Sure things at running back are rarities in the NFL. The best running back prospects of the last 10 years, for example, were Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush and Darren McFadden. Those three have combined for one Pro Bowl appearance.
Adrian Peterson has been the best back over the last five years. Even he was such an uncertainty coming out of college that he fell to seventh in the draft, even though he was an absolute maniac at Oklahoma.
Once upon a time, Ki-Jana Carter was that sure thing.
Even though Rashaan Salaam of Colorado rushed for over 2,000 yards and won the Heisman Trophy for the 11-1 Buffaloes, Carter (the Heisman runner-up) was still the most fearsome tailback in college football that year.
He rushed for a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry and 23 touchdowns in his junior season. His 1,539 rushing yards likely would have been significantly higher if it weren't for Penn State destroying its competition so easily that year. Seven of PSU's victories were by 27 points or more, and the Nittany Lions' 38-14 win over USC wasn't nearly that close, as PSU led 35-0 at the break. That offense scored 47 points per game, which led the nation, and nobody held the Nittany Lions below 31 points in any game.
The '94 Nittany Lions were absolutely loaded on offense. That much is to be expected; you can't go 12-0 and score that many points without lethal talent at every turn. Carter was the best of the bunch. He was lightning fast, powerful and had uncanny field vision.
No single play embodied Carter's talents better than Penn State's first play from scrimmage in the 1995 Rose Bowl, an 83-yard touchdown that simply wasn't fair.
Carter famously left Penn State early to join the NFL after his junior season, even receiving the blessing of Joe Paterno to do so. Said Paterno at the time: This is the first time I have told anybody who has not graduated that I felt they ought to leave." That's like getting a blessing from the Pope to punch a bishop. Leaving Penn State without graduating under Paterno just wasn't done (Carter did graduate; he just left Penn State with eligibility still on the table).
Sure enough, Carter was the first pick of the 1995 NFL draft, becoming Cincinnati's tailback of the future. All of a sudden, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders had company.
And then it all fell apart.
The Bengals eagerly signed Carter to a seven-year, $19.2 million deal that set a rookie record at the time. Then on his third carry in his first preseason game, Carter shredded his left ACL and was done for the year.
Keep in mind, this was 1995, when torn knee ligaments weren't merely the year-long inconvenience they are today. They could end young players' careers and this injury haunted Carter for the rest of his.
Carter rejoined the Bengals in 1996 and only missed one game over the next two seasons. But his athleticism had left him and at times it seemed like his heart wasn't in it. Certainly his propensity for injury didn't help his confidence. At any rate, Carter spent two more years barely seeing the field for Cincinnati, then put in time with the Saints and Redskins over the next three years before calling it a career.
One has to wonder what modern surgery and rehab could have done for Carter. Nobody ever fully recovers from a torn ACL. Running backs can resume their careers and at least get into starting shape within about a year or so—sometimes less.
At the very least, when a tailback (especially a young one) goes down with a torn ACL, the thought is rarely "there goes his career" unless it's part of a much more extensive injury. Even then, rehab and recovery are generally assumed. Oh, if that could have been the case in 1995 too.
At any rate, Carter is now the CEO of ByoGlobe, a firm that specializes in eco-friendly sanitizing and has been doing business for the last four years. His name is on the company's website if you look hard enough, but he's hardly a focal point of the business. Nobody looking at the website would be able to tell a former NFL player was the CEO unless they knew who he was.
It is a shame, though, that indeed not everybody knows who he is, considering he had the talent to be one of the NFL's next truly great running backs. He's doing well for himself, however, which failing a successful pro career, is all anyone can hope for.