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In Sunday's Super Bowl, many eyes will be on Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. And that's appropriate, in a way, because as a boy, Fitzgerald received vision training from his grandfather, an optometrist. That training helped him in ways not apparent to the untrained eye. NPR's Mike Pesca explains.
MIKE PESCA: In football, receivers are usually evaluated on their hands and their feet: how well they can catch the ball, and how well they can run after they catch it. But ask someone who's ever made a reception with a 210-pound safety draped over him, and you'll get an insight as to what it takes to catch a pass in the NFL. Former wide receiver Cris Collinsworth has been there.
Mr. CRIS COLLINSWORTH (Former Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals; NBC Sportscaster): To be open in the NFL, you're open from the distance that you and I are apart here, about a yard. I mean, that's open. And so, in order for them to get that ball in there, they've got to throw it well before you're making your break. So, the ability to spin your head and see something - whether it's a helmet, a fist or a football flying at you - you have to be able to react to it that quickly. And if he's a fraction of a second faster than everybody else - would explains some things.
PESCA: Reaction time explains some of Larry Fitzgerald's edge, but it goes a lot deeper than that. When Fitzgerald was a boy of about 8, he would visit his mother's family in Chicago. There, his grandfather, Dr. Robert Johnson, ran one of the only optometry clinics in the inner city.
Dr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Optometrist, Chicago, Illinois): We have to be able to measure what goes into the eye, what goes back with the brain - see, we actually see with our brain. Our vision is with our brain. How well does a child perceive his world? And can he get meaning out of what he or she sees?
PESCA: In fact, Fitzgerald's early training was not meant to increase his athletic ability; it was to help him in the classroom. Everyone knows the old story about the boy who was falling behind in school because he couldn't see the blackboard. Dr. Johnson believes that a more complex version of that story often hinders learning. So, his grandson and other children that he treated were given exercises to increase their ability to recognize patterns and draw meaning from visual stimuli. Those exercises also turned out to be really helpful on the football field. Fitzgerald still credits those 15-year-old drills.
Mr. LARRY D. FITZGERALD JR. (Wide Receiver, Arizona Cardinals): He had me covering each eye, you know, with a patch on my eye. And I would have to catch objects, you know, with the opposite hand. I think it was definitely the foundation of good, strong hand-eye coordination.
PESCA: Daniel Laby, an ophthalmologist who's worked with professional sports teams, says the particular drill that Fitzgerald was just describing may have aided in developing what's known as contrast sensitivity.
Dr. DANIEL LABY (Ophthalmologist, Canton, Massachusetts): Think about trying to catch a football against all those fans in all different colors, you've got to have good contrast to pick that out of the background.
PESCA: Fitzgerald's excellent peripheral vision, pattern recognition and quick processing allow him to visualize his next move, because he actually takes his eye off the ball. Sorry, peewee football coaches everywhere, but it's true. It's one of his many assets, but a vital one, according to Shannon Sharpe, who retired as the greatest pass-catching tight end the game has ever known. In Sharpe's eyes, Fitzgerald is the best pass catcher in the NFL today.
Mr. SHANNON SHARPE (Former Tight End, Denver Broncos): The thing is when you run, your eyes bounce, and somehow he's able to find a way to stabilize his eyes. His eyes is what he catches the football with. He make plays that guys will love to have, he make them look so routine.
PESCA: What actually has become routine are the drills that Fitzgerald's grandfather developed. Today, aspiring athletes, even those with 20/20 vision, are given a regiment of eye exercises. So, in 15 years, there may well be a generation of wide receivers who can see as well as Larry Fitzgerald. Of course, there will also be a generation of defensive backs to thwart their efforts. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Tampa, Florida.
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