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Pitt receiver goes from sidelines to headlines.

Byline: JEFF SMITH The Register-Guard

He stood on the sidelines of the Minnesota Vikings and took mental notes as Cris Carter and Randy Moss would utilize every inch of their tall frames to haul in touchdown passes.

For seven seasons, Larry Fitzgerald served as a ball boy for the Vikings in his hometown of Minneapolis and would be awestruck by the types of acrobatic catches Carter and Moss would make.

"I would watch them closely and try to emulate them in my games," Fitzgerald said.

Now a true freshman for Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald is doing a decent impression of his heroes as the 6-foot-3 receiver has learned to use his size to his advantage in helping him make an immediate impact in the Big East Conference. Fitzgerald led the league in touchdown receptions (11) and receptions (5.33 per game), and his 64 catches for 917 yards were both Pittsburgh freshman records.

The Big East Rookie of the Year said he's "super excited" to help lead No. 24 Pittsburgh against Oregon State in the Insight Bowl on Thursday in Phoenix.

Fitzgerald, the first true freshman in Big East history to be a unanimous first-team all-league selection, not only gets credit for his play on the field but for the way he acts off of it. He addresses people with a Mr. or a Mrs., and wishes them happy holidays when saying goodbye.

"Not only is he a great football player, but he is a great guy," Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris said. "He is genuine, and he wants to be as good as he can be."

This demeanor was instilled in Fitzgerald in 2001, when he spent three semesters at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. Fitzgerald attended the strict prep school out of high school because he needed to get his grades up to qualify for college.

He admits that school wasn't a top priority for him while at the Academy of the Holy Angels High School in Minnesota, where he was a two-time first-team all-state player and considered one of the elite receiving prospects by many scouting services.

But instead of playing right away at Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald endured a tenure at Valley Forge that forced him to learn discipline and time management.

He'd wake up at 5:30 a.m., go through marching drills with fellow members and then return to have his room and attire inspected.

"They made sure our hair was cut properly, that we had no facial hair, that our shoes and buckles were shined and that our uniforms were proper," Fitzgerald said. "Then we'd march out like a parade again."

From there, the day would consist of classes, more drills and then either football, basketball or baseball practices. depending on the season. A study hall would follow that, and then a 10 p.m. bedtime.

"You appreciate it when it's over, but it was hard," Fitzgerald said. "I matured a lot. And I learned to like school because being in class was my escape from everything else. When I came home, everyone was telling me, `Man, you've changed.' '

This newfound maturity paid dividends for Fitzgerald upon entering Pittsburgh this fall. Classes weren't a problem for him, and football appeared to come even easier than before.

After an opening game against Ohio in which he caught one pass, Fitzgerald busted out the following week when he caught 10 passes for 103 yards in a 14-12 loss to Texas A&M that was broadcast on ESPN.

"That second game instilled a lot of confidence not just in me, but in my teammates," Fitzgerald said. "They started relying on me more."

Time and again, Fitzgerald would make the key catch when his team needed it the most. Against Boston College, in the fourth quarter, it was his fourth-down catch while slipping that preserved a key drive in a 19-16 overtime win.

And against Virginia Tech, his over-the-shoulder touchdown reception - his third of the game - tied the game at 21 en route to a 28-21 Panthers win.

"The thing that gets me is, I'll throw it up there and he'll come down and he won't tuck the ball," quarterback Rod Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's stuck in his hands as he falls to the ground. He never loses control of it."

Fitzgerald knows he's in for a challenge when he goes up against the Beavers' secondary. He has already watched plenty of film, including Oregon State's Civil War win, and gushes over the play of senior cornerback Dennis Weathersby.

"He's a big-time player, and everybody knows it," Fitzgerald said. "Nobody outruns him or outjumps him. He's a great athlete and is unlike other backs I've faced. He'll be playing on Sundays for sure."

Fitzgerald certainly knows what type of talent it takes to play in the NFL after having a sideline view to the action for seven seasons.

But he quickly stops short when asked about his own chances of making it beyond college. He remembers back to what former Vikings coach Dennis Green, a close friend of his father's, told him about the pro game.

"He taught me that the NFL stands for Not For Long," Fitzgerald said. "He told me to remember what I'm here for and to get an education. I have a great opportunity here at Pittsburgh, and I don't want to waste it."

CAPTION(S):

Larry Fitzgerald (left) is the first player in Big East history to be selected first-team all-league as a true freshman. "He's a big-time player and everybody knows it. Nobody outruns him or outjumps him. He's a great athlete and is unlike other backs I've faced. He'll be playing on Sundays for sure." LARRY FITZGERALD On OSU's Dennis Weathersby
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Title Annotation:Good hands: The former Minnesota Viking ball boy is a threat for Pittsburgh.; Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Words:950
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