PHOENIX, AZ – MARCH 18: NFL player Larry Fitzgerald attends Muhammad Ali’s Celebrity Fight Night XXIII at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort

By Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann

A lot of professional athletes have millions of dollars they put toward charities they believe in.

But their biggest contributions come when they get involved to the point of interacting regularly with the people they help.

This is what “giving to a charity” means for Larry Fitzgerald, longtime wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals.

“Sure, you can send a check through the mail or make a donation online. You can also hold events to raise money for them,” he wrote recently in a Player’s Tribune essay. “But in my experience, nothing means as much as actually interacting with and serving the people that these organizations support.”

Working with charities is something Fitzgerald learned early on from his grandparents. His grandfather began a nonprofit in Plano, Texas, to provide eye care for low-income kids and adults. His mother worked – and even ran – many nonprofilts, including one to support families of people living with HIV/AIDS.

And the young Larry would often go with his mother and play with the kids who had parents fighting the disease.

“At the time we were just having fun, but in retrospect I’m really thankful for the time I was able to spend playing with kids who were going through some really rough times,” he wrote. “From that experience I learned that there are many ways to have an impact, and most of them don’t require much of you.”

So it’s not surprising that when Fitzgerald was curious about why his neighbors near his Eden Prairie, Minn., home always had so many cars parked outside a few times a month – and discovered it was a nonprofit to provide hearing aids to poor people all over the world – he was in.

“I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Here goes another athlete pretending to be invested in charity work, or passionate about a foundation that’s probably named after him,’” he wrote. “Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because for me philanthropic work is not about branding or good publicity. Not even close. …In my 32 years, it’s been an ever-present and fundamental part of my life.”

Fitzgerald joined his neighbors on a trip to India in 2008, and the joy of the kids they helped was awe-inspiring.

And now that the 32-year-old Fitzgerald has kids of his own, he is sharing his passion for philanthropy with them.

On a recent Christmas in Phoenix, Fitzgerald and his oldest son planned to help a citywide effort to feed the homeless. It was the son who woke up his dad early to get out there and help.

“Watching him in that moment brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t have been more proud of him,” Fitzgerald wrote. “And I knew that, watching from up above, my mother and my grandparents were really proud too.”

Fitzgerald is also trying to be a good role model for his fellow pro athletes, reminding them that they can make a huge difference with both their money and celebrity.

“As a professional athlete, I know that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own success, and in the materialistic things that come along with it,” Fitzgerald said. “But life isn’t about how much money you have, or what cool things you own. All those things are temporary. The only thing that really matters is the type of person you are and the good you can do for other people while you’re on this earth.”

You can read his full essay here.