It was the NFL horror story that ruined Christmas Eve.
Those who love the quarterback quit eating, quit celebrating, quit opening presents the moment his world came crashing down.
With one "Blue 80, set, hut!" and one sack that twisted him 360 degrees, Derek Carr laid on the turf, his eyes widened in terror and repeated, "It's broke. … It's broke. … It's broke. …"
And nobody—not Raiders, not their fans and certainly not those close to Carr—could grasp that reality.
A "Derek's hurt" bombshell immediately lit up a group text message chain between his former Fresno State teammates. Neither former receiver Josh Harper nor former running back Robbie Rouse could believe what he was seeing.
"I was confused because I figured the game was out of hand," Harper says (the score was 33-14 with about 11 minutes remaining). "I got all the texts and said, 'No way.'"
Rouse replied, "No, he's not" and then flipped on his TV.
"I could just see the look in his eye," he says. "It was really bad. How he got tied up? It was nasty."
For a moment, Rouse thought he was dreaming. No way was Carr, this indestructible force, actually hurt.
Carr's old college coach? Tim DeRuyter's family was at his home in Fresno. All life drained from the room.
"To see it all come crashing down on that one play…" says DeRuyter with a pause and sigh. "You saw his leg underneath there? Horrible."
One of Carr's high school teammates and closest friends, Ryan Clanton, had watched his college quarterback at Oregon, Marcus Mariota, break his fibula earlier that day. His heart sank. About four hours later, Carr was writhing in pain. His heart sank again.
"I knew people who were there," Clanton says, "and they said the whole stadium went quiet."
Indeed, it did.
On the field. In the bowl. High up above inside a suite, too.
For Christmas, Carr made sure his two brothers, two parents and all the grandkids watched this game against the Colts from a private suite. They'd all celebrate a win together in holiday bliss. "Autumn Wind" would blend into "Jingle Bells," and they'd eat dinner and open presents together as the strong Christian family they are.
When the TV monitor inside the suite zoomed in on Derek's chilling reaction, older brother David alerted dad, and everyone entered a state of shock.
This 2016 season had been sublime for Carr, for the Raiders, until Indianapolis' Trent Cole went low on Carr and the script flipped.
"You could hear a pin drop," says Rodger Carr, the father.
The Oakland Coliseum soon came back to life with chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P." Rodger felt their "real passion and love" for his son.
Heather Carr, Derek's wife, headed down to the locker room.
When she returned, she was crying.
She had never seen anything like this. Inside the locker room, after a 33-25 Raiders win, grown men were sobbing. One by one, teammates told Carr, "I love you" with a hug. One by one, Carr told them—tears in his eyes, too—"I love you, man," sniffing through a "Come on, guys! Be happy!"
They all knew they'd go as far as Derek Carr would take them.
With one injury, Oakland's heart was ripped out. The NFL postseason turned on its head. A Raiders team that had not lost to a non-playoff team all year would go on to get blown out by a non-playoff team in Denver the next week. The Chiefs would pass them by to win the AFC West and earn a bye week. The Patriots' path to their seventh Super Bowl since the 2001 season became a bit smoother.
The emotional swing was sudden and violent.
Moments after Carr hobbled off the field, owner Mark Davis was seen on the TV broadcast with binoculars yelling what appears to be, "Don't throw the f--king ball!" Teammates cried. And that night, at 7:55 p.m., Carr posted a note on Twitter that read, in part: "I am not worried one bit" and "I will bounce back and be on my feet within no time!" and "This is a team sport! So everything WE want is still out there for us!"
Derek Carr @derekcarrqb
Thank you! Joshua 1:9 https://t.co/m6Zbhmm8Xh2016-12-25 03:57:35
The Raiders are in the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. They'll play at the Texans on Saturday afternoon. And when doctors told Carr his recovery would be 6-8 weeks, he did the math in his head.
Dad doesn't want to hear the words "next season."
"Dude, there's the Super Bowl," Rodger Carr says. "You know what I'm saying? Just a few more games. I know that's going to be the driving force. For sure."
Unfortunately, asking these Raiders to win three games is unrealistic.
Derek Carr was the driving force, and now he's out.
Flash back to Dec. 4 in Oakland.
On this day, none of the Coliseum's 54,759 tenants are thinking about a broken fibula. They don't care that the stadium's grimy tunnel is damp even though it never rained. They don't care about the exposed piping lining the hallway ceilings.
(Seriously, pull one of those hanging wires and the whole structure will likely implode. This stadium has been treated with the tender love and care of a rundown studio apartment recycled on Craigslist.)
They don't even care that the man in the white suit and $3 bowl cut might airlift his team to Las Vegas.
No, on Dec. 4 in Oakland, Derek Carr is their savior who demands full attention. He's leading one of his seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season. Nothing else matters.
The then-MVP front-runner, broken pinkie 'n' all, erases a 24-9 Bills lead faster than an uppercut from boxer Andre Ward, who's on hand. After hitting Michael Crabtree for a score, he points to the stands, pumps a fist, bobs his feet in tap-tap-tap-tap rhythm; 24-16. After another Raiders touchdown, he points to the same spot again; 24-23. Still trailing, there's Carr chumming it up on the sideline with offensive linemen as if it's 5 o'clock somewhere. One of Carr's jokes busts Jon Feliciano into laughter. Why so calm? So relaxed? Text DeRuyter who's watching from home.
Think your guy pulls this off?
You've seen this story before.
Approximately 2.7 seconds later, Carr lofts a 37-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. The two knew they could burn Buffalo rookie Kevon Seymour on a double move.
"A ton of times," DeRuyter texts. "He's pretty special."
After one more touchdown, Carr flicks a two-pointer to Seth Roberts and is so amped he takes off in an all-out sprint and nearly smashes into an official.
His legend grows.
With the flabbergasted remains of the Bills in his shadow and a 38-24 win secured, Carr violently raises both arms into the air, and fans roar at a jet-engine volume. All those scantily clad adults in spikes and face paint aren't punching each other; they're cheering and embracing each other.
Carr is the last player to leave the field. He raises a fist and exits.
All of these comebacks were no coincidence.
"We believe at the end of the year, we can be on top," tight end Clive Walford says moments later.
Carr has created a sense of belief in this locker room that general managers spend decades searching for. Stall to stall, pre-fibula injury, players speak of their quarterback in apostle terms. It's as if he was sent from a higher power. They cite a play, a conversation, a moment that made them believe.
Before every game, Roberts looks to his side and sees Carr with his head down and eyes closed in prayer for 3-5 minutes.
"He's sitting there," Roberts says, "and I just watch him."
He's a man in spiritual command. Last year, he led weekly Bible studies. And no one remembers Carr swearing. Ever. Only loud variations of "Crap!" and "Darn!"
So yes, he is as polite as you've heard.
But that fools people. Carr's a sneaky assassin. Cornerback T.J. Carrie remembers Carr sniping at a teammate in a fit of rage for lining up incorrectly during practice…when Carr was a rookie. "I was like, 'Damn, DC!'" Carrie says. Khalil Mack calls him "scary." Bruce Irvin, a scary man himself, says Carr "has a lot of dog" in him.
When Carr left a win over Carolina with a pinkie slanted at a 90-degree angle, all eyes followed him into the locker room. Some, like Roberts, panicked and weren't sure if Carr would re-emerge. Some, like veteran left tackle Donald Penn, had no doubt Carr would be back.
"DC's a fighter," Penn says. "He's the heartbeat of this team."
Then Penn allowed his only sack of the season, and the EKG machine reading on the Raiders' season flatlined.
This time, Carr never returned from the tunnel. All magic, all hope evaporated.
Carr was left asking "Why?"
Once the initial shock dissipated, that's the one word Derek Carr kept repeating aloud to family. Why was it his leg that broke? Why was he preparing for surgery instead of the Broncos? Why did all those early mornings and late nights lead to such indescribable heartbreak?
"It's super, super hard on him right now," Rodger Carr acknowledges. "He said, 'Dad, it's going to be hard to watch this game.' … I told my wife the other day, 'Sheryl, this almost doesn't feel real. Sunday, he's going to be playing.' It doesn't feel right that this really did happen.
"Yeah, it's pretty crazy."
Rodger Carr was the one who first convinced his sons to pour hours into training. Want to take a day off? That's fine. "Someone else could be the next Troy Aikman," he'd say. And Derek constantly rose to the challenge. One-hour workouts turned into 90-minute workouts, and 90-minute workouts turned into two-hour workouts, and two-hour workouts turned into Carr one-upping a future Hall of Fame pass-rusher in the weight room.
"Khalil will be grabbing some dumbbells," Rodger says, "and Derek will go 'What are you getting Khalil?' and then he'll go five pounds more and pick those up. Khalil goes 'Oh, oh, yeah, DC?' Then he'll grab more."
The result? A magical season throwing for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and only six picks.
|Derek Carr career stats|
Carr earned the right to play for a Super Bowl.
What else could dad say?
"I mean, Derek leaves the house at 5 every morning," Rodger Carr says. "It just…the work they put in to succeed, and you have it just…bam! It's, 'Oh my god, Dad, we're going to the playoffs and I'm not playing.' It's really, really hard on him. I'll tell ya."
Carr presented himself on social media as an optimistic cheerleader during the Broncos' 24-6 win Sunday, but this isn't easy.
His team resembled a JV impostor in the loss.
Carr told 95.7 The Game in San Francisco "it ripped my heart out" to watch the loss from his couch. He had offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's game plan with him the whole time, too. Carr added that he knew there was "a hill to climb" when his fibula broke and "I'm always down for a challenge."
In an ice-breaking text message to Carr, Clanton aimed for comic relief. Before Carr's surgery, he sent his pal a picture of himself with his eyes crossed saying he was planning on getting eye surgery with his next paycheck. The next day, Carr sent back a stream of laughing emojis.
"You can't break that guy," Clanton says. "He's a gladiator."
Everyone sees the quarterback's faith carrying him right now. The entire family is devoutly religious. Carr's grandfather was a pastor for 35 years, and his mother headed back to Bakersfield the morning after he broke his leg to lead a Sunday worship at church.
Rodger is convinced Derek could be a preacher one day.
So, with time, he's healing.
"The way he looked at it was this was one of those 'Whys' in life," Rodger says. "We don't understand it. Why did this happen? Oh my God, this is the worst thing possible that you could think of—the way the season was going, with what they went through and how they won games—then this happened.
"Hey, we're not here to question. We can't. We just put it in God's hands. He's going to get the glory out of this, and everything's going to be fine."
We hear such rhetoric daily in sports, of course. Those close to Carr swear it's not trivial.
With Carr, it's real.
It's the way he talks to them in day-to-day conversation.
"A lot of guys in the league and college," Clanton says, "they have the cross tattoos or certain bible verse tattooed or plastered on Twitter, but when Derek talks about his faith, he really means it. I'll text him, 'Great game! I can't believe you had that comeback with a broken finger. Unbelievable!' And he'll just text back, 'Thank you. God's great.'"
Adds Rouse, "He said God always has a purpose in life. In life, sometimes you don't know why things happen, but they happen for a reason."
DeRuyter points to the fact Carr nearly lost his son, Dallas, during college.
That traumatic period prepared him for this. DeRuyter still remembers Carr's 2:30 a.m. phone call. Bawling, barely audible, Derek told his coach that doctors weren't sure his son would survive. Dallas' intestines were tangled. He was throwing up green matter.
After two surgeries in four days, Dallas survived.
And two days after his son returned from the hospital, Carr threw for 456 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers.
He's prepared for anything.
"He'll come back better and stronger after this," DeRuyter says. "He truly believes that. He truly believes God doesn't give us problems we can't solve. It's an obstacle for him, but he believes for his long-term growth that this is something he needs."
Publicly, the Raiders pretend like everything is A-OK. Soon after the injury, Jack Del Rio stood at a podium and miraculously mustered the gumption to repeat the three most overused words in sports.
These Raiders are shell-shocked.
A few players, reached by phone after the injury, say they love Carr but would rather not discuss him anymore. They're trying to look ahead, not behind. Truth is, this is a team T-boned by a tractor-trailer just when it had a Super Bowl destination in sight. Now the muffler hangs, the tires are popped, the engine screams and they're puttering along at 5 mph.
With Carr, the Raiders might have been the best team in the NFL. Without him, they're a 4-12 or 5-11 afterthought. Because Carr's greatest gift is inspiring everyone around him.
That's why so many players were crying in that locker room.
"I've never seen a guy jell so many different people from so many different walks of life," Clanton says. "He jells everyone together, and they all have that common goal. As long as he's there, he'll be the catalyst, and everyone will gravitate toward that.
"He can make below-average players feel like they're above average. That's the truest statement you could make about Derek."
If anyone says one negative word about Carr? Clanton promises to knock that person out with one punch. Try him. In so many words, that's what Rouse and Harper and Roberts and Penn and everyone else says, too. His impact stretches beyond a stat line. Whenever Rodger chats with other players, they look him in the eye and say they love his son. Removing Carr from a locker room essentially cuts off the team's oxygen supply.
But, yes, Carr will be back at some point.
"With a look in his eye," Rouse promises, "that's ready to take over."
Maybe then, Carr gets his chance to rewrite the horror story.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.