Thursday January 20th, 2005

He is the other 20-year-old sophomore. The one who didn't challenge the NFL. The one who didn't inspire a national debate. Funny, but at this week's NFL Scouting Combine, no one seems to be asking if Larry Fitzgerald is ready for the NFL, as they do about Maurice Clarett.

To hear some folks talk, it has been apparent for a while now. Maybe even as far as back as when Fitzgerald was a 14-year old ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings, catching passes off the Jugs machine while the team's star players and coaching staff stood by in practice and watched in admiration.

Fitzgerald, the celebrated University of Pittsburgh receiver, looked ridiculously polished and beyond his years then, and nothing much has changed in the subsequent six years or so.

For Fitzgerald, this week's NFL audition at the RCA Dome just seems the natural order of things. When you grow up getting pointers from Vikings wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, and occasionally get to run routes alongside them in practice, how tough can it be lining up alongside your peers and fellow NFL hopefuls?

"I was out there with them every day,'' Fitzgerald said Friday, when asked about the influence Moss and Carter had on him as a teenager. "It was good. They were always pulling me aside and telling me little things I need to watch. You know, 'Watch me do this. Watch me do that. You need to work on this.' Little things like that.

"I was just had lunch with [longtime Vikings scout] John Fitzpatrick, and I was telling him the drill he taught me, how to catch off the Jugs machine. That's something I still do to this day. And I learned that at 12 or 13 years old.''

I covered some of those Vikings teams that Fitzgerald served as a ball boy, and I remember summer mornings watching him keep up with the pros, catching ball after ball following training camp practices in Mankato, Minn. Did I think I was watching maybe the next Moss? No, but then maybe even Moss and Carter themselves didn't realize just how far, how fast Fitzgerald's star would climb.

"They used to always tease me and tell me I've got good hands, stuff like that,'' said Fitzgerald, whose father, Larry Sr., is a sports editor at a Minneapolis newspaper and was good friends with the Vikings' coach at the time, Dennis Green. "I used to go out there and run routes with them sometimes. It felt real good. To see people that you look up to, showing you respect for something they do. That gave me a lot of confidence.

"People always used to say, 'You're learning.' I was actually sizing up the competition. I was out there watching them. I knew I was going to be there one day. But I was going to take my time and do the things I had to do necessary to get there.''

Imagine if he had been in a rush. Fitzgerald won't be 21 until Aug. 31, and yet the contrast between his maturity level and the one that Clarett had on display here Thursday in his news conference was striking. The NFL may not like the idea of sophomores being eligible for their draft, but if the Clarett legal team was searching for the perfect poster child to make the case that age is all relative, they could do no better than the silky smooth Fitzgerald.

Except, of course, that Fitzgerald on Friday acknowledged that he wouldn't have been the one to challenge the NFL's draft rules in court. He might be a pace-setter on the football field, but Fitzgerald wasn't looking to be a pioneer off it.

"I'm glad I didn't have to do anything [in court],'' he said. "I would've gone back to college [if the league had ruled him draft ineligible]. You don't want to fight against the NFL. It probably wouldn't have been in my best interests, so I would've gone back to school and played another year. That's it.''

The league ruled Fitzgerald eligible for the draft because unlike Clarett, the Ohio State running back, he fulfilled the requirement of being out of high school at least three years -- he spent a year after high school at Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy, a prep school, in 2001-02.

But to see that the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Fitzgerald was ready for the rigors of the NFL, you had only to watch him play at Pitt these past two years, where he looked like the proverbial man among boys.

In his two seasons as a Panther, Fitzgerald caught 156 passes for 2,600 yards and a staggering 34 touchdowns in just 25 games. He had a record 18-game streak of catching at least one touchdown pass snapped in his final collegiate game, a bowl game loss to Virginia, and finished as the Heisman Trophy runnerup behind Oklahoma quarterback Jason White.

Fitzgerald and Texas' Roy Williams are the consensus top two receivers in the draft, and most believe Fitzgerald will go either second overall to Oakland, or third to Arizona, which happens to now be led by Green, the former Vikings boss. Wouldn't that be something?

"To be able to play for Coach Green, that would be huge,'' Fitzgerald said. "But I'd be happy to go anywhere. This is a dream come true, me standing here at the NFL Combine, to get an invitation.''

If you didn't get the feeling Friday that Fitzgerald was the anti-Clarett in almost every way, you just weren't paying attention. In his every answer, he exuded perspective, preparation, and poise.

Asked about the likelihood of being a top-three selection, Fitzgerald allowed that he had heard the projections, but quickly added: "I also comprehend that I could be drafted in the second or third round as well. You've got to look at the positives, you've got to look at the negatives. That's what keeps me working hard, going at it every day the best I can.''

Negatives? The only one that stands out in Fitzgerald's game is that he doesn't possess great speed. Although he has run a series of 4.4's during his pre-draft training, he has also clocked a few 4.6's in his day. But his play-making skills are extraordinary, and his ability to find the ball and use his body to make the catch is downright Mossian. Not to mention a nose for the end zone that rivals Carter's well-known reputation in the NFL, where all he did "was catch touchdowns.''

The best moment of Friday's news conference came late in the 15-minute session, when a reporter asked him about his knack for catching the ball and his exquisite hand-eye coordination. Sounding like an artist who struggles to explain his craft, Fitzgerald described a stop-action world that precious few receivers have experienced.

"It's really weird that you asked me that because when I run a route and the ball is in the air, it's like everything just slows down,'' he said. "I can't hear the crowd. I see the defender, but my main focus is on that ball. Everything just slows down and as soon as I catch it, it speeds back up again. That's kind of what happens. I can't really explain it.''

For Fitzgerald, who on Saturday night will leave the combine to accept the Dapper Dan award as the city of Pittsburgh's outstanding athlete of the year, things have been speeding up for a while now. And from the looks of it, with NFL stardom a solid bet, things aren't about to slow down any time soon.

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