How Larry Fitzgerald and DeSean Jackson Blazed Paths To Greatness

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Larry Fitzgerald

As a high school senior, Larry Fitzgerald pulled in 32 Division I offers. But despite being a two-time Minnesota All-State and Prep All-America wide receiver, he didn't consider himself a "goal guy."

Before establishing himself as a general in the NFL wide receiving ranks, the four-star recruit left high school in Minneapolis in December of his senior year and enrolled as a cadet at Valley Forge Military Academy, an all-male boarding institution in Wayne, Pa., 20 miles west of Philadelphia.

"I needed to go there because I didn't have the numbers to register for an athletic scholarship in college, so I needed a fifth year in prep school to take care of the situation," Larry says.

The 1,000-mile detour served a formidable purpose for the teenaged football phenom. During his time at the Academy, Larry upheld a high standard and set his sights even higher. He kept a binder with the NFL shield logo on the cover next to his bunk in the quarters, a visible reminder of his ultimate destination.

For the next 18 months, Larry stuck to his game plan: take care of the books. "And that's what I did. I took care of business academically, and I was able to go to college," he says.

Larry admits that military life wasn't the most enjoyable experience, but the wealth of lessons learned helped him evolve as an individual and an athlete. Most important, he grew into a "goal guy," who swiftly blossomed into a "go-to" guy. At the University of Pittsburgh, he made an immediate impact, and soon the first-year wideout wearing jersey number 1 was drawing double teams from opposing secondary units.

By his sophomore year, Larry was heralded as one of the nation's top players and a surefire top-five pick in the NFL Draft. His reputation as a high flying, catch-everything playmaker expanded faster than he created separation off the line. Living up to all the hype, Larry, in three years, went from the bottom of the command at Valley Forge to the number three overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

During his second year as a pro, while Larry was leading the League with 103 receptions— including a remarkable 27 for more than 20 yards—the word quickly spread about Arizona's newest bird. When he couldn't break free from the double-team brigades, he exposed his secret weapon: an extraordinary ability to leap over defenders and snatch the ball from its highest point.

Though Larry's already a record-setting wide receiver, that's not enough. He wants to be the best. "I'm not going to stop at anything," says the premier wideout. "I've made a lot of sacrifices in my life to put myself in a position to succeed. I just want to be the best, and I'm going to do whatever I can within my power."

The Larry Fitzgerald legend is in-the-making.

Watch a video interview about Larry Fitzgerald's high school training.

DeSean Jackson

"I'm not a follower. I've never been that way."

DeSean Jackson was supposed to be USCbound, following the path of most top-tier West Coast talent. That is, until February 2, 2005, when the Long Beach native blazed his own trail by pledging allegiance to the Cal Golden Bears during the closing hours of National Signing Day.

The decision stunned many, but DeSean's maverick attitude had been established long before his college announcement. It just further exemplified his pack-leader mentality: follow no one, and forge your own path.

The moment didn't define DeSean. Rather, he defined the moment, just as he did during the 2005 California Interscholastic Federation state football championship. Anaheim Stadium was the venue for one of the most inspired performances in the state's title history, as DeSean, a top wideout, showcased his skills on the opposite side of the ball. Pressed into emergency duty in the secondary, he intercepted two passes, returned one 68 yards for a touchdown, and fueled his team's 21-6 win for the championship.

The wheels were in motion for DeSean's journey to greatness. Less than a month later, he took center stage at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl with a seven-catch, 141-yard receiving encore performance, claiming the game's MVP award.

DeSean's infinite supply of drive powered his magnificent three-year career at Cal. He says, "My dad and my brother did a great job of keeping me motivated, and my mom did an awesome job of putting me in the right place to be successful."

Obstacles are expected when you're a kid from the LBC. DeSean, who declared for the NFL Draft after his junior year, faced one on April 26, 2008. The aspiring first-rounder saw his stock slip from the first round to the second as he became the 49th overall pick. His first-round fallout stung, but the six teams selecting wide receivers ahead of DeSean—all in the second round—only further motivated the newest Philadelphia Eagle.

Two seasons later, the game-changing wideout more than proved he's no new jack. "That's my swag, man," he says. "I gotta be a little bit cocky and overconfident. I'm holding that swagger that nobody can stop me."

The stats tell the tale. Only one of the six receivers selected ahead of DeSean accumulated more than half of his 1,156 receiving yards. Oh, and they combined for 10 receiving touchdowns. DeSean had nine in 2009.

Always one for the original, DeSean became the first Pro-Bowler in NFL history to be selected for two positions, wide receiver and punt returner.

DeSean is on the right path, but he admits he hasn't yet reached the pinnacle—the Super Bowl. "I need that ring on my finger," he says. "We work so hard to put in the work we do, and I know it will pay off for us."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock