Monday, October 23, 2017
BLEACHER REPORT: THE DURON CARTER STORY
In the beginning, we need to understand the beginning isn't always important.
Born to the honey-handed wide receiver and the sweet mother who could have been a medal-winning sprinter, Duron Carter had it all, including a smile that would not quit.
From the time he was six months old, he had a front-row seat at the Metrodome to watch a Hall of Fame career play out. He soaked in every second of it. Even as a toddler, he sat there intently in the chaos, entranced by the game.
By the time he was three or four, Duron was collecting game programs, his mother Melanie Carter said. He was too young to read, but he would study the pages where officials' signals were decoded. Then at the games, he would explain to his mother which penalty was being called.
He sat in the same seat for 11 years, right over the tunnel where the Vikings entered the field. There, he watched for his father Cris Carter to give him a secret signal before the snap. A subtle arm movement across his chest and a quick thumbs up meant Cris was the primary receiver on a play. If Duron really was lucky, dad would score a touchdown, jog over and toss him the football.
"It was just what we did every Sunday," Duron Carter told Bleacher Report. "It wasn't that big of a deal to me. I didn't know what the NFL was. I was going to my dad's game like he was going to my games."
One day, before a Vikings-Packers game, he overheard someone talking reverently about Packers defensive end Reggie White, Cris's former teammate in Philadelphia. He turned to his mother and said, "Mom, Uncle Reggie is real famous. I didn't know that. I thought he was just my uncle."
He would wear the jersey of Randy Moss, a family friend he thought was so cool. Larry Fitzgerald babysat him. He was a water boy at Vikings training camp and took eight trips to Hawaii to watch his father play in the Pro Bowl.
Young Duron was not interested in playing with toy trucks or cars. He was, however, interested in watching game tape with dad, which they did frequently.
One of Cris's passions then and now has been coaching athletes at all levels and helping them maximize their abilities. Many NFL players have spent offseason time at Cris's XPE training facility in Boca Raton, Florida. There, Duron was able to hang out with players like Andre Johnson, Plaxico Burress, Anquan Boldin and Ricky Williams. By the time he was in ninth grade, he was familiar with all the drills his father taught, and he was helping to teach them to the younger kids. He was one of the guys.
Things came easy to Duron, maybe too easy. He said he could get B's in school without really trying.
In sports, Duron almost always was the best in any game. He told his parents of his dreams to be the first black hockey player, and then the next Kevin Garnett. Baseball might have been his best sport when he was young. He played catcher, pitcher and shortstop in travel leagues. Then came football. As a high school senior, he scored 14 touchdowns and his undefeated team won its second consecutive Florida state title. Rivals ranked him the 11th-best receiver in the nation.
Is it any wonder Duron Carter was perpetually smiling?
Those beginnings didn't matter in 2009 when Duron arrived at a sprawling college campus in Columbus, Ohio. He chose Ohio State over many other schools that offered scholarships, unintimidated by following in his father's rather large cleat steps.
At Ohio State, Cris had been an All-American who set the school record for receptions despite being suspended for his senior year after breaking an NCAA rule by signing with an agent.
It did not take long for Duron to show he wasn't just living off his father's reputation at Ohio State. He played as a true freshman, catching 13 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. But the girls and parties were more interesting to him than the classes, which he kept skipping. An academic suspension prevented him from traveling to Pasadena for the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl game that year. By spring practice, he still was floundering academically.
In an attempt to get back on track, Carter transferred to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He recommitted himself there and, after a year, was back in the big time at Alabama. The plan was to play the 2011 season and propel himself into the first round of the 2012 draft. A technicality with his transcript, however, resulted in him being forced to retake a class. And so he was ineligible to play that year.
Coach Nick Saban assigned Carter to play wide receiver and quarterback on the scout team, preparing the Crimson Tide starters by trying to imitate opposing stars like Rueben Randle (LSU) and Tyler Wilson (Arkansas). It was not easy for Carter to be a stagehand when he thought he was going to be the lead.
"He didn't go there for that," Cris Carter said. "He was treated like a walk-on. He wasn't mature enough to handle it. That was rough on him. It was weighing on him."
Alabama made it to the BCS National Championship Game, but Carter would not be going. He was suspended. Multiple sources said it was because he failed a drug test for marijuana. In the offseason, he was late for a workout. As the 2012 season approached, there was another failed drug test for marijuana. That was the end of his time in Tuscaloosa. He transferred to Florida Atlantic in his home city of Boca Raton, but his petition to play that year was turned down. And then, just like that, his college days were over.
"Bad decisions," Duron said of his college career.
"A long chain of bad decisions. I wasn't a reliable person. Not being on time, not going to class, undermining authority, being a mischievous kid. I always thought I could talk or play my way out of a situation."
Those beginnings did not matter to Cris Carter. Duron was his son, and he was going to love him through it.
"We've been through some tough times with him," Cris said. "But we told him we'd never give up on him."
Cris knew what it was like to be young and shortsighted. In his first three years in the NFL, Carter scored 19 touchdowns while living a secret life, addicted to cocaine and alcohol. It took Eagles coach Buddy Ryan cutting Carter for him to become the man and player he wanted to be.
Duron didn't stray as far off course as his father. But son, like father, needed a wakeup call.
"Both had to go through humbling experiences in their lives and football careers to have a second chance," said Mitch Frankel, who was Cris' agent for his entire career and now is Duron's agent.
It is one of several parallels in their story. Both were quarterbacks in their formative years. Both became wide receivers in their sophomore years of high school. Both are not shy about expressing opinions. And both were given special gifts.
If you look at the way Duron stands, and then close your eyes, you can see Cris. Yes, there he is. Duron contorts his body going for the football much the way Cris did. They compete for contested balls with similar styles. Both have hands that look big enough to palm an exercise ball. Melanie, who has been married to Cris for 25 years, said she sees the same passion for the game in each man.
Both have made the kind of catches that light up Twitter. And both have dropped the ball.
Duron declared for the 2013 draft, but he was not selected. Nor did he receive a free-agent offer. He was invited to try out at spring camps for the Vikings and Saints but was not invited to stick around. A source with one of the teams then said Carter goofed off and "acted like he had made the team," instead of doing all he could to impress.
"My dad was at rock bottom when he got cut," Duron said. "For me, rock bottom was not making the teams at Minnesota and New Orleans. I didn't capture my opportunity."
Those beginnings didn't matter when Duron landed in Quebec that spring, facing one last chance. He didn't know a thing about the Canadian Football League, except that it was his only hope.
Getting back to playing football games after two years off would be important. Proving he could function in a team environment and act responsibly would be critical.
He was on the Montreal Alouettes' practice squad for the first nine games that season. Befitting a stranger in a strange land, Carter did not immediately fit in. Alouettes general manager Jim Popp said Carter annoyed teammates and coaches at times in film sessions. A coach would show a play, and if Carter had an issue with it, he would bring it up three or four plays later. The meeting would be stalled and extended.
Duron, like his father, is a thinker who is unafraid to question, or even argue. "The Great Debater" is his family nickname.
"You have to tell me why you're doing something," Duron said. "Tell me some facts, back it up. I've learned throughout the years to shut up at times."
Eventually, Carter got with the flow in the meeting room and on the field. In Montreal's last nine games, he led the league with an average of 18.6 yards per catch. It helped that wide receiver S.J. Green, who is considered the ideal CFL professional, became a role model and friend.
"That's my older brother," Carter said. "He showed me how to be a pro every day, how to go through the grind."
Shoulder and ankle injuries limited Carter at the start of the 2014 season. Popp said Carter wasn't himself until about the halfway point. Then he took off, and he ended up with more receiving yards than all but two other players in the league.
Alouettes college scouting director Russ Lande said Carter was the best wide receiver in the league by far. Carter showed rare hands. He also showed some of his mother's speed. She said she ran the 100-yard dash in 11.8 seconds in high school; he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 at his pro day, according to an NFL source.
Carter departed Canada having made positive impressions on Popp and others who worked with him. Popp said Carter "definitely has matured since he has been with us" and has shown a strong work ethic, a keen understanding of the playbook, a competitive demeanor in practice and a willingness to be coached.
Carter also dispelled the assumption, borne of his itinerant college career, that he is not very smart. The Alouettes administer the Wonderlic to all of their players. Popp declined to give Carter's precise score, but he said it was higher than 39. "He has a borderline genius IQ," he said.
Still, there are concerns. In the playoffs, the Alouettes were matched against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Delvin Breaux, the consensus best CFL cornerback. Carter publicly predicted victory and was mic'd up for the game by TSN for a documentary called "Road to the Grey Cup."
Coaches told him he would be a focal point of the game plan, but midway through the second quarter, he still had not seen a pass come his way. He became frustrated and drew two 15-yard penalties, one after punching an opponent and the other after he was pointing at an opponent and his hand was bumped into an official's face. He wound up with three catches for 25 yards in a 40-24 loss.
Breaux handled Carter at the line of scrimmage pretty well, which reinforced the idea Carter needs to muscle up. During a recent visit to an NFL team, Carter checked in at nearly 6'4" and 198 pounds. His father believes he has the frame to weigh up to 215.
Those beginnings did not matter as Duron made his way from Tampa Bay to Indianapolis to Kansas City to Minnesota to Carolina to Cleveland as the most sought-after free agent in the NFL this January. Frankel said 15 teams wanted Carter to visit them, but he is not likely to take that many trips. He will be eligible to sign with a team Feb. 10.
For the interested teams, it's about who Carter is now. What his parents are most pleased with is not how the player evolved in his time in Montreal. It's how the person evolved. The boy is not yet fully a man. But at 23, he clearly is closer today than he was yesterday.
During his time in the CFL, Carter lived a real-world life. He found his own apartment. He got by without a car, taking the subway around town. He took care of his pit bull Sasha. He embraced the French aspect of Montreal culture, sampling foods that were new to him, like poutine.
Dad and mom did not have him on post-college scholarship. He subsisted on his Alouettes salary of $50,000 in 2013 and $55,000 last year. Then, last offseason, he worked for a law firm in Florida to make ends meet. He lived on a budget and bought a condo near his folks. Now, Cris said, if Duron has a little surplus, he is more likely to put the cash into fixing up the bathroom as opposed to buying a new pair of headphones.
Duron is on his own, but Melanie said he stops by his parents' house every day. He likes being around mom and sister Monterae. And then there is dad. "My best friend," Duron said. Cris calls Duron "D."
Cris is proud when he hears Duron telling other wide receivers to play the game the way Cris taught him to play. Duron talks about coaching one day, like his dad. A legacy is at work with the Carters that goes beyond whatever Duron may accomplish as a wide receiver.
Duron and Cris enjoy playing a good game of hoops. Cris, 49, said the youngster gets the best of him, but Duron reports the old man still has game. In fact, Duron testifies that just last year the 6'2" elder Carter dunked.
"I got it on video," Duron said. "I didn't think he could do it. But we got him on a really good day."
They like to share a meal and watch games together. Duron also likes to debate sports with his father, now an ESPN analyst. Some of their best conversations, Cris said, are about social issues. They have talked a lot about Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
"He's grown up in a world that's different, and he's frustrated by some of the situations and stereotypes," Cris said.
Father tells son that fair or unfair, people will judge him on his appearance, his dialect and his manners.
"If you get pulled over, pull your pants up," Cris said. "Buy the right size. Wear a belt. Be well-groomed. Yes sir, No sir. That's the only way to address people. Just try to be a good human being."
Cris has given Duron good fatherly advice for years. Now, he feels, some of it is starting to sink in. Duron thinks back to some of the lessons dad has taught him. Make every decision a smart one. Choose good friends. Know yourself.
Duron is grateful for lessons taught to him by others at various stops along the way. At Ohio State, he learned about being honest and trustworthy from Jim Tressel, who had his players read his book The Winner's Manual: For the Game of Life. During Carter's time in Coffeyville, assistant coach Dickie Rolls made sure Carter understood that there have been millions of gifted athletes who failed because they did not take the right paths. From Saban at Alabama, he learned how to be organized and reliable.
The best teacher of all for Carter, however, has been his own mistakes.
"You try to prepare your kids, tell them what's going to happen, consequences," Melanie said. "He's one of those kids who had to learn it on his own."
For Duron, getting to this point by his own power has been important, more important than it could be to anyone who is not the son of a legend.
The day he found out he was going to start his first game at Ohio State, he called his mother and excitedly shared the news. Then he said, "Mom, they didn't do this because I'm dad's son, did they? I've heard all my life I only got this because I'm Cris Carter's kid, I only got that because I'm Cris Carter's kid. Ohio State is starting me for me, right?" His mother's response: "Yes baby, you did it."
Melanie and Cris feel the same way about their son's NFL opportunity now. Duron has earned this. And he earned it in a most difficult way.
"Duron has taken a very rough path from Ohio State on," his mother said. "I don't think he realized how low he had gotten. Now it's clear to me. My son went through a depression. It was very hard to build him back up. I'm very thankful for Montreal giving him an opportunity, because I have my son back. He acts like Duron again. He's happy, happy-go-lucky, he has confidence in himself and he matured. There was a time when he was just a shell of himself going through the motions. I was very, very concerned for him."
Cris Carter was known for making the boundary catch as well as anyone. And for speaking the truth. "It has yet to be determined as far as Duron," he said. "I'm very, very happy with where his life is right now, what he's done the last two years, his growth and maturity, who he is as a son, who he is as a football player, as a teammate. Still, he has a long way to go just like any other young person."
Duron Carter found himself in Canton, Ohio, in the summer of 2013. He helped his father slip on his gold jacket for the first time as Cris was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They unveiled Cris' bust together, and they hugged in a tender moment shared with the world.
Those dreams about being the first black hockey player or being the next Kevin Garnett have been replaced by another dream—one in which Duron returns to Canton. "I'm confident that at the end of my career, people will say I'm better than Cris Carter," Duron said. "I'm ready to be better than Cris Carter."
It isn't the beginning that always matters. It's the end.