"You could always tell that he was working on something great."
Those were the words of Al Milton, via Rick McCrabb of the Middletown Journal, Cris Carter's high school quarterback. He's been with Carter since the very beginning, as Carter grew from a lanky athlete with dreams of being an NBA point guard into a mature All-American wide receiver recruited by the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Milton would continue: “He was always better the next time than he was the year before.”
This is the story of one of the NFL's best receivers. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round of the 1987 NFL supplemental draft, Carter didn't have dreams of NFL stardom handed to him on a silver platter. No, through happenstance, turmoil and his own admitted mistakes, Carter's career had a rocky start.
Yet when Carter was done, there was no mistaking that we had all just witnessed one of the best athletes to ever compete on the NFL stage.
As Carter enters the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, he will do so with full confidence that he did absolutely everything within his power to make his dreams a reality.
Growing Up...Perhaps Too Slowly
In the long line of diva wide receivers in the NFL, it seems silly to picture Carter among that group. Yet his jump from Ohio State was shrouded in scandal. It was also a reminder that Carter wasn't handed anything as a youth growing up in Middletown, Ohio.
According to his hometown paper, Carter lived in a four-bedroom apartment with his mother, three brothers and two sisters. Even into his college years, Carter would describe himself as "broke." He, like his older brother Butch—a basketball star at Indiana and future NBA player and coach—would look to get out of Middletown and leave it far behind in his rear-view mirror.
So it's difficult for any of us not in Carter's shoes to truly understand what went through his mind when, after an All-American junior season at OSU, he decided to sign an under-the-table deal with Norby Walters. According to Sports Illustrated's Bruce Selcraig, Walters and a fellow sports agent, Lloyd Bloom, were indicted on racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion chargers in 1988.
To understand that in 21st century terms, Wikipedia's link to "Norby Walters" just goes to a page on "1988 in organized crime." As one can guess, the NCAA didn't take too kindly to Carter's dalliance with an associate of the Colombo crime family, and Carter was banished to the supplemental draft.
It could have been a phenomenal senior season as Carter built off one of the better junior seasons in OSU history. In his three seasons in Columbus, he set the Ohio State receptions record with 168.
Selected by the Philadelphia Eagles, none of those collegiate accolades mattered. Though he had quarterback Randall Cunningham throwing to him and a solid cast of offensive players around him, Carter was never able to make much of an impact.
He was certainly not worth the trouble when the Eagles finally had enough of his issues with substance abuse. They waived Carter before the 1990 season, and his football career could have ended there. However, where Buddy Ryan failed to get through to Carter, the Minnesota Vikings would attempt once more.
It only cost them $100.
Nowhere—from Las Vegas to Churchill Downs—can one get the kind of action on $100 that the Vikings got that day. The low-risk, high-reward bet they placed on Carter paid dividends throughout the course of a 12-year Vikings career.
Carter would later tearfully recount the tale to Scout.com:
The first day was very, very difficult. I would say the Vikings were somewhat aware of my situation but not fully aware. But once they opened that file they became fully aware of it and realized I had an issue and they put certain steps in place that day that at that time I wasn’t using. My biggest problem was struggling with cocaine. At that time, I wasn’t using but I was still using alcohol. ... Sept. 19, that was the last that I ever drank.
This was Carter's rock bottom. He was supposed to be a cut above, and now he was yesterday's news. In 1990—his first year with Minnesota—Carter started only five games and caught three touchdowns.
Then, in 1991, something clicked. Carter stepped up as the Vikings' top receiver. He caught 72 passes that season for 962 yards—both career bests to that point.
In the years that would follow, Dennis Green took over as head coach (1992-2001). Quarterback Rich Gannon would eventually give way to passers like Jim McMahon, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham.
Carter thrived in his new atmosphere.
At the Top of the Football World
After San Francisco 49ers legend Jerry Rice, it's difficult to think of a player who epitomized consistency at the receiver position like Carter.
Many younger football fans think of Carter as the mentor to troubled receiver Randy Moss or as the complementary piece to the explosive offense that Moss helped bring to the Vikings. In terms of overall career, Carter's impact was much larger than he's often given credit for.
From 1993 to 2000, Carter went to eight straight Pro Bowls and was named to two first-team All-Pro teams (1994 and 1998). In 1993, he had his first 1,000-yard season. In 1994, he set the single-season receiving record with 122 catches (a record since broken) and ended up duplicating that effort the following season.
Yet, the Vikings didn't always share that success as a team. Through Carter's first six years with the team, the Vikings went 52-44. They were at times an extremely potent offense, but too often they were stuck in mediocrity.
The overhaul at the quarterback position did them no favors, either, as both reliance on aged stars and some bad luck with injury contributed to quite the carousel.
The constant in the equation, throughout the ups and downs, was Carter and his phenomenal ability to catch the ball.
Other receivers may have speed as their distinct advantage. Some have size. Some have tremendous determination. Still others have fantastic leaping ability. Carter had much of that (and much of it in spades), but his hands tower above any other receiver in NFL history.
That was his defining trait. He caught everything that was thrown near him.
In the Vikings' high-octane, vertically based offense, it was a perfect fit for Carter. Matt Waldman, author of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, explains:
Randy Moss and Cris Carter were perfect fits for Daunte Culpepper, because the Vikings passer had truth arm strength. Moss could run under anything or win any 50/50 ball. Carter could also win 50/50 balls and had an incredible catch radius.
Culpepper isn't the only Vikings quarterback of Carter's era who fit that description, either. Much of what constituted success for guys like Brad Johnson, Moon and Cunningham was heaving it up and letting Carter come down with it—especially down the sideline and most certainly in (or heading toward) the end zone.
Once Moss was added to that mix in 1998, things went absolutely insane for the Vikings offense. In 1998, Cunningham utilized Moss and Carter to the tune of 556 points scored (then an NFL record) and a 15-1 regular season.
The success would continue through 2000 when Johnson was traded to the Washington Redskins for Daunte Culpepper, who would help Carter to his best season since 1996 with 96 catches and 1,274 yards. He would also manage to catch the 1,000th reception of his career that year.
At this point, it was clear that Carter's time was winding down and Moss's ascension was in full swing. Still, Carter and his famous touchdown-catching hands didn't go quietly.
A Legacy to Be Remembered
When he left the Vikings following the 2001 season, he did so as the best receiver in their history—a claim he will continue to have for some time to come.
Following his time with the Vikings, his career would fizzle out in Miami. Carter immediately went to work on HBO's Inside the NFL and has gained notoriety with his work on ESPN since 2008. His opinions can be controversial and his analysis can be questioned, but it's always clear that he has a firm grasp on the game in which he excelled.
For a man who rankled some in the media during his playing days, perhaps no one was more happy for Carter's Hall of Fame election than his colleagues at the Worldwide Leader.
His legacy to the game includes his son Duron Carter—currently a receiver on the Montreal Alouettes practice roster—who will serve as presenter for Cris' Hall of Fame induction. He is already a member of the Vikings Ring of Honor and has had his No. 80 retired by the team...almost immediately after he retired himself.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is a place of history.
It is a place where the greatest memories of the sport lie, encased in bronze, for all to cherish and to pass on to future generations. From this weekend forward, Carter's story will serve as a testament that the road isn't always easy and success does not always come cheap.
He also stands as a reminder that pro football is a game that cherishes perseverance as much as it rewards natural ability.
This is the greatness that Carter was working on all of those years, and it didn't come easily or without cost. It was achieved through hard work, overcoming personal demons and rising above when he could have quit.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.