EAGAN, Minn.-- Adam Thielen was 12 years old when Larry Fitzgerald took the NCAA by storm, catching 34 touchdown passes in two seasons before being selected No. 3 overall in the 2004 NFL Draft
Thielen idolized the legendary Vikings duo of Randy Moss and Cris Carter as a kid growing up in Detroit Lakes, but Fitzgerald was a Minnesota kid who rose to stardom, and that captured his heart.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about our friendship now,” Thielen said. “I remember him getting drafted. … Now, to be able to see him in the offseason, and play golf with him, and have a relationship with him is pretty cool.”
Not everyone who grew up watching Fitzgerald can say they went on to become his friend, but for the rest, simply getting to play against him is enough. At least it is for some of the Vikings that will get to play against him during Saturday’s preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
It could very well be the final time Fitzgerald makes an appearance in his hometown. Many believed last season would be his last in the NFL. He turns 36 next week.
“It’s kind of a dream come true to be on the same field as him,” receiver Chad Beebe said. “I grew up watching him, for crying out loud. Obviously, he’s a heck of a player. It’ll be cool. Hopefully, I’ll be able to shake his hand after the game.”
“You have so much respect for a guy that’s been able to do it for so long at such a high level,” said receiver Brandon Zylstra. “Just the productivity that he’s had is something that every young kid wants to emulate. He’s not the fastest guy; he just knows how to get open and catch the ball. I’m just trying to learn from him whenever I can.”
A native of Minneapolis, Fitzgerald was a Vikings ball boy during the Dennis Green era and high school star at Holy Angels Academy. When he retires, he’ll be known as one of the best receivers in NFL history. right now he ranks third in receptions (1,303), second in receiving yards (16,279) and sixth in receiving touchdowns (116).
“He’s a great, great player,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s big, which makes it more difficult. He’s an excellent route runner. He’s got great hands. All those things. And he’s a tough guy. He’s not afraid to go in there.
“I love his game because he doesn’t trash talk ever. He just goes about his business and plays. Just everything about him is professional.”
His professionalism might be the biggest reason Fitzgerald has played so well for so long. Many players have talent, not many play for nearly two decades.
“He’s always inviting me to come work out with him (in the offseason) and get on his routine; those are things that people don’t see,” Thielen said. “He’s up every morning and grinding and making sure he takes care of his body. It’s cool to have a role model like that because it makes sure I hold myself accountable.”
“There’s not a better guy out there,” Thielen added. “He’s just a high-class guy that does it the right way and is a true professional and a guy that I’ve looked up to for a long time.”
That feeling hasn’t worn off for Thielen, even though Fitzgerald is now closer to a friend than an idol.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go away. I still look up to him,” he said. “To be able to play that many years in the league and continue to play at a high level and be a leader is pretty special. I’m just soaking it up every time I get to be around him and pick his brain, just trying to figure out how he’s been able to do what he’s done for so long.”