TEMPE, Ariz. -- During the weeks leading up to games -- including Sunday’s NFC Championship Game -- Larry Fitzgerald's phone will light up with texts from his former high school teammates.
They send words of encouragement and sometimes advice about how Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals' future Hall of Fame receiver, can improve. But the messages also spark memories of childhood dreams of making it to the NFL. Those dreams weren't gaudy -- they didn’t picture themselves winning the Super Bowl or making the playoffs. They just wanted to put on an NFL jersey.
Fitzgerald was the fortunate one of the group. And for the second time in his career, he will be playing for the NFC title. At some point Sunday, he’ll think about those texts -- or maybe read one as it comes in -- and the whole day will be put into perspective.
He is one of three current Cardinals who played in the team’s only previous appearance in the conference championship, on Jan. 18, 2009. The Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles to advance to the Super Bowl. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell was a rookie back then, and center Lyle Sendlein was in his second season.
The Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII that season. And for the three Cardinals returning to the NFC title game, Sunday has been a long time coming.
“I think this time around it’s ... I wouldn’t say easier, but I kind of know what to expect -- the attention, the noise, everything that comes with playing deep into the playoffs,” Fitzgerald said. “When you’re doing it at 25, I think it’s much different. It’s the first time you’ve ever experienced it, so it’s very new to you. I think that’s given me perspective this time around.”
While Fitzgerald was already a star on that team, Campbell was still trying to find his way.
Like Fitzgerald, the familiarity of knowing what to expect this go-round is comforting to Campbell.
“It really changes your approach,” he said.
Instead of being the one who the veterans are educating about what to expect Sunday, Campbell is doing the mentoring this time.
But the biggest difference for Campbell is that he has a role -- a very big role.
“Back then you just didn’t want to mess up,” he said. “You just wanted to do your job. It’s still kind of the same case. The biggest thing is just doing your job, making it just another game of football. It is just one game.
“You can’t go out there and try to do too much more than your job.”