Thanks to former Pittsburgh players like wideout Larry Fitzgerald (2002-03), linebacker Gerald Hayes (1999-2002), assistant coach Teryl Austin and assistant head coach Russ Grimm, the Cardinals are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history after a stunning 32-25 win against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game Sunday afternoon.
"Russ is my right-hand man and the best offensive line coach in the game right now in my opinion,'' Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I've worked with him for quite a few years now, and he's certainly a strength for our team.''
Arizona, an unlikely title-game participant heading into the post-season as the No. 4 seed, had never won more than one playoff game in franchise history. The Cardinals, however, put together three straight playoff wins and face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Arizona is on the cusp of its first world championship since 1947.
Fitzgerald and Hayes arguably are the team's top players on offense and defense, respectively. Grimm, an offensive lineman at Pitt from 1977-80, also coaches the Arizona offensive line. Austin, the Cardinals' defensive backs coach, starred in Pitt's secondary from 1984-87.
Former Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald
The star in Sunday's NFC championship game undoubtedly was Fitzgerald. While at Pitt, he dazzled college football fans with his acrobatic catches and extraordinary ability to find the end zone. He was second in the Heisman Trophy voting after his 2003 sophomore season before turning pro.
"I just knew that I have to do my job and stay grounded,'' Fitzgerald said in the same understated, modest style he displayed at Pitt. "Make sure I don't get too emotional. … Those kinds of things are going through my mind, to make sure I do the fundamental things.''
His NFL career has been more of the same. Against the Eagles, the three-time Pro Bowler had nine receptions for 152 yards (16.9 yards per catch) and a playoff-record tying three first-half touchdowns.
In the Cardinals' three playoff victories, Fitzgerald has 23 catches for a playoff-record 419 yards with five TDs. Fitzgerald's receiving yardage broke the post-season record previously held by San Francisco 49ers Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice.
"You bring me another receiver in the league that does what he does, you can have my car, my paycheck,'' Arizona safety Antrel Rolle said. "(Fitzgerald) is the due. I will ride or die with him every time.''
Moreover, Fitzgerald has three consecutive playoff games with 100 or more receiving yards, equaling a feat also achieved by Rice, Tom Fears (Los Angeles Rams) and Randy Moss (while with the Minnesota Vikings).
"He's been among the best receivers in the NFL almost since he got into the league,'' Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. "And I don't think there's anybody better right now. I know there's no one I'd rather throw to than Larry.''
Former Pitt MLB Gerald Hayes
Hayes, a three-time All-Big East selection at Pitt, has also made his mark in the post-season. The starting middle linebacker had a key interception in the Cardinals' surprising 33-13 rout against the host Carolina Panthers in an NFC Divisional game.
"I believed in us,'' Hayes told NorthJersey.com. "We came out there and did it. When nobody believed in us, we came out there and did it ourselves.''
During the regular season, Hayes -- a sixth-year NFL veteran -- led the Cardinals with four fumble recoveries and ranked third with 88 total tackles.
The Cardinals also could have another former Pitt player added to their roster, as quarterback Tyler Palko recently signed as a future player and will attempt to make the roster this spring.
Pitt's Media Relations Department contributed to this story.
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