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March 18, 2022

Gridiron Great Tackles Pickleball

One of the finest receivers in NFL history, the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald takes his athleticism to the pickleball court.

By Drew Wathey

His legendary play as a wide receiver in the NFL will all but assure Larry Fitzgerald of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His bronze bust will forever be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, and Fitzgerald will eventually join the sport’s elite after a sparkling career that rivals few.


Coming off the campus of the University of Pittsburgh where he was the third overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Fitzgerald has spent 17 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and amassed an incredible receiving portfolio with 1,432 receptions for nearly 17,500 yards and 121 touchdowns, second only to the great Jerry Rice in pass catches and yards. Holder of 24 NFL records and 40 Cardinals franchise milestones, Fitzgerald is undoubtedly one of the finest players in NFL history.


His athleticism and attention off the gridiron are now being played out on the pickleball court. His passion for the game quickly caught on the first time he held a paddle.


“I started playing a little before the pandemic, played down in Cabo San Lucas with a couple of friends at El Dorado, the Discovery property in Mexico,” says the 11-time Pro Bowler. “I was just kind of fascinated with the speed of the game and I just got addicted. I ended up playing when I got back in Arizona that next week.”


Like so many current and former professional athletes, Fitzgerald was attracted to the speed of the sport, the volleying at the kitchen line and overall pace of play.


“I like the speed, the hand-eye coordination, the finesse shots, the dinking, and also just thinking through the shots and why you are trying to execute this shot, in terms of hitting it,” he explains. “Also, the difference between driving a shot or trying to dink it, using the angles and using my long wingspan. So, all of that played into why I like it so much.”


Fitzgerald’s long wingspan instilled terror in defensive backs who had to cover him on the field. He posted nine 1,000-yard seasons and five years where he caught 100 or more passes, and made first-team All-Pro in 2008. Fitzgerald associates quickness in hauling in the pigskin with reacting to shots on the pickleball court. He feels that many of his NFL brethren could pick up the sport and soon attain a fairly level competence of play.


“Anybody who has lateral quickness and ability to move, and has touch around the net, would be good,” added Fitzgerald. “So, any professional wide receiver would be pretty good at pickleball, and any defensive back would be really good just because they are so quick.”


Fitzgerald hopes to become a skilled pickleball player and enjoys playing with his family and friends so much that he built a pickleball court in his backyard during the pandemic. “We couldn’t leave the house and my kids were playing all these types of games—basketball and baseball in the backyard and playing football—and it was something we could do at night,” recalls Fitzgerald.


“You couldn’t play football in the backyard at night as I didn’t have the lights, but I put some lights outside the pickleball court, and we would play out there until 10 or 11 o’clock at night and it would be a lot of fun.”


His love of all sports is also clearly reflected in his becoming a minority owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns in 2020.


The 38-year-old Minneapolis native has earned numerous football accolades, one of which was accepting in 2016 the NFL’s highly prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Named in honor of the former Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back nicknamed “Sweetness,” the award highlighted Fitzgerald’s philanthropic work and community impact that has earned him abundant respect beyond the football field. Now, besides learning how to handle the third shot drop, he’s continuing to focus on bettering the community he lives in.


“That third shot drop. It’s always something I kind of work on especially with the backhand or if I’m on the left-hand side, and people are serving it to me out wide trying to get that down,” he says. “I want to get up to the net and use my strength, athleticism and length.”


Since he began playing pickleball, Fitzgerald has become fascinated with the quality of play from topflight pros like Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, who—at only 15 years old—is beginning to dominate the women’s singles scene, and along with her mother, Leigh, is also doing remarkably well in doubles.


“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to react as quickly as them, but it is phenomenal to see their skill. The power—I’m a really strong guy so that doesn’t really jump out at me, but it’s just the shot quality. Playing Anna Leigh a couple of weeks ago, she can hit a driving backhand with topspin—so when it hits the ground, even if you can get there, it’s hard to do anything with it because it’s running away from you. It’s not only the power of their game, but it’s also the finesse and skill level of the shots they’re executing,” says Fitzgerald.


Like so many who play the fastest-growing sport in the country, Fitzgerald feels its potential for growth is limitless: “I would love to start seeing it played at the high school level, maybe in the clubs, and then develop into a true spring sport possibly. I see a lot of kids playing it all over the country and I think the more popular it gets, I definitely think it is something that can be played at the high school level and hopefully, gradually elevate it to a game that will be played on the international world circuit.”


While growing up in Minnesota, Fitzgerald worked as a ball boy for the Vikings under head coach Dennis Green and was able to see many of his boyhood idols up close. Players like Cris Carter, Warren Moon and Randy Moss established his impassioned desire to excel at the sport, and excel he did.


Regarded by many as one of the finest receivers to play in the NFL, Larry Fitzgerald is now turning his attention to the pickleball court. And, once he figures out how to maneuver the third shot drop—and you know he will—watch out.  •

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