When he walks away from football, Larry Fitzgerald wants it to be his call

Fitzgerald won't shed any tears when he retires (0:49)

Larry Fitzgerald discusses how tough it is for elite athletes to stay at a high level by the end of their careers and how he will not get too emotional when he decides to hang up his cleats. (0:49)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If there's one thing Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald may want more than a Super Bowl ring, it's to retire on his own terms.

Whenever that may be.

Fitzgerald deftly dodged the question of whether this season will be his last in the NFL during his first media appearance of the 2017 season on Sunday, saying, "I feel good right now. When that changes, I'll let you know."

But, Fitzgerald added, when he does decide to complete his Hall of Fame-worthy career, it won't be behind a podium in front of the cameras. He'll slide out of the spotlight without fanfare, without the hoopla of some other well-known retirement announcements.

And he'll do it when he wants.

It's important to Fitzgerald that he doesn't get to a point in his career where a team decides he's had enough. He wants to be the one who calls the shots. And he wants to go out knowing he can still play at an elite level. He doesn't want to spend his final years in the NFL jumping from team to team. He's seen it happen too many times.

Michael Jordan with the Wizards. Shaquille O'Neal with the Celtics. Tony Dorsett with the Broncos. Willie Mays with the Mets. Those were just the examples Fitzgerald cited off the top of his head. The images of those athletes playing their final seasons as a shell of their former, elite selves are etched in Fitzgerald's memory.

He'd rather retire when he feels the time is right, like Calvin Johnson, and do it quietly, like Tim Duncan.

"The end is never really pretty for elite athletes," Fitzgerald said. "It never looks good for the most time.

"For me, I really want to be able to play and do things at a high level and be able to walk away and still be someone who can play at a high level. That's something I've prided myself on. I don't want to be a stealer. I don't want to steal like that."

Fitzgerald, as he's known to do, has overly prepared for making the decision to retire.

He's talked to former players such as Peyton Manning and Tony Gonzalez about the transition from football to retirement. He wanted to know when they knew it was time to retire, how they knew it and what was it like making that decision. He wanted to "understand their thought process." That, unto itself, was a process.

He's also talked to active players about their thoughts about retirement, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

"Tom's very insightful, and he's somebody who knows himself very well," Fitzgerald said.

Those conversations can't be seen as a sure sign that Fitzgerald is gearing up to retire. He's been having those conversations for the past few years. Looking back at those talks, he said there wasn't one common theme between the conversations. Players, he's realized, retire for different reasons. Some, for example, may still be able to take the field or court but have chronic injuries that linger and prevent them from putting up the types of numbers they were used to.

But, Fitzgerald has also learned, deciding to retire won't be a snap judgment. It'll be a slow, simmering process.

"It's not something that you wake up in the morning one morning and say, 'Oh, I'm done,'" Fitzgerald said. "I think it's something that kind of is bubbling for a while, and I think you just know."

And he when decides to walk away, he won't let the thoughts of knowing he can still perform be a burden on his conscience. However, overstaying his production will.

Fitzgerald said he wouldn't be able to handle being on a team as a shell of himself playing a diminished role such as a possession receiver.

"Mentally, I would struggle with that," he said. "I mean, it was a struggle even when you feel like you can do things and you're not a No. 1 option. That would be a struggle for me."

Whether this season is his last or not, Fitzgerald, at 33 years old, showed last season he's still one of the top receivers in the game. He led the NFL with 107 receptions and had a second consecutive 1,000-yard season, the eighth of his career.

Much of the same is expected from Fitzgerald again this season, which he'll play at age 34. He'll carry the same confidence he had last season into this one, knowing he can still play at that type of level -- the type of level he can accept walking away from.

"There's a lot of guys who just, for some reason, they say they want to move on and it's time, not because they can't play or they were showed the exit," Fitzgerald said. "Most times athletes don't have the chance to retire, they get retired. So, when you do have the chance to retire, I think it's a privilege and you have to understand that if you hang around too long, you will eventually get retired.

"So, you have to be honest with yourself and always assess where you are."