FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A few days before the start of training camp, Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald had a quick little trip to make — halfway around the world to Uganda for some charity work alongside former President Clinton.
Probably no professional athlete travels more than the Arizona Cardinals’ six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. He says he’s been to “75 or 80 countries, somewhere around there. I haven’t counted in a while.”
Some of his journeys have been for pleasure. Many are for a cause. They include, most prominently, distributing hearing aids to the impoverished.
That’s what Fitzgerald was doing in Uganda in a visit in conjunction with the Clinton Global Initiative.
“I was on the ground all of nine hours,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I landed, I went right to the site and we fit hearing aids right along with Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton and it was really cool. We fit for about six hours and as soon as we got done jumped on the plane and came home.”
Fitzgerald said he found Clinton to be remarkably intelligent and a surprisingly big sports fan.
One of the first things the former president wanted to know, Fitzgerald said, was who would be the Cardinals’ starting quarterback. The open competition between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton is the No. 1 topic of the Cardinals’ training camp, but hardly a common subject of discussion in eastern Africa.
“This guy, the day before I saw him, he was in South Africa for Nelson Mandella’s 94th birthday,” Fitzgerald said. “He was there with 100 people from all around the world, showing the work he’s doing in Africa. All his things, the foreign politics, the things that are going in his life, he still knows exactly what’s going on, not only in the NFL but what we have going on in Arizona. It was mind-boggling to me. The dude is unbelievable.”
Fitzgerald said he got the traveling bug as a child on road trips from the family’s Minnesota home to places such as Florida, California and New Orleans.
“I was always fascinated by traveling and seeing new things,” he said. “Once I got in the league nine years ago, I finally had the resources to kind of expand on that.”
His first trip, the summer after his rookie season, was a USO tour with stops in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, visiting Air Force bases, then touring the cities.
The hearing aid cause came from his friendship with his neighbor in Minnesota, Bill Austin, a hearing aid innovator and head of Starkey Laboratories, the largest manufacturer of hearing aids in the Unites States. He also is CEO of the Starkey Foundation, which distributes the hearing aids to poverty-stricken nations around the globe.
“He invited me to come do a mission with him,” Fitzgerald said. “For about a year, I said, ‘Oh yeah, if I get around to it.'”
Three years ago, he made his first trip, to four cities in India, and he was stunned by the instant impact suddenly being able to hear had on people so poor their home was a corner of some filthy, crowded street.
After a half-hour fitting session, Fitzgerald said, the person can hear the birds, the motorcycles, the din of the city. Sometimes it’s such a shock it takes quite a while to calm the patient down.
This year, in addition to Uganda, he distributed hearing aids in Malaysia and Tanzania.
He also is a partner with friend and former teammate, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, in contributing to the OxFam Foundation, which pays people in poor nations develop resources in an attempt to lift themselves out of poverty.
In Ethiopia, he said as an example, that when it does rain, usually in a deluge, it doesn’t help much because the ground quickly absorbs the water, then the drought returns.
The foundation, he said, is funding the building of dams, “so when it does rain, it doesn’t erode the topsoil and they can actually use it for the growth of crops, to be able to save the water and feed the livestock.”
The people plant trees and plants “and things like that so they can feed themselves and their family,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re helping them with life skills.”
He said his charity work is mostly international because he sees such a need in extreme poverty. There are needs in the United States, to be sure, he said, but on a different scale.
“You go to any 50 states in America, you turn on the faucet and you can put your mouth under that faucet and drink that water,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t have to worry about getting sick or dying or getting worms or getting anything. That water is purified. In India, I would rather not drink the water.”
He does have domestic causes, most prominently as a crusader against breast cancer, an illness that claimed the life of his mother.
The Cardinals’ career receiving leader is in the second year of an eight-year, $120 million contract — $50 million guaranteed and the fourth major deal he has signed with the club. Such resources provide him with an elegant style of living, but also a responsibility, he said.
“I can say this for Q (Bolden) because we’ve had this conversation,” Fitzgerald said. “God has blessed us with an amazing platform. You can do anything you want with that platform. You can use your platform for all the wrong reasons, or you can try to do some good things.”
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