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In a Pickle

Arizona Cardinals Legend Larry Fitzgerald Tackles His Newest Sport in a New Role

Over his 17-year professional football career, Larry Fitzgerald Jr. has grown accustomed to breaking records, making history, and introducing people to the nuances of the game.

Now, the future NFL Hall of Famer is using his acumen as an elite athlete, businessman, and all-around good guy toward another sport in the state where he’s spent his entire profession. It’s pickleball.

Fitzgerald first discovered pickleball at the El Dorado Golf & Beach Club in Cabo San Lucas. He was playing golf but got distracted.

“I heard banging. What is that noise?” Fitzgerald recalls. “I went over and saw people playing it. They asked if I wanted to play.”

After an hour on the court, he was hooked. There were the exercise and competitive aspects, but the great conversations and camaraderie with fellow players in a playing space much cozier than a football field really stuck with him. He continued to play when he returned home to the Valley. 

Today, he spearheads AZ Drive, the Major League Pickleball (MLP) team.

The team debuted in January 2023 and is among 24 teams from cities across the country. The MLP is split into two seasons in a calendar year and consists of three events competing for a multimillion-dollar prize pool. 

Starting something brand new for Fitzgerald required him to be hands-on from the start—determining every detail from logo design and uniforms to strategizing. 

While exciting, there are questions as this burgeoning sport aims to make the leap from leisure activity into the pro spotlight. 

“As much as people love it and play it, will people watch it on TV?” Fitzgerald says. “It has a cult following but it’s growing.” 

Getting AZ Drive started began about two years ago. Fitzgerald was approached by Thomas Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL and also Pickleball.com, about MLP team ownership. He agreed and formed a diverse group of investors with experience in an array of industries—Michael Phelps, Devin Booker, Dierks Bentley, Sheila Gulati, Sam Fox, and the reigning and five-time Chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen are among them.

He aimed to form his ownership team with people who have deep ties or roots to the state, he explains. He wanted this hometown feel to be a driving force for AZ Drive. 

“We are committed to growing the game here in our home,” he says. 

Pickleball has experienced increased visibility in recent years. The fact it’s easy to play, doesn’t cost a lot of money or require pricey equipment, and can be enjoyed by players ages 5 or 85, are reasons, Fitzgerald says. 

“I like the diversity of it. It’s inclusive to everybody,” he says. 

The future looks bright with a new PURE Pickleball world-class club and academy set to open in Scottsdale this year. It will feature the nation’s largest indoor pickleball facility with 29 courts, a 500-seat stadium, two special event rooftop courts, and 16 outdoor courts.

Fitzgerald would love to see pickleball elevate to a high school competitive level and even an Olympic sport. What also fuels his dedication and passion is witnessing pickleball’s power that goes beyond the physical, especially with youths who have trouble connecting with others.

“It’s so cool to see kids grab a paddle and they are laughing and talking with each other. You see them open up immediately,” he says. “You put them on the court and they connect quickly over this game.”

Interestingly enough, one of the most misunderstood aspects of the sport has to do with force. Many assume that the ball must always be hit hard. However, Fitzgerald calls it “a finesse game.”

“There is a power aspect but a lot of it is played really slowly … done softly, with dinking,” Fitzgerald says. “I actually enjoy the soft part of the game more than the actual hard part.”

AZDrivePb.com

“I went over and saw people playing it. They asked if I wanted to play.”

“It has a cult following but it’s growing.” 

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