Arizona receiver Fitzgerald hasn't forgotten friends from Valley Forge Military Academy

Posted: January 15, 2009

On Thanksgiving eve, Mike Muscella received a call on his cell phone. The number didn't ring a bell, but the voice sounded familiar.

It was Larry Fitzgerald. He was sitting on the tarmac in Phoenix, waiting for the Cardinals' charter to take off for Philadelphia.

"Coach," Muscella recalled Fitzgerald saying. "Meet me at this restaurant in town at 7 o'clock tonight. Bring your family, I am treating you guys to dinner."

The Cardinals' flight was delayed, so the group never made it to dinner. Instead, Muscella, Fitzgerald's head coach at Valley Forge Military Academy, and his family hung out with the Cardinals' three-time Pro Bowl receiver at the team hotel.

Though he usually doesn't bother Fitzgerald with seemingly trivial things, Muscella brought a football for Fitzgerald to sign for a friend's son who was a huge fan. After Muscella briefly explained that the kid was struggling in school, Fitzgerald asked, "Coach, what's his number? I'll give him a call."

The lightbulb in Fitzgerald's head was a realization that schoolwork was what brought him halfway across the country to Wayne, Pa., in the first place for the 2001-02 school year. He spent the next 10 minutes giving the boy advice on how to better succeed in the classroom.

"People always have these stories," Muscella explained, "how great some of these guys are. But with Larry, it's different. He is real.

"That's just the kind of guy he is."

Fitzgerald had 35 catches for 420 yards and seven touchdowns in six games at Valley Forge. His Cardinals play host to the Eagles in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

Despite a stellar senior season complete with All-America and All-State awards at Academy of the Holy Angels in Minneapolis, Fitzgerald didn't have the grades to play big-time college football.

"When he came out of his old high school, even the big programs knew that they couldn't touch him because of his grades," said Muscella, who was a head coach at VFMA for 6 years and just finished his second year as an assistant coach. "They referred him to us."

After Valley Forge, Fitzgerald went to Pittsburgh and was the third overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft.

Valley Forge is a hidden gem among prep schools. It is rarely mentioned in the Philadelphia football circuit - let alone nationally - even though it has produced 15 NFL players just since 1990. It's probably forgotten because of its rigorous, up-at-dawn military lifestyle off the field.

"For Larry, you could tell that he didn't want to be there," Muscella said. "But for him, there was light at the end of the tunnel. It was a wakeup call.

"He did everything that he was supposed to, because he knew that if he did, everything would be OK. We always tell kids: 'Sit in the front row, pay attention.'

"Larry was one of the few kids who actually did that."

On the field, Muscella knew what he was getting the first time he saw Fitzgerald walk out of the locker room.

"I saw him and I said, 'This is what guys who play on Sundays look like,' " Muscella said. "His uniform, his physique, you could just tell that he was different."

In just one season at Valley Forge, Fitzgerald left an indelible mark on his opponents.

"I still have people that come up to me and say, 'Wow, I remember that catch that he made here,' " Muscella said. "He made this grab on the sidelines on a ball that was thrown 2 yards out of bounds. He just went out and snatched it. It was unbelievable."

Fitzgerald's NFL success, including three 1,400-yard seasons, comes as no surprise to Muscella.

"We always knew he would play on Sundays," he said. "It is just awesome to watch and think 'We saw that' or 'We helped make him at Valley Forge.' "

As for Sunday's game, Fitzgerald called Muscella on Tuesday and asked who he would be rooting for. As a diehard Eagles fan, Muscella's answer was easy.

"I told him, I'm rooting for the Birds," Muscella said.

He just didn't say which one. *

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