Larry Fitzgerald's remarkable memory catches the good and bad

His worst losses on and off the field, the way his belt fastened in Pop Warner, his greatest feats: Larry Fitzgerald remembers everything. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are things Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald can't forget but wishes he didn't still remember.

Like the exact thoughts that went through his head as he sat at his locker after the 2015 NFC Championship Game loss to the Carolina Panthers and the smell of that locker room, deep inside Bank of America Stadium, which is still fresh in his senses more than two-and-a-half years later.

Like the feeling he had after losing Super Bowl XLIII, which still bubbles up again and again.

They're just some of the thoughts Fitzgerald wishes he could push out of his head, bury away somewhere deep so they don't keep returning.

Yet, his mind doesn't work that way. It won't let them go.

Fitzgerald's memory, especially in the long term, is precise. He claims to be able to remember every one of his 1,291 catches, all of his 120 touchdowns and almost every one of his hundreds of teammates -- including their wives and kids. It has become somewhat commonplace for Fitzgerald, in the middle of his weekly media gaggle, to recite a specific play from five, 10 years ago -- or longer -- to perfection.

"If it's important to me, I usually remember it," Fitzgerald said. "It's a blessing for me."

But even a blessing such as a great memory can have its curses.

Fitzgerald still remembers walking into the hospital room to see his mother, Carol, in a coma in 2003 before she died. What still sticks in his mind, however, is that the shades were half drawn and there were two flower arrangements sitting on the window sill.

He hasn't forgotten the scent of perfume she used to wear or the suit his grandfather wore to the last psalm he sang in church.

"Stuff like that," he said. "It's weird."

But that's how Fitzgerald always has been, he said.

His recall dates to his Pop Warner days growing up in Minneapolis.

"I could tell you what I did against Powderhorn Park in 1995, the jersey that I had on, the color, the pads, the Shark shoes that I had on, even what my dad was wearing in the stands," Fitzgerald said. "I remember little, small details, mostly the things that are meaningful to me."

For the record, his Shark cleats were all black. His jersey was gold with a black "King Park" inscription on it. He wore Nike socks, Bike pants with "big pads" inside them. All his pads were white. His belt would go through the hip and back pads. His helmet was white with a two-bar face mask, just like former NFL kicker Nick Lowery's, Fitzgerald said.

"I was kicking ass and taking names," Fitzgerald said.

His recall, especially when it comes to football, is something rarely seen, but it's not unique to Fitzgerald.

Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea, who played for the Indianapolis Colts from 2006 to 2013, said Peyton Manning had a memory like Fitzgerald's. A group of Colts would go out to dinner every Thursday night before games and it became routine for Manning to bring up a play that happened a decade earlier, going through it in detail, including down-and-distance, opponent and quarter.

"If you think about it, a lot of the greats, they have that," Bethea said. "You play so much football, you would think guys would forget certain plays but sometimes it's just that photographic memory, where some things you just can't let go. So, it's a unique characteristic or trait to have."

Fitzgerald does it all the time.

He'll be watching film with the other receivers, see a route and start talking about how he ran that play 10 years ago and then rattle off the details of the play, situation, opponent and location as if the play just happened, wide receiver Chad Williams said. So, they'd check his work. After going through old tape to find the play Fitzgerald was talking about, sure enough, he'd be right.

"I could tell you what I did against Powderhorn Park in 1995, the jersey that I had on, the color, the pads, the Shark shoes that I had on, even what my dad was wearing in the stands." Larry Fitzgerald

"It gets kind of crazy at times," said Williams, who's entering his second season playing with Fitzgerald.

Wide receiver coach Kevin Garver says he thinks a combination of Fitzgerald's longevity and intricate understanding of football contribute to his ability to retain years and years of plays.

"At the end of the day, we all run very similar things," Garver said. "We just call them different terms. Everybody has their own little wrinkle and things that they do but, really, if you look across the league, people are going to run curl routes and go routes, and so for a lot of guys that have been in it for a while it's, 'OK, I ran this 10 years ago and we called it this or five years ago we called it this and now it's this.' It's more translating from this to this."

Last week, Fitzgerald, cornerback Patrick Peterson and J.J. Nelson were talking about Fitzgerald's 75-yard catch-and-run in Arizona's playoff game against Green Bay in early 2016. Peterson gave Fitzgerald a hard time about not having run 75 yards in a play since. Fitzgerald responded by going back through all his 75-yard catches -- all five of them.

Williams also saw it from Plaxico Burress, the former Steelers, Giants and Jets receiver who was a coaching intern with the Cards last training camp. In meetings, Burress would start rattling off old plays, too.

Fitzgerald said he won't remember a play or a catch unless he's "honed in." But what impresses Williams most is that Fitzgerald, who has played in 227 games in his NFL career as he begins his 15th season next week, continues to expand his memory instead of shrinking it.

"Think about it, the playbook that we had last year -- it's been exactly a year -- you have to delete stuff out your mind and place new stuff where you just deleted that from," Williams said. "Think about Larry not deleting it and just adding more stuff. Just adding more stuff. Not deleting it. That's crazy."

Fitzgerald might have been gifted with a strong memory, but he trained it.

His grandfather, Dr. Robert Johnson, an optometrist in Chicago who died in 2010, put him through vision-therapy training when Fitzgerald would visit his grandparents in Chicago for six weeks in the summers as a kid. Fitzgerald was diagnosed with ADHD, but his grandfather was adamant that Fitzgerald not be medicated to treat it. He wanted to teach Fitzgerald how to learn, how to study and how to focus, so he began working with his grandson on memorization.

Johnson would flash Fitzgerald cards with five numbers on them and Fitzgerald had to repeat them back. After a few cards, Johnson would ask Fitzgerald what the numbers were two cards ago. And so on.

"I think he just strengthened it," Fitzgerald said, admitting that his long-term memory is "outstanding."

It set a foundation for Fitzgerald's elite memory, which now has a Hall of Fame career to look back on.