New Orleans – Sometimes the best stories of Super Bowl week actually occur away from the run-up to the game or the interviews at the teams’ hotels. Up an escalator or in some tucked-away conference room, seemingly a world removed from the din of the media work room and Radio Row.
After 34 years of covering Super Bowl games, I still learn that lesson, and 92.9 The Game colleague Rachel Baribeau learned it, too, on Thursday morning. We ventured to one of the ancillary press conferences, for a group called Characters Unite, which advocates against discrimination of all types. Truth be told, our mission (Rachel was my wing-woman, toting a recorder I’m way too challenged to use) was to score an interview with ol’ friend and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a fellow University of Pittsburgh grad and a player I’ve known since he entered the league as a first-rounder in 2004.
At the end of a 45-minute press conference, I got my interview, talking to “Fitz” in a hallway, about new Cards’ coach Bruce Arians, starting over again in a new regime and with a new offense, the potential need for a quarterback, the pressures of playing in a Super Bowl, the frustrations of not winning one.
But during the press conference, I found out one of the few things I didn’t realize about Fitzgerald and it had nothing to do with football– that his mother had been discriminated against during her long battle with breast cancer, which tragically ended in 2003 with her death from a brain hemorrhage that resulted from her therapy. The late Carol Fitzgerald was, in the latter stages of her treatment, shunned at restaurants because she had lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy, and was forced to wear a bandana. People wouldn’t touch the same door knob as her, fearful they might contract something.
Fitzgerald spoke poignantly of the situation. New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain, who were also on the panel, shared their experiences with similar discriminations. And they talked about how each of them, with Characters Unite, had mentored young people who had similar experiences. The USA Network has partnered with Characters Unite and the NFL to create a documentary that will air on Friday, Feb. 8, about the players, the kids with whom they’ve worked, and the many shapes, sizes and colors of discrimination.
In the documentary, narrator and former Cincinnati star wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, speaks of the experiences of the three men and Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu (who could not attend), and noted: “What makes them unique also makes them exceptional.” Documentarian Charlie Ebersol added: “You don’t have to put on a football helmet to be a hero.”
During his NFL career, I have always admired Fitzgerald, a soft-spoken guy whose father, Larry Sr., is also a sportswriter I’ve come to know well. I knew the story of Larry’s mother. But apparently not all of it. Listening to Larry, watching him well up in a back hallway where we spoke, only strengthened that admiration.
Things worked out pretty nicely for Rachel, too. OK, so we didn’t get the taped one-on-one with Larry Fitzgerald because, as I spoke to him, she was busy interviewing the producers of the documentary for her popular Friday “pay it forward” segment. Make sure you listen for it. So we were, in a sense, both winners. But no more so than Larry Fitzgerald.
And we proved, albeit in a small way, that you don’t have to attend every Super Bowl team press conference to unearth a pretty good story.