For football fans in general, there are three variations of the game that draw rabid fan interest. There are those whose focus is on the fundamentals and team-building mentality of high school football – the game played at its purest form and where one weak link can break the chain. There are some who live and die with the college game, whether it's cheering for their alma mater of watching the dozens of games that are played between Thursday night and midnight Saturday night each week. Then there are those whose focus is squarely on the NFL, including face-painters who call in sick Monday after a Sunday loss.
Two of those segments of Vikings fandom will have a homecoming of sorts Sunday when the Vikings square off with the Arizona Cardinals. Perhaps the two greatest wide receivers in the history of Minnesota high school football (no disrespect directed at Eric Decker) will return to their roots Sunday.
The Cardinals offense will be highlighted by two receivers with deep Minnesota ties. Larry Fitzgerald is his ninth NFL season and has likely cemented his place in the annals of the game and the final stop of his career is almost surely to be in Canton, Ohio. In 1998, Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Vikings when an 11-year Hall of Fame-bound wide receiver (Cris Carter) was running shoulder to shoulder with a dynamic young rookie with unlimited potential (Randy Moss). Fitzgerald went on to be a star at the Academy of the Holy Angels before leaving as a senior to attend Valley Forge Military Academy.
Years later, Michael Floyd became the pre-eminent high school wide receiver in Minnesota playing for Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Prior to this year, the only thing the two had in common was that, despite a ton of pressure being applied to both to play for the University of Minnesota, they bolted – Fitzgerald to the University of Pittsburgh and Floyd to Notre Dame. Both will be on display Sunday in their homecoming game in Minnesota, but won't be getting the kind of love they did when they electrified the Twin Cities high school football scene.
Vikings wide receiver Michael Jenkins came into the league the same year (2004) as Fitzgerald and has gained a respect for what he does.
"He's just smart," Jenkins said. "He knows how to use his hands, his size and his ability as a strength. We all know he's not a blazer, a 4.2 guy, but he still can run away from people and do everything he needs to do as a receiver to get open and make plays. You admire what he does."
When it comes to Floyd, Jenkins sees many of the same qualities both he and Fitzgerald had in the infancy of their own NFL careers. There is an "It Factor" to NFL players – you know "it" when you see it. Floyd has yet to break out, but Jenkins sees the "it" in him.
"He's a young player, but he comes into the league with a lot of talent," Jenkins said. "He is getting his legs under him at this level and is going to be a very good player. Lining up with Larry will help that process a lot."
One of the luxuries that Jenkins has is that he will be an up-close observer when Fitzgerald and Floyd are on the field. Jasper Brinkley will (literally) be right in the middle of it and he has a mutual respect for both Fitzgerald and Floyd. When it comes to Fitzgerald, Brinkley is quick to admit that he is the straw that stirs the Arizona offensive drink.
"They're a high-powered offense that begins with No. 11 (Fitzgerald)," Brinkley said. "You have to know where he is. He's one of the great receivers in this league and you have to make sure he doesn't get a chance to hurt you."
But, like Jenkins, Brinkley sees the same sort of untapped potential in Floyd, whom he views as a younger clone and heir apparent to being the centerpiece of the Cardinals offense once Fitzgerald's career comes to an end.
"He's a younger Larry to me," Brinkley said. "With the work ethic Larry has, he has it too. He's got all the tools."
Both players are in a similar situation that Carter and Moss had 14 years earlier, when Fitzgerald was a Vikings ball boy and Floyd was a third-grader just learning to understand the game of football. Both have excelled at what they do and Vikings wide receiver Devin Aromashodu said that the Cardinals are fortunate to have the two of them playing alongside one another.
"They're both great at what they do," Aromashodu said. "Larry has great ball skills. How many times have you seen him just go up and get a jump ball away from defenders? He has great body control. Floyd did a lot of those same types of things at Notre Dame, and the two of them together could be something. Floyd is still young, but he can learn from Larry because he does so many things well. Larry is almost always double covered, but still makes plays because of his ability. Now you have a second guy with similar skills to worry about. When you have multiple receivers that can do things well, it makes it hard for a defense to cover them all."
High school football fans in Minnesota raised their eyebrows when they saw Fitzgerald and Floyd do what few other high school athletes could do – dominate at the wide receiver position. College football fans in Minnesota lament that the mediocrity of the Gophers program for so long made it too easy for elite athletes like Fitzgerald and Floyd to leave the state to play for programs that could better grease the wheels to prepare them for NFL careers. NFL fans in Minnesota are rightfully worried because, as two of their own high school football heroes return on Sunday afternoon to the state that they electrified on Friday nights, they will be wearing red and white instead of purple and gold.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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