More from my interviews on Cris Carter, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday night at Fawcett Stadium.
(Excerpts from Carter’s recent conference call with NFL media)
Q: Do you tell younger players about the pitfalls of the NFL?
A: I think there’s an illusion that young people don’t have problems, just athletes have problems. If you look at the numbers, pro athletes, the average age between 21 and 30, the demographics from society ... We have great expectations for them, they should be role models….
I try to use my experience. I believe I would be stealing from the game, all the things I went through, if I didn’t help some young person have a different perspective on what can happen regardless of how talented you are. I’ve always wanted to be a mentor to young men, especially those who come from neighborhoods a lot like myself.
Q: You were known for your acrobatics. Where did that come from?
A: I created a philosophy in my mind, I took an honest look at my ability, my strengths and weaknesses – great jumping ability, great hands. A lot of the basketball skills that kind of transferred over to the football skills. Not blazing speed, not a perennial deep threat. I created a philosophy that I’ll do what the other guy doesn’t want to. Making a spectacular catch, stretching all the way out, always giving 110 percent. I never expected any time of praise. That’s the way I thought a football player should play.
Q: What can you say about your time in Minnesota with Brian Billick?
A: He always took a lot of input from us. I loved the way he taught, I loved his information, I loved taking notes from him, I loved his insight. He taught me so much about the game and so much about the numbers, the percentages -- once you get a first down inside the 20, there’s an 80 percent chance of scoring a touchdown if you get one first down. I loved memorizing his game plan, his first 20 plays, his first 10 passes, his first trick play, when we were going to run it. I would know most of the plays before we came into the huddle. He used to say, ‘Cris, think like me.’ We had tremendous success together.
Q: Why does it take receivers so long to get into the Hall of Fame?
A: I don’t have a clue. I have no insight on that. We’ve had very few first ballot Hall of Fame receivers. Over the last 30 years I think only two receivers – Steve Largent and Jerry Rice -- have been first ballot. To me Jerry Rice is the only sure first-ballot Hall of Famer. What’s the discrepancy in the rest of them, I have no clue.
(Carter during a telephone interview on Monday)
Q: Would you be a Hall of Famer if you hadn’t played basketball?
A: Everything’s done for a reason. I don’t know. Basketball’s a great game, I’m still able to play it today. As far as what would have happened, everything I did as a youngster was part of me making it there.
Q: Was it a struggle to choose between the two sports after you left Middletown High School?
A: Yeah, it was a struggle. For most of my young life, even through high school, I was always a better basketball player than football.
Q: William White said one day at Ohio State you were going to catch everything left-handed. Did you do that often?
A: I used to work on it. I did that a few times in college.
Q: Do you feel like you had to get cut by the Eagles to get to this point?
A: No, I don’t think you have to go through that. Based on my decisions that ended up being my path
Q: Have you talked to Buddy Ryan about that decision?
A: I talked to him one time since then. I had made peace with it. I had a conversation with him when I was early in the TV business. I had gotten beyond it when I talked to him.
Q: What role did the late Reggie White play in your life?
A: Reggie was a great friend of mine. My life would not be the same if I had not met him. I’m forever indebted to him. That was one of the bright points on my trip through Philadelphia.
White was Carter’s roommate for a year and a half and teammate at Ohio State. Carter was White’s best man and the two are godfathers to each other’s children. White lives in Powell, Ohio and is a regional vice president for Project Lead the Way, which provides innovative curriculum used in schools.
Q: How do you feel about how Cris turned his life around?
A: He had a turn in life. I was his roommate. We talked about a variety of things, not just his faith, but a variety of things, what it takes to be successful and leave a legacy. It was always about leaving that legacy or doing something to improve for people after him.
Q: When did you meet?
A: We were high school rivals (White played at Lima Senior). On our visit we said, ‘We’re going to Ohio State.’ Freshman and sophomore year we lived in the same dorm. After sophomore year I moved into Pepper Johnson’s apartment.
Q: Can you say anything about Cris’ work ethic?
A: While he was still playing football in the summer he was flying overseas to be a commentator on the World Football League.
Q: Was getting cut by Philadelphia what he needed?
A: It was the path of life that he needed. He had 13 Hall of Fame years at Minnesota.
You want to stay on the path. The path is not always straight. The key is to just stay the road. It could be curved. You’re going to have your ups and downs. Getting cut by the Eagles, it all worked for the good, he was able to go to Minnesota. Everything happens for a reason.
Q: What was it like when you covered him in practice?
A: We talked about things DBs are looking for and he would tell me things receivers are looking for. Those little conversations about the sport made us both better.
Q: Was his catch against BYU in the Citrus Bowl your favorite?
A: The bowl game on the sideline. Yep, both feet in, it was good if it was the NFL. Those catches are the exciting catches, but the ones I liked were the ones you really needed on third down, you could count on him. It’s the go-to, when you really need something in the clutch he would come through.
Q: Will you be in Canton this weekend?
A: We will be there. We were told; we didn’t have a choice. My son’s in two-a-days, I had to tell his coach.
This is not a surprise because of his stats. He’s probably the best receiver ever, minus Jerry Rice. He could have gone in five years ago. However it is he got in, we’re extremely happy it’s finally happened and we’ll be there to celebrate with him.
He’s godfather to my 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. He’s my go-to guy. If it’s third and 15, I’m calling on Cris.
(From a telephone interview with Spielman on Friday)
Q: Cris said he always wanted to have a ‘Wow’ moment in practice.
A: I knew how driven he was. He was one of those rare guys who had great talent and great work ethic. When you combine those two, you get a Hall of Famer.
Q: Did he rely on his basketball skills?
A: God blessed with the ability to leap. He jumped over so many guys. Quarterbacks trusted him that he’d go up and get the ball.
One of the things Cris had that also separated him was his football intelligence and knowledge of the position. I know he always tried to study; that gave him an edge. But his basketball skills played a role, especially in his ability to leap.
Q: I heard you were not happy when he took money from an agent and had to leave Ohio State. Did you wonder what he was thinking?
A: I’m sure Cris wonders what he was thinking. Cris and I talked about this on “Mike and Mike” one morning, we were both up there doing a show. I knew how important he was to our team. He was a major weapon. For him to make a decision with an agent, I understand why guys make that decision, but if he had just thought about the implications. Plus it was our senior year and we all came in together.
Q: How did he beat his drug problem?
A: I know he had strong brothers and a strong support system around him. Getting humbled, guys go one of two ways. They say, ‘Maybe it’s me, as opposed to everything around me that made me make poor choices.’ Cris said, ‘It’s me.’
One of the gifts he had was he recognized how talented he was. He didn’t want to throw that away. If he weren’t a great competitor he would have said the heck with it. For him to beat the odds, I always say how proud I am of him. I can’t think of many guys who made a comeback like he has.
Now the coach at Ohio Dominican, Conley spent 17 years as an Ohio State assistant, including all of Carter’s three years. Conley also coached Carter his final two years at Middletown High School
(From a recent telephone interview)
Q: What stood out to you most about Cris?
A: There’s three things about Cris that stand out. He’s a very good athlete, especially when it comes to the technical part of the game, ran great routes, leaping ability, ability to catch the football. In basketball that was apparent, too, he had tremendous skills. No. 2 was he’s an extreme competitor. The closer a game was, when it came time to make a crucial play, he got it done. He loves to compete and thrives on that competition. The third thing is his extreme confidence in himself. You could not tell him he couldn’t do something because he would meet the challenge.
Q: He’s said he caught the football with the tip.
A: He always caught it at its highest point when he had to go up for a football. And his timing on when to go up was great. A guy could be running with him in man-to-man coverage and he would wait until the last second before he went up in the air to get the football.
I saw him when we were at Ohio State catch one behind his back for a touchdown at Northwestern in a snowstorm. The guy’s just amazing, the things he can do. He has big hands. Basketball helped him.
Q: Was that your favorite catch?
A: What people consider great plays were common plays by him. What stands out in my mind, too, we were playing in the Citrus Bowl against BYU. We had a crucial drive going and he makes a catch by the sideline. I’ve seen stop-actions of it. He makes a one-handed catch and his body is completely parallel to the ground. He’s a good 36 inches off the ground.
Q: How good of an athlete was he?
A: He could have been a quarterback – threw the ball as good as anybody. He could have been a good safety – we played him a little bit at defensive back. And he was a very physical football player. You almost had to tone him down a little bit in practice because he was so competitive. He was a coach’s dream.
Q: Do you remember when you saw him at practice the first time at Middletown?
A: I got the job at Middletown late in May. I didn’t know much about the kids at all and they hadn’t been very good in football. We ran a camp as soon as school’s out, the first part of June. The first couple days, they didn’t look like they were very good athletes. The third and fourth day, they got better and better. They said they’d never done any of that stuff.
Cris was a good football player, but to say he was a great football player going into his junior year, that would not be the case. In fact, he wasn’t even going to play. He was thinking about not playing football. We had a serious talk. I didn’t know how good he was going to be in football because I hadn’t coached him before. I saw he had some ability as an athlete.
I said, ‘The thing you need to do is keep both doors open, football and basketball. When it gets to be your senior year, then go ahead and make a choice. But don’t shut any door in your face right now.’ He also ran track that year.
Q: Was he going to pick basketball because of his brother Butch?
A: Exactly. That’s what he had dreamed of being.
Q: What was Cris Carter day in Middletown like?
A: You could tell his emotions for the city and for his coaches and for his former teammates. It was very special for him and for the community. Middletown has had great athletes – Jerry Lucas, Todd Bell and now Cris Carter.
Q: Were you stunned it took him six years to get in the Hall of Fame?
A: So much of it’s timing, when other people are coming out. It’s almost kind of an unwritten rule that you have to pay your dues before they select you into that elite fraternity. There was never a doubt in my mind he was going to be there. It was going to be when it was going to be.
Q: Will you be in Canton?
A: Yes, it’s the week before we start practice.