Grassroots Commentary

Cris Carter's Journey

Bill Franklin · Aug. 12, 2013

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” initially described a woman who was unlucky in love. In time it has come to describe anyone who consistently came close but never achieved a long-pursued goal.

Cris Carter must have thought he was the poster guy for the expression. Since becoming eligible for induction into the professional football Hall of Fame, the Valhalla for every player who dedicated the years of his youth and often his health to the game, Carter was passed over five years in a row. Each year he wasn’t chosen allowed players who were still actively playing to improve their records. The records of eligible players for the Hall of Fame are static since they are no longer playing. Therefore they become less impressive each year because the way football is played changes. It has become more pass-friendly in recent years, allowing receivers to improve their records. Carter was a wide receiver when the game was more rushing-friendly. Passing and pass receptions were less frequent.

Carter finally made it into the Hall of Fame this year with the nominations for the 2013 class. He and others were inducted in Canton Ohio last week.

Only one other time has my blog veered off into the world of professional sports, and that time it was to talk about character, not sports. As I listened to Cris Carter’s emotional induction speech, excerpts of which were broadcast several times, my interest was not about his 16-year football achievements as a wide receiver, which included 1,100 receptions – 130 of them touchdowns – for almost 14,000 yards. I was more interested in hearing Carter speak about the “backstage” people who made his remarkable career and comeback possible.

Carter’s impromptu speech rambled without notes or rehearsal for more than half of the nearly 17 minutes that he spoke. But as he began wrapping up his comments, he recognized several people to whom he had a special debt for shaping his life at critical times. He predictably began with his “Mama,” Joyce Carter. It was obviously not a gratuitous acknowledgement. Like too many black families, Cris Carter’s was large – and fatherless.

“My mama, Joyce, stand up, please. Now you should know that woman right there dropped out of high school at 17, had seven kids, went back and finished her high school diploma when she was about 40, and when she was 50, she ended up with her Masters. Mama, I got to tell you, I didn’t have to wait to get a call from the Hall to tell me I was a Hall of Famer. You’ve been telling me since I was little. … But, Mom, I’ve got to tell you. I have to apologize. I’m so sorry for the bumpy flight and the bumpy ride, but I got to tell you, Mama, it’s a smooth landing.”

The matriarchal “Mama” Joyce Carter moved the family into project housing in Middletown Ohio, the People’s Place Apartments, where the opportunity for youth sports was better. Little is publicly known about the Carter family and especially Joyce Carter. If she was like many single black mothers, she was fiercely supportive of her children and determined that they would not repeat her life. From all evidence, she succeeded.

Children, especially black children, who are raised in fatherless homes often live in poverty and don’t escape it as adults. The Carter family was poor; too poor to afford even a phone, not to mention a television or electronic games. So the four Carter brothers passed time with physical workouts. They played on recreational sport teams and later excelled on high school teams. Their high school workouts paid off and their skills were recognized by scouts. But the only way recruiters could contact them was to call their neighbors to fetch one of the Carter boys to the phone.

Each boy got college athletic scholarship assistance. The oldest brother, Butch, went on to an NBA career as a player and coach. The youngest, Cris, played professional football. John and George had non-sports jobs after college. Unfortunately George also spent 16 months in prison for burglary and forgery. After his release he influenced Cris to sign with an agent and accept money while he was still in college, causing Cris to lose his senior college year of football eligibility with Ohio State. Notwithstanding the different paths their lives have taken, the four brothers, now in their late 40s and 50s, remain close and talk with each other every day.

But another woman also influenced Cris Carter’s journey – Melanie, his wife of 23 years. He first caught sight of her crossing the Ohio State campus and told his roommate, even before meeting her, that he intended to marry “that woman.” They did marry later and had two children – a son now 22 years old and a daughter now 19.

“Through all the things we’ve been through. I appreciate your sacrifice. I remember early in my career you told me, ‘Cris, I had a dream and I was going to be successful, but if you want to pursue pro football, I’m willing to put my dream on the back burner, because I believe in you.’”

It wasn’t an easy marriage. Cris struggled with drugs and alcohol after leaving college and the two and a half years he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. His intense competitive aggressiveness spilled over into every relationship. He and Melanie married in February 1990. Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan cut Cris later that same year after the fall preseason because of his addictions and poor work ethic. It was a crushing professional defeat. But it probably saved his life and certainly his career and marriage. Carter called it “the best thing that ever happened to me.” As his speech recalled that painful last meeting with Ryan, tears welled:

“Buddy Ryan drafted me, and he tried to grow me up in the league. What Buddy Ryan did was the best thing that ever happened for me when he cut me and told me I couldn’t play for his football team. But he told me a story. He told me the night before he [had] talked to his wife, and he asked his wife what he should do. And his wife told him, don’t cut Cris Carter. He’s going to do something special with his life. So Buddy Ryan, and your lovely wife, I thank you.”

Cris Carter was without a job, fighting an addiction, and trying to start a life with his new wife.

Getting fired had a good outcome for Cris Carter. I recalled another firing that happened early in the American Civil War that didn’t work out as well. Abraham Lincoln was struggling to find a general who would press the fight against the seemingly invincible Robert E. Lee. The darling of the Union Army, George B. McClellan, called Little Napoleon by his admirers, had been given charge of the Army.

McClellan, however, proved better at preparing to fight than engaging Lee in a fight. After many attempts to prod his cautious commander to act, Lincoln fired McClellan when he failed to follow up Lee’s retreating army following the battle of Antietam. Several McClellan supporters appeared at the White House to plead a case for reconsideration. Defending his decision, Lincoln argued that McClellan “had the slows.” McClellan would have been a better man, in Lincoln’s opinion, had he encountered some humbling reverses in his early years. He would have been a better general when he took over the Eastern command had he been tested in his first battles by possible or actual defeat. Instead, his modest victories reflected an unwillingness to take risks. His termination, still in his mid-30s, essentially ended McClellan’s professional life, although he would live another 30 unremarkable years.

The position Lincoln took with McClellan’s pleaders was sage: some lessons in life are only learned with blackened eyes and bloodied noses. McClellan had experienced neither. We don’t know the words that passed between Buddy Ryan and Cris Carter when the 25-year old was cut from the Eagles, but as Lincoln observed, there are times in life when failure is the best feedback a person can give or get.

The Minnesota Vikings claimed Carter off waivers in September 1990 for a $100 fee. Almost immediately he went into team-sponsored substance abuse rehab. The team ownership was determined to help him get his life under control if he would accept help. All of the coaches and management got behind the plan. Now it was up to Carter. The team substance abuse counselor, Betty Triliegi, challenged him to go one week without drinking. That challenge was made on September 19, 1990, and Carter has been sober since.

He gave credit to the Vikings’ program in his speech.

“The Minnesota Vikings, we have one of the best employee assistance programs, cutting edge as far as substance abuse, people struggling with it and our ownership at the time was a group of people, but one of the owners was named Wheelock Whitney. When the Vikings acquired me from Philadelphia, like most pro teams, they don’t know the intel on the player until they get the paperwork, but they had already had my contract by then. But Wheelock Whitney hooked me up with a good friend of his, whose name is Betty Triliegi, and she happens to be one of the best friends a person could ever have. The reason why: she didn’t teach me how to catch or run routes, but she taught me how I could live a life and have power over my life. And my demons didn’t have to always haunt me.

"She asked me on September 19, she said, Cris, can you just not have a drink for one week? And since September 19, 1990, because of Betty Triliegi, and Wheelock Whitney, I’ve been able to keep that program together. And but for them, I would not be going into the Hall, and I greatly appreciate and I honor them tonight.”

In his second year at Minnesota, Carter began working hard to improve his game. It showed in his receptions, touchdowns, and yardage gained after a catch. He finally invested himself mentally and decided he would chase Jerry Rice’s records as a wide receiver. When former San Francisco 49er running back Roger Craig was traded to Minnesota in 1992, Carter asked Craig how he and Rice were able to play at such a high level. Craig revealed their secret: both worked as hard at their off-season regimens as they did for regular season conditioning. Carter hired a trainer and was determined to achieve year-round fitness. It paid off. In his remaining 10 years with the Vikings he had eight straight seasons of 1,000 or more yards.

As he concluded his Hall of Fame speech, Carter closed with a tribute to Reggie White. Formerly a defensive end and defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Green Bay Packers, and the Carolina Panthers, White was one of the most decorated players in football. During college he had become involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and became an ordained minister, a role he actively continued throughout his professional football career. Reggie White died from a fatal cardiac arrhythmia the day after Christmas in 2004 at the age of 43.

Carter remembered him.

“And the fifth person I met [along the way to the Hall of Fame] was the ‘Minister of Defense’ and his name was Reggie White. I grew up in a single parent home. Reggie White, when I was 22, was the first man to tell me he loved me. And he said, ‘Cris, through God all things are possible.’

"Now there might be a lot of people you might question where they’re at, but I know, Big Dog. I know you (sic) looking down, and I know you’re happy with me. I appreciate you, Reggie. I love you.”

Every life – yours and mine – is a story. It’s a story in the making whose last chapter, thankfully, has yet to be written. And every day is an opportunity to shape that last chapter.

Every life is a story of the choices and the associations we make, you and I. Both have consequences – some good, others bad.

Every life is a story of how our associations have changed the stories of other people’s lives, and how associations have changed our life … for better or worse. The imprint of the lives we carry with us should be cause for frequent reflection. They have changed our story. They have reshaped our last chapter.

He wasn’t eloquent but Cris Carter understood who changed his story. He acknowledged the people who had influenced him, people who shared the wisdom gathered into their own lives, who gave him courage to persevere in difficult times, and helped him find hope when it eluded him. They helped shape his last chapter. Induction into the Hall of Fame is no more than a subtheme in Carter’s story. I doubt that he believes that today. But I hope he will someday.

Who are the people influencing your story? Whose stories are you influencing? Is either question an important concern to you? A man who lived 2,500 years ago thought so. Pericles, called the “first citizen of Athens” by a contemporary, the historian Thucydides, was the highest statesman and chief general during the Greek golden age. Therefore it fell to him to give the funeral oration for those who had died in the Peloponnesian war – the Gettysburg Address of its time. Pericles used the occasion to make a timeless statement about human relationships:

This whole earth is the tomb of illustrious men,
Whose true epitaph is not engraved on monuments of stone,
On columns in lands far from their own,
But rather woven into the stuff of other men’s lives,
A record unwritten, with no monument to preserve it,
Except that of the heart.

I had this read at the funerals of my parents.

I hope my family will have it read at mine.

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