Veteran NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is in his 14th season with the Arizona Cardinals. The recipient of the NFL’s 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year award, Fitzgerald is known as much for his leadership off the field as he is on it.
Fitzgerald has spent his entire career in the Grand Canyon State and has gotten to know local politicians and officials, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ), over the years. In an essay for Sports Illustrated on Friday, the gridiron great penned a touching tribute to McCain, who is currently undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer, thanking for him for his service at home and abroad and encouraging all Americans to learn more about the history of nation’s real heroes.
“Merry Christmas, everyone. As we enjoy this special day and celebrate the holidays with friends and family, I’ll be thinking about someone who has become very important to me: Arizona Senator John McCain,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We’ve become friends since I’ve been playing for the Cardinals. I have so much admiration for him, and I wanted to share why that admiration has become so strong.”
Fitzgerald explained that, to him, Christmas is synonymous with giving, and no one personifies giving more than McCain. Acknowledging that all those in the armed forced “are incredible,” the wide receiver praised the senator for unfailing selflessness and service in the midst of literal torture.
“As a prisoner of war in Vietnam he missed six Christmases with his family back home and suffered unbelievable hardship. Yet most people don’t realize that he could have gotten out of that prisoner of war camp four years earlier than he did because his father was a high-ranking military commander,” he explained. “However, he refused to be freed until all the men captured before him were released. That is true heroism and bravery. He gave so much in the service of his country, and that commitment to service continued as he was elected to Congress in the 1980s.”
In the off-season, Fitzgerald shared that he and his family like to travel the world. He has been to 97 countries and counting, and he likes to ensure the trips have historical significance—visiting the beaches of Normandy, the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, and Iwo Jima. In 2013, he traveled to Vietnam specifically because of his “friendship with Senator McCain.” He wanted to “see the path he took in the Vietnam War.”
After visiting towns and villages off the beaten path, he took a tour of that focuses on the plight of McCain and his fellow prisoners of war. He learned that on October 26, 1967, the senator was flying his 23rd mission as a Navy pilot, set to drop bombs on a site in Hanoi, when the North Vietnamese fired at his plane, hitting one of the wings, and forcing him to bail out. He crashed into Truc Bach Lake just outside of Hanoi, and the impact left his right leg and both arms broken. Unable to move to his hands, he used his teeth to inflate his life vest. He was pulled from the lake, but when his rescuers realized he was an American, they “kicked him and beat him, breaking his left shoulder.”
As Fitzgerald writes, McCain spent the next two years in solitary confinement, enduring daily beatings, and living in conditions so deplorable it is any wonder he survived it. But his commitment to his fellow soldiers and indelible spirit inspired everyone around him.
“I saw the very jail cell where he was held as a POW and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be him,” Fitzgerald wrote. “When Senator McCain refused to be released from the prison camp until his fellow soldiers were freed as well, he earned the respect of all those men going through hell. I tried to imagine what a great teammate he must have been. Those guys respected him so much. After hearing all this, I was astounded by the quality of human being he was.”
Admitting that he is “not a super-political person,” Fitzgerald said he has come to admire McCain for who he is as a person. While the two have never actually spoken about the senator’s experience as a POW, the NFL star is blown away by what he has learned of his bravery and valor. With McCain now facing yet another battle, Fitzgerald took a moment to send prayers to his friend and publicly thank him for all he has given for his country.
“Today, my friend, Senator John McCain, again finds himself in a battle. This time it’s with cancer, and the treatment he’s undergoing is exhausting. I’ll wish him a Merry Christmas today, and I pray he lives another 20 years,” he concluded. “I know this: As soon as my boys are of age, I’ll tell them stories about the quality of the man I’ve gotten to know. I’ll tell them: Senator John McCain will be revered and respected for as long as the United States of America has a place in this world, and his legacy will outlive us all.”
Read the entire essay HERE.