By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. -- Larry Fitzgerald soars above the outstretched arms of defenders, caresses the football with his fingertips, and clings to it as he comes back down to earth.
The scene is all too familiar to his teammates and coaches, and now the 25-year-old receiver's amazing skills are the talk of the Super Bowl. He could, single-handedly, be the potent equalizer the Arizona Cardinals' need against Pittsburgh's powerhouse defense.
Watch him. He has an uncanny knack for lifting his 6-foot-3 body off the ground at precisely the right moment, at the right height, so he can be exactly where he needs to be to grab the ball.
"He is doing what he was born to do," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.
Fitzgerald is the antithesis of the stereotypical brash receiver. After he makes spectacular touchdown catches, he simply flips the ball to the official.
"I aspire to be great," Fitzgerald said. "That's one of the reasons to play the game -- to win, to be great. I feel that if you aren't trying to be the best, then I don't understand what your motivation is in this game as a player."
His friends keep him humble. Former Minnesota Vikings great Cris Carter, a longtime pal and mentor, tells him he's not the best receiver in the NFL.
"He's not better than Andre Johnson," said Carter, who persistently nudges Fitzgerald to improve. He is the voice in Fitzgerald's ear that whispers "what you did last week really doesn't matter."
Fitzgerald is as alert to detail in practice as he is in games, slapping his hands in disgust if, heaven forbid, he should drop a ball in a drill.
"I don't look too far in the future. I just look at today," Fitzgerald said this week. "How can I be the best player I can be on Wednesday? How can I be the best player I can be on Thursday? If I can continue to chip away like that, then I can be the best player on Sunday."
A measure of greatness is how well a player performs on the biggest stage. In his first three playoff games, Fitzgerald was phenomenal. His 419 yards receiving broke Jerry Rice's NFL postseason record, and he still has a game to go. His three 100-yard receiving games tie him with Tom Fears, Rice and Randy Moss for most in a career postseason.
His 23 playoff catches include several of the climbing-to-the-stars variety, but also a mix of crossing routes, where he breaks wide open over the middle. On a few occasions, he's bowled over would-be tacklers, something he never would have done in his early pro career.
"I think Larry has always had the ability to catch the football," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "but as a player that wants to be great, he's worked hard at the little things, as we say, to improve his game. I believe that's why he's had such a successful year this year and such a fantastic postseason."
Fitzgerald the football player is there for all to see. Fitzgerald the person is far more private, polite but reserved.
"He's trying to control his image," Carter said. "We were always taught through Denny Green that if you don't control your image, then the media will control it."
Fitzgerald has been surrounded by football his entire life. His father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., writes a column for the weekly Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and became a close friend of Green while he coached the Vikings.
"Larry obviously got to work with two potential Hall of Fame wide receivers in Cris Carter and Randy Moss," his father said. "The great coaches here -- Dennis Green, Tony Dungy, Brian Billick. It was like a family affair, but yet he was always learning something. The Vikings played football at a very high level here for a long time."
As a youngster, Fitzgerald spent his summers visiting relatives, including his grandfather, Chicago optometrist Robert Johnson.
Johnson said young Larry was "all over the place" and hyperactive, "like a bad kid." But when Fitzgerald played sports, Johnson said, a different child emerged.
"Larry is a smart kid," Johnson said. "When he has to do it, he can do it."
Fitzgerald apparently had problems doing homework, but his grandfather said they were related to his vision and that subsequent drills he had the boy do incorporated skills that helped him with football.
Drills like asking his grandson to balance on a board while trying to track a dot or walk on a wood rail while focusing on an object. All were designed to improve perception, hand-eye coordination and, ultimately, focus.
"He was a real busybody, so what we had to do was get him to learn how to control himself," said Dr. Stephanie Johnson-Brown, Fitzgerald's aunt and the executive director of the Plano Vision Development Center in Chicago.
Johnson said Fitzgerald "sees with his brain" and shuts his eyes when the ball gets to him. Fitzgerald politely says that while his grandfather's drills were a great help, he actually keeps his eye on the ball until it is in his grasp.
The teenage Fitzgerald excelled in football, starting as a linebacker before eventually moving to wide receiver, but academics were a problem. After his senior year in high school he was sent to a Virginia military academy to get his grades up so he would be eligible for the many football scholarships that were coming his way. He landed at the University of Pittsburgh.
By his second season there, Fitzgerald was a star, finishing a close second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White. Fitzgerald was eligible to turn pro after his sophomore season because three years had passed since he was a high school senior.
By that time, his old friend Green was coaching the Cardinals. Fitzgerald was just 20 years old when Arizona made him the third overall pick in the 2004 draft.
Anquan Boldin was in his second season when Fitzgerald was a rookie, and the two immediately became a formidable receiving tandem. Fitzgerald topped 1,000 yards receiving in 2005, 2007 and 2008, earning Pro Bowl honors all three years. He was an All-Pro selection this season after leading the NFC with 96 receptions for a career-best 1,431 yards.
After the 2007 season, Fitzgerald signed a four-year contract with Arizona worth $40 million, $30 million guaranteed.
He signed the contract just before leaving on what have become annual journeys to the corners of the world -- South America, Australia, New Zealand, where he did a 630-foot bungee jump from the Sky Tower in Auckland.
Last December, word leaked of a court document filed by the mother of his son accusing Fitzgerald of assaulting her. No criminal charges were filed and he denies the accusation.
"It was an incident that was not what was reported," he said, when asked about it this week. "Anyone who knows me knows the kind of person I am, and I would never involve myself with that type of business."
Perhaps the toughest time of his young life came in April of 2003 when his mother, Carol, died of breast cancer. He acknowledges the relationship was difficult at times, but now honors her memory every day: He carries her driver's license with him and wears dreadlocks because she wore them, too.
Carter said losing his mother is something football can never replace for Fitzgerald.
"I don't care, he can catch a thousand-yarder, he'll never have his mom with him," Carter said. "There's a part of him that will never be full or complete because of that."
AP sports writers Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.