Pittsburgh Heisman Trophy runner-up Larry Fitzgerald, the Pittsburgh sophomore who set NCAA receiving records in his two college seasons, was declared eligible Thursday for the NFL draft.
The NFL's ruling came on the same day a federal judge opened the door for running back Maurice Clarett to also turn pro despite playing only one season at Ohio State.
Under league rules, a player must be in college for three NFL seasons before he can be drafted. Fitzgerald left the Academy of Holy Angels in Minneapolis, Minn., midway through his senior year in 2001 and transferred to Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy to boost his grades for college.
After spending nearly 11/2 academic years there, Fitzgerald signed with Pittsburgh and immediately became the most productive receiver in school history. He owns NCAA records for consecutive games with a touchdown catch (18) and most TDs receiving as a freshman and sophomore (34).
The NFL determined Fitzgerald was eligible because he would have graduated from high school in 2001 had he not transferred and thus is three years past his senior year of high school.
Fitzgerald declined comment after learning of the NFL's ruling. His father, Larry Sr., said, "We choose to let them (the NFL) do what they do, and then we'll do what we do."
With numerous NFL scouts saying Fitzgerald likely will be a top-five pick, his departure from Pitt was considered a foregone conclusion for weeks.
Pitt's offense would be in a rebuilding mode next season even if Fitzgerald returned, with quarterback Rod Rutherford, running back Brandon Miree and most of the offensive line departing.
"Whatever Larry decides, this university is going to support him wholeheartedly," assistant athletic director E.J. Borghetti said Thursday night. "The opportunity to be a top-five pick can be a fleeting one in the game of football. But education is important to Larry's family, and whatever he decides to do, he will still work to his degree. It was important to his (late) mother and to his dad and I know it remains a priority of his."
Fitzgerald's case differs from Clarett's. The Pitt standout played two college seasons, while Clarett played only one. Clarett graduated early from high school in December 2001, and his lawyers contended that came before the end of the 2001 NFL season and thus made him eligible under the three-year rule.
The Clarett ruling, if it holds up on appeal, means high school football players and college underclassmen would be able to make the jump to the pros just as NBA, NHL and major league baseball players can.
Fitzgerald is not believed to have formally petitioned the league to be declared eligible. But his lawyer sent a letter to the NFL last month asking that his draft status be clarified.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Fitzgerald already has an NFL background. His father, a former college lineman, is a sports writer and radio-TV show host in Minneapolis, and his son was a Vikings ball boy for several years while in high school.
While working in the Vikings' training camp, the younger Fitzgerald became friends with receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. It was Carter, a former Ohio State standout, who suggested he consider Pitt.
Pitt coach Walt Harris is a former Buckeyes assistant coach.