Larry Fitzgerald is working on a campaign called “Riddell Smarter Football,” which makes sense. Fitzgerald has been able to prolong his career by being smart at every step.
Fitzgerald had 1,215 receiving yards last season for the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. He turned 32 years old just before the season started. That used to be considered old for a receiver, unless you were Jerry Rice or Cris Carter. Fitzgerald is still one of the NFL’s best receivers and said he hasn’t thought about retirement.
“I can play as long as I need to,” Fitzgerald said. “My body feels good. I still like the mental preparation. The only thing that changes is people’s perception about you when you reach a certain age.”
There are many great players who aren’t slowing down in their 30s. Quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees are still playing at a very high level, and skill-position players like Adrian Peterson and Steve Smith are too. Perhaps we need to reconsider what is old for an NFL player. The entire landscape has changed, with more information about nutrition, training and medicine, allowing players to have longer careers.
“Gale Sayers tore his ACL and it basically ended his career,” Fitzgerald said. “You think of ACLs now and guy are back in five months running and cutting. Modern technology is playing a huge part in all of that.
“The rehab programs are better. The doctors who are doing the surgeries are better. And young guys specializing in one sport are stronger and faster coming up.”
Changes within the game help too. Fitzgerald brought up how training camp has changed. He talked about old-school coaches putting players through two-a-day practices for a month before the season started. That doesn’t happen anymore. Teams can’t even have two full practices in a day, per the latest collective-bargaining agreement. And coaches want to keep their players fresh for the long season.
“Coaches understand they can’t just grind guys down in practice,” Fitzgerald said. “Think about the years it took off Mean Joe Greene’s career or the great players of the past. You rarely even ‘go live’ [including tackling to the ground] in training camp anymore.”
Fitzgerald wants to share his experience through the Riddell Smarter Football campaign. He wants kids to learn about nutrition and training habits, understand playing “heads up” football to avoid neck injuries, and also said he hopes administrators in the game continue to use concussion information such as sensors inside helmets that measure impact.
“We just know so much more now,” Fitzgerald said, in an interview as part of his promotion of Riddell’s program.
The issue is a tough one to navigate. The public knows more about the dangers of football, and want to make the game safer, but there’s obviously no way to eliminate injuries from the game. Some have called the criticism of the game a “war on football,” and whatever you want to call it Fitzgerald has noticed.
“We’re definitely under assault,” Fitzgerald said. “People are taking shots at our game. It’s the same for MMA, and even they don’t get as much criticism as we do.”
Fitzgerald starts asking questions. What activity is the No. 1 cause of concussions for children? He waits for a few wrong answers before giving the answer.
“Riding their bikes. You’d never tell your son or daughter they couldn’t ride their bicycle, would you?” Fitzgerald said.
It seems like Fitzgerald would have a nice future working with the NFL to help develop the game, if he wants to do that when he’s done playing. Whenever that is. For now Fitzgerald wants to get that Super Bowl ring that has eluded him so far. He and the Cardinals came close last season but lost in the NFC championship game.
“We have a really good football team,” Fitzgerald said. “We have this great group and a lot of guys are hungry.”
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