Fitzgerald has been dreaming of NFL for several years

NDIANAPOLIS — 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.