Charting Cris Carter's Journey from Hardship to the Hall of Fame

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Charting Cris Carter's Journey from Hardship to the Hall of Fame
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Feb. 2, 2013, Cris Carter joined a class of seven inductees voted into the NFL Hall of Fame. On his sixth attempt at Canton, the former wide receiver finally accomplished an honor that seemed to have slipped through his otherwise sure-handed grip.

Carter finished his career with 1,101 receptions and 130 receiving touchdowns, second only at the time to Jerry Rice with 1,549 and 197. Although hard to believe it has taken this long, the enduring wait pales in comparison to Carter's overall life journey.

 

Early Life

Cris Carter was born on Nov. 25, 1965, to a single mother in Troy, Ohio. He soon moved to the projects of Middletown with his three older brothers and two sisters. Carter would attend Middletown High School, where both he and his oldest brother Butch were heavily recruited in football and basketball.

While Butch chose basketball and attended Indiana University before playing and coaching in the NBA, Carter opted for football and Ohio State University. With Canton just 241 miles away from the housing project where Carter grew up, few could have predicted the path he would take to eventually make it back so close to home.

 

College Years

Head coach Earle Bruce welcomed Carter to Columbus, a promising destination for the physically gifted receiver. With initial thoughts of playing both football and basketball, Carter soon focused solely on football with a breakout year as a freshman.

Cris Carter's One-Handed Grab—1985 Citrus Bowl

 

He posted 41 receptions, 648 yards and led the team with eight receiving touchdowns. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked 13th in the nation, Big Ten Champions and lost narrowly to USC in the Rose Bowl, 20-17. Carter set the Rose Bowl receiving record as a freshman with 172 yards. The Middletown native had officially arrived in Columbus, and his presence was immediately felt.

The 1985 season showed no signs of a sophomore slump for Carter—instead, he improved in every major receiving category. He caught 58 receptions for 950 yards and scored on eight receiving touchdowns. Ohio State was just edged by Iowa for the Big Ten championship, and the Buckeyes finished 14th in AP polling and were winners of the Citrus Bowl over Brigham Young, 10-7.

Carter's third year playing at Ohio State would prove to be the most dominant of his college career. The standout junior led the Buckeyes to seventh place in AP polling, a share of the Big Ten championship and a 28-12 win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

He recorded school records with 69 receptions, 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns. Carter was named a consensus All-American and considered a likely Heisman candidate heading into his senior season.

 

Downward Spiral

Carter could have easily declared for the NFL draft, meeting the eligibility requirements (three years out of high school) and posting the type of numbers that fare well with NFL scouts. Instead, he returned for his senior year with the possibility of a Heisman Trophy and further improving his draft position.

 

Unfortunately, Carter would never make it out of the 1987 preseason, making earlier decisions that would prove costly for the otherwise decorated receiver. A scandal was about to break that would impact collegiate sports across the country and land a crushing blow to Carter's future in the NFL.

Norby Walters entered the college football scene from strange beginnings. He had spent more than 30 years as a booking agent for entertainment acts, including Janet Jackson, Patti LaBelle and Kool and the Gang. However, in 1985 at the age of 55, Walters teamed up with 26-year-old attorney Lloyd Bloom and formed World Sports & Entertainment, Inc.

The duo focused on representing professional athletes, signing 58 football and basketball prospects to contracts. The problem, however, was that the contracts were postdated, intended to lock in players while providing interest-free loans and monthly payments—all in anticipation of a big payday upon future signings with professional teams.

In April 1986, prior to Carter's junior season, his brother George was at his Columbus apartment and noticed an unopened letter from World Sports & Entertainment. The older brother had been released five months earlier from prison where he served 16 months for burglary and forgery. The letter would not remain unopened for long and George uncovered a proposal to Carter to be represented by Walters and Bloom. Looking back, it would have been better if George had never left the Jacksonville, Ill., state prison.

Within a few days of that Columbus apartment visit, George was on a plane to New York at Walters' expense. Carter's legal adviser Robert Berry, a law professor from Boston College, recalls the day:

Norby Walters - John M. Heller/Getty Images

 

"He called Cris and said, 'You can get an interest-free loan from these guys. They'll give you money."

Bloom then flew to Columbus and met with both Cris and George to discuss the deal. They drove around for hours in Cris' car, going over the details, until Cris finally pulled over to stop the car and signed.

He would receive a $5,000 interest-free loan and monthly payments of $1,800 for the rest of his college career. The contract would be postdated to Jan. 2, 1988, the day after Carter's last possible game as a senior if he reached the Rose Bowl.

Fast-forward to the 1987 preseason. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 5 in the nation with an offense fueled by Carter. Over a year had passed since that fateful meeting with Bloom. What began as a seemingly concealed operation with prospective players began to boil to the surface with reckless visibility.

The brashness of Walters infuriated competing agents. As some players considered terminating previous agreements, Walters employed the help of Michael Franzese, a New York mobster with the Colombo crime family, to pressure players who were having second thoughts.

After Kathe Clements was found slashed and beaten when three former clients of Walters defected to another sports agent, the FBI launched an investigation. Carter would be subpoenaed by a Chicago federal grand jury, leading to his eventual fallout with the Buckeyes.

On July 15, Ohio State athletic director Rick Bay declared Carter ineligible for the 1987 season. He also faced criminal charges after attempting to conceal information from the government. Carter would later be convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice, the only player out of 44 athletes charged in the FBI investigation. He was fined $15,000 and ordered to perform 600 hours of community service.

 

Philadelphia and Drug Abuse

Carter's suspension kept him out of the regular 1987 NFL draft. Instead, he entered the supplemental draft where the Philadelphia Eagles selected him in the fourth round. The once-promising receiver contributed far less than expected in his rookie campaign. In nine games, Carter only caught five passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns. 

His second year in the league was a major improvement. In 16 games, Carter had 39 receptions for 761 yards and six touchdowns. He hauled in an 80-yard touchdown from quarterback Randall Cunningham on Monday night, marking the longest of his career.

Carter's third season with the Eagles was a mixed result. With 45 receptions, his total yards (605) dropped, but his touchdown total (11) nearly doubled. He finished third in the NFL (per Pro-Football-Reference.com) in touchdowns behind Sterling Sharpe (12) and Jerry Rice (17).

Despite the red-zone threat, Carter was abruptly cut by head coach Buddy Ryan prior to the 1990 season. When asked why he cut Carter, Ryan uttered the now famous statement:

Mike Powell/Getty Images

 

"All he does is catch touchdowns."

It was later revealed that Carter's dismissal from the team was less about performance and more about his drug and alcohol abuse. During his time with the Eagles, Carter failed three drug tests. Ryan's decision was one of disappointment for a player who once demonstrated such promise. According to Keith Byars (per Jeffri Chadiha of Sports Illustrated), former teammate of Carter at Ohio State and Philadelphia, there were competing priorities:

Cris has always been an all-or-nothing kind of guy. That's good when it's channeled in the right direction. But when he was doing the wrong things, he was committed to that, too. When he was doing drugs and alcohol, I'm sure he was trying to be the best addict out there.

Carter would need to refocus his attention on football and rid himself of the demons that had been negatively affecting his career over the past several years. Getting cut from the Eagles was a wake-up call. The question was whether another team would take a chance on a player with such considerable baggage.

 

Minnesota and Redemption

On Sept. 4, 1990, the Minnesota Vikings signed Cris Carter off waivers for $100. The team was aware of Carter's off-the-field issues, but not nearly to the extent he would share once joining the Vikings.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

 

A plan was put in place to get the receiver back on track, with support from coaches and others in the organization. A challenge was issued by former team counselor Betty Triliegi that he would not drink for one week. That challenge came on Sept. 19, 1990, the last day Carter has ever had a drink.

Carter joined the 1990 Vikings behind Hassan Jones and Anthony Carter at receiver. Coach Dick Rehbein told the former Eagle he would not start if both players were healthy. Carter managed 27 receptions for 413 yards and three touchdowns—one of which included a 78-yard touchdown against Philadelphia on Monday night.

In his second season with Minnesota, Carter made significant strides in receptions (72) and receiving yards (962), both personal bests in the NFL. He added five touchdowns and was at a different place in his career mentally compared to Philadelphia. With a new focus, Carter continued to push himself to improve.

With the arrival of Roger Craig to Minnesota in 1992, Carter asked the former San Francisco 49er what made him and Jerry Rice such outstanding players. The new Vikings running back pointed directly to their offseason regimens, something for Carter that currently only included pickup basketball games and wind sprints.

If he wanted to be the best receiver in the game, he would have to train like one. With that in mind, Carter and his trainer put a program together targeted at Jerry Rice:

Everyone assumed that Jerry Rice was the best receiver, Carter said. And Jerry Rice trained at 7:00 a.m. on the West Coast, but with my trainer we came up with a plan. We said that we are going to outwork Jerry Rice before he gets up, when he’s sleeping, true story. We started working out before him.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

 

Carter continued:

I caught thousands of balls one-handed. By the time Jerry Rice woke up I was done with my work, I was done doing whatever I wanted to do and I knew that if Jerry Rice was ahead of me, that day I had caught up to him a little bit.

The next 10 years for Carter would demonstrate the benefits of hard work and determination. Carter would have eight straight seasons of 1,000 or more yards (1993-2000) and finished the decade of the 1990s with 835 receptions, second only to Jerry Rice (860), the player he was so desperately trying to best.

Carter would eventually leave the team following the 2001 season. He became the team's all-time leader in receptions (1,004), receiving yards (12,383) and touchdowns (110). He was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times with his best year coming in 1995—122 receptions, 1,371 yards and 17 touchdowns.

The personal struggles at Ohio State and Philadelphia were now well behind Carter. Sobriety had turned around the once-diminished career of a promising player. He changed the way he prepared in the offseason and influenced others who would play after him. For many in Minnesota, Carter was viewed as a savior—a unique twist as he was the one searching for redemption.

 

Miami and Retirement

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

After leaving the Vikings, Carter spent the 2002 offseason searching for a team to sign a contract with. Although meeting with a handful of teams, he was unable to strike a deal and ultimately announced his retirement after 15 years in the NFL. Carter decided to join HBO's Inside the NFL as an analyst.

However, seven weeks into the 2002 season, injuries struck the Dolphins at wide receiver. They soon called Carter asking for his services, a request the retired player initially rejected.

 

But after some slight persuasion from former Miami quarterback Dan Marino, who was also co-hosting with Carter on Inside the NFL, he decided to come out of retirement and sign a one-year contract worth up to $700,000. Said Carter:

''The only thing that would make this deal sweeter is if Dan was with me. He's pretty convincing. We have become good friends and I respect him and respect his opinion.''

Unfortunately, Carter's return to the NFL would not prove as successful as he had hoped. In his first game, he lost a fumble and finished with three receptions for 31 yards. Carter would later battle kidney problems and only play in five games. He finished his stint in Miami with eight receptions for 66 yards, but added one final touchdown to his resume. Carter would officially retire for good following the season.

 

Final Road to History

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The statistics for Carter have remained unchanged since he retired from the game he loved—1,101 receptions for 13,899 yards and 130 touchdowns—yet as each year passed since he became a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2008, it felt like his numbers and legacy were shrinking.

He was surprisingly excluded in his first year of eligibility and again in 2009, with 2010 presenting further challenges with both Rice and Tim Brown becoming eligible. The emotional receiver stayed patient, while other receivers in the game began to pass him by.

Carter slid to fourth all time in both career receptions and receiving touchdowns. The game was changing to a more passer-friendly league, and the timing of Carter's candidacy was less than ideal.

With 2010-2012 failing to deliver that call to Canton, it appeared that Carter may be in for the long haul. Art Monk had to wait 13 years after retirement for enshrinement. James Lofton had to wait 10 years. Only four receivers whose careers started in the last 35 years have been elected to the Hall of Fame (Lofton, Monk, Michael Irvin and Rice).

 

Yet on the eve of Super Bowl XLVII, Carter finally received the call he had been long awaiting, a moment he has replayed in his mind over and over again. The promising high school prospect who fell from grace will return to his home state on Aug. 3, 2013.

According to Ben Goessling of The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Carter recalled classroom field trips he used to take to the museum in Canton and described the feeling:

It's 241 miles from the housing project I grew up in. From that doorstep to George Halas Hall, it felt like 10 million miles. You don't grow up in a little place like that, thinking you're going to end up in Canton. You really don't.

Welcome back.

 

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