters of football imaginable, only to be hailed as the next Unitas by some fans and pundits for playing 15 minutes lights out. 

Fitz? He’s played out of his mind for 16 years now, beset by quarterbacks as nondescript as John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, John Navarre and Max Hall. 

You know how many wide receivers have caught more passes than Larry Fitzgerald in the history of the game? One. 

And Jerry Rice had two Hall of Famers — Joe Montana and Steve Young — quarterbacking him for the vast majority of his career.

Now at age 36, Fitzgerald has an unproven rookie, who may revolutionize the game or who be yet another Cardinals’ bust, and a new head coach in Kliff Kingsbury, who may be Vince Lombardi in Wayfarer sunglasses or a slimmer Buddy Ryan. 

My guess? This is the Arizona Cardinals, who every season like clockwork find a way to dash the dreams of their unreasonably faithful fans.

We all know how this story ends.

Come late season, we likely will be treated to another round of chatter about trading Fitz to a contender and giving him a chance to go out competing for a Super Bowl.

I hope it happens, truth be told, because Larry Fitzgerald deserves far better than what the sports gods have dealt him.

Sure, he’s earned more than $160 million on the field since 2004. But has there ever been a more cruel and unusual punishment than serving life as an Arizona Cardinal?

David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact david@leibowitzsolo.com.