TEMPE, Ariz. — A signed photo of Larry Fitzgerald hangs inside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center in south Minneapolis where the Arizona Cardinals‘ future Hall of Fame receiver grew up playing football, basketball and everything in between.
When kids walk by it, nearly all of them acknowledge the photo. It doesn’t matter that Fitzgerald doesn’t play for the hometown Vikings and hasn’t lived in Minnesota full-time since high school, people — especially the younger generations — still know him.
He may be known for his excellence on the field, but his lasting legacy in Minnesota won’t be as a player.
Even after he retires, Fitzgerald’s impact across the Twin Cities will be felt in classrooms, on fields and in community centers for generations to come. Saturday’s preseason game between the Cardinals and Vikings could be the last time fans see Fitzgerald play in his home state on an NFL field. The Cardinals won’t play again in Minnesota until at least 2022. By then Fitzgerald, who turns 36 on the final day of August, may be retired.
Jayne Miller, the former Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board superintendent who’s now the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, first met Fitzgerald around 2011 or 2012. She succinctly described Fitzgerald’s legacy in Minneapolis: “A star athlete, hometown hero, who is an incredible human being.”
He’s donated more than $500,000 to various schools, groups, organizations and parks around Minneapolis and St. Paul over the past decade and a half. Some of that money came from his foundation, the First Down Fund, and some came from his own pocket.
It’s all gone to help children in some way, shape or form.
“He’s just seen as probably one of the top five Minnesota athletes of all time,” said Jesse Foley, Fitzgerald’s high school basketball coach. “He’s on that shortlist with Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor and Joe Mauer and people like that.”
Fitzgerald has lived in Arizona since the Cardinals drafted him third overall in 2004. It’s where he’s laid roots. It’s also where he’s carved out a football career as one of the best receivers of all time while becoming the face of not just a franchise but, to some degree, a state. Yet, Fitzgerald, who left Minnesota after graduating from Holy Angels High School in 2001, never left his hometown behind.
It’s where he returns in the summers to a house on a lake in Eden Prairie, a Minneapolis suburb. It’s where his father still lives. It’s where he watched his late mother, Carol, dedicate her life to helping others, whether it was buying families diapers or giving her sons used jackets to people in need. Larry and his brother, Marcus, often went with her, learning how to help others by doing.
“I could tell you 1,000 stories of things that she did that impacted the way I think today,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m trying to teach my sons the same things.”
He hosts a football camp at Holy Angels every year, paying the way for a number of campers who couldn’t afford to attend on their own. He also stays in touch with many from his past, whether they’re teachers or coaches. He’s trying to give back to a state that gave so much to him.
“Unbelievable iNFLuencers,” Fitzgerald said. “Men that invested and women that invested in me. They didn’t know I was going to be an NFL player one day. They just saw me as a child that needed some guidance and put their arm around me and helped help me with my confidence, helped me with my school work, helped me learn skills and develop skills that would be useful to me as a grown man.
“That type of stuff is invaluable to me.”
While Fitzgerald has donated his time and money across Minneapolis and St. Paul, the heart of his generosity is in the park he grew up in.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Park is where his football career began. It’s where he spent a day playing basketball in the sixth grade. It’s where Eunice Rudolph, who’s worked at the park for more than 40 years teaching pottery and swim lessons, took a liking to Fitzgerald when he was just in elementary school. She held him to a higher standard than the other kids, teaching him valuable lessons early in the life.
Once Fitzgerald made it to the NFL, it was his time to give back.
“I just knew once I had the opportunity to have a platform where I could affect change and bring hope and provide resources for people that were in need of it, it was a no-brainer for me,” Fitzgerald said. “Because people that didn’t know me, they did it for me, and so I think this is part of it.”
In 2012, he donated 1,000 helmets to the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board’s youth football program, a gift worth about $150,000. He refurbished an outdoor basketball court at the park. He donated between $10,000 to $15,000 to help build a playground themed for black inventors. He donated $20,000 to the park as part of a legacy project during Super Bowl 53 that’ll be used to upgrade the community center’s teen room and the indoor basketball court’s bleachers. He and his father, Larry Fitzgerald, Sr., host events at the park for the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund, the foundation Fitzgerald started after his mother died in 2003 from breast cancer. Fitzgerald has been known to match the grants given to the fund, which helps fight breast cancer and supports awareness.
Peter Jaeger, the director of the park, said it feels like everyone who comes to the park or the community center has a Larry Fitzgerald story.
“I’m like, ‘How did he play with all these people?'” Jaeger said with a laugh.
But that’s what Fitzgerald means to that little slice of Minneapolis.
“He’s part of the history of the athletics that was down here,” Jaeger said. “People don’t forget. He continually comes back.
“The kids see it. I hate to have kids think that everybody can walk out of here being a Larry Fitzgerald, but it’s still inspirational for people.”
That’s just the beginning of Fitzgerald’s generosity around Minnesota. The donations, gifts and grants have varied in size, amount and realm. He’s given grants to school programs to fund everything from robotics to books to after-school mentorship programs. He’s funded scholarships for students to attend his alma mater, Holy Angels, a private school. He donated tablets to schools. He gives to youth programs. He donated the proper technology to one school in Minneapolis so it could have a class that helped its students apply to college.
Over the years, Fitzgerald has developed a desire to close the reading and technology gap in under-resourced schools. He donated more than $50,000 to DonorsChoose.org’s #BestSchoolDay campaign in 2016. That money funded 58 projects in 20 Minneapolis schools that helped students get books, basic school supplies and technology.
In 2014, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board honored Fitzgerald with the “Living the Dream” award in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., in part because of his generosity to the parks and its programs.
“He’s probably obligated to do stuff in Phoenix and for Arizona as being part of that team,” Jaeger said. “He’s not obligated to do stuff here in Minneapolis. But he continually comes back. I think it says a lot for the city.”
But Fitzgerald’s most important donation, however, may be his time.
Whether it’s stopping by a pee wee practice unannounced or walking through Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, reminiscing about the old days, or showing up to his camps at Holy Angels, Fitzgerald’s presence has been an inspiration to children, those who’ve seen it first-hand said.
“He did a lot of stuff where the press wasn’t even there hanging out with kids throwing a ball around, playing basketball with them just talking to them,” Miller said. “You know, that is so invaluable to kids, that not only do they see this guy who they think is a superstar athletically from a distance, but they get to actually interact with him and see he’s just like they are.
“To be inspired by somebody like that, yeah, the financial resources and the commitments, absolutely invaluable, but his people time with those kids as a community was most, in my view, the most valuable.”
That’s just how Fitzgerald wants it.
Fitzgerald received a letter recently from a young man who he helped put through high school. The man had gone to college and graduated, is married and about to have his first child. Fitzgerald, who watched from afar how the young man’s life has blossomed, hopes others pay it forward.
“Now, he’s going teach his son or daughter, whatever he’s going to have, those same lessons and it just starts with one person at a time and it affects generations,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s so much bigger than just that one child. It’s so much bigger. I saw that with my mom, the stuff that she was doing. That’s why it’s so important.”