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Pitt's Fitzgerald Aiming for Big Catch: Heisman

October 05, 2003|Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Larry Fitzgerald's over-the-shoulder, over-his-head, on-his-hip, behind-his-back, among-three-defenders catches already are a weekend staple of every sports highlight show in America.

Sometimes, though, it's those few Fitzgerald catches that don't count that enthuse his coach, Pittsburgh's Walt Harris, the most. Like that end zone grab last weekend at Texas A&M in which Fitzgerald was ruled out of bounds, but would have given him four touchdown catches for the day if it had counted.

So gushing is his praise, Harris almost sounds like a 19-year-old college sophomore himself, rather than a coach who has mentored seven receivers who were NFL first-round draft choices.

"That was one of greatest displays of guts and commitment to the ball I've ever seen," Harris said, growing more enthusiastic with every word. "A corner is chasing on his side, the other corner got involved in the play from the other side, and yet it didn't wreck his concentration. I mean, he's getting ready to get pounded by the other corner, and he goes up and jackknifes his body, avoids the corner and catches the ball. It was a tremendous example of sheer guts and unbelievable skill."

When opposing coaches describe Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound package of instinctive skills, magnetic hands and ever-sure feet, they seem just as genuine with their praise.

"He's as good as any I've seen, and I've seen some good ones," said Kent State coach Brady Hoke, a former Michigan assistant.

"Fitzgerald may be as good a receiver as I've seen," Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione said after Fitzgerald caught seven passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns against the Aggies. "He's just a talent."

A talent who, just two years out of prep school, is trying to do two things never before accomplished in college football.

One, he is trying to become the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, which traditionally goes to players who gradually build up a reputation and a portfolio during their careers. Second, he is trying to become the first pure wide receiver to win the award; Desmond Howard and Tim Brown, the only two receivers to raise the Heisman, were multi-threat specialists who also excelled on special teams.

Fitzgerald does one thing, and he might do it better than any player in college football -- catch the ball, no matter where it's thrown, how many defenders are covering him or the skill level of those in coverage.

Not even former Pitt All-American Antonio Bryant, the Biletnikoff award winner as college football's best receiver in 2000, rivals Fitzgerald there.

"His greatest skill is to sight the ball," Harris said. "Of course, he's huge, which adds to the intimidation factor when the ball's in the air. The strength in his hands, his ability to sight the ball and his hand-eye coordination are way off the charts. His strength in his fingers and hands is tremendous. I mean no one pulls the ball away from him."

Fitzgerald has some competition for the title of college football's best receiver, including a quartet of Williamses -- Reggie Williams, Washington; Demetrius Williams, Oregon; Mike Williams, Southern Cal and Roy Williams, Texas -- plus Michael Clayton at LSU and Rashaun Woods at Oklahoma State.

But Fitzgerald's numbers are remarkable -- 32 catches for 583 yards and nine touchdowns in four games; 10 consecutive games with at least one touchdown catch, three short of the national record; a nation's-best 145.75 yards per game average; 17 touchdown catches in his last nine games. He has at least 100 yards receiving in every Pitt game this season; he had his 100 yards against Toledo well before the end of the first quarter.

Fitzgerald downplays the Heisman talk, instead boosting teammate Rod Rutherford, who has thrown 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Fitzgerald said, "Right team, wrong man. Rod is the one who has been making us go."

To Fitzgerald's coach and teammates, such remarks illustrate what they call his greatest assets: his lack of ego and his drive to do remarkable things in a year filled mostly with sadness. In the span of a few months this spring and summer, he dealt not only with the loss of his mother, Carol, who died at age 47 of cancer, but of friend and fellow Pitt wide receiver Billy Gaines, who fell through a church ceiling following a night of drinking at a cookout.

Fitzgerald still cannot talk of his mother without tears welling in his eyes, and he rushes through pregame warmups as if he can't wait for them to end -- probably because he can't. Before, his mom always called his cell phone before every game, letting him know where she was sitting so he could wave to her.

"Things still aren't back to normal," Fitzgerald said. "And it's not going to be normal for a while."

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