Chris Spielman argues frequently that Cris Carter, not Jerry Rice, is the greatest NFL receiver of all time.
Spielman, who played with Carter for three years at Ohio State and against him for 10 of Carter’s 16 seasons in the league, means no disrespect to Rice or any other hall of famer. But Spielman feels that strongly about Carter, who ranked second in career receptions (1,101) and touchdowns (130) when he retired after the 2002 season.
“I would say he is the best wide receiver I ever played with or played against,” Spielman said of Carter. “The guy I knew would never drop a ball. If I saw it going his direction when we were playing the Vikings, I said, ‘Hopefully we’ll knock it down before it gets to him. If it comes within a 6-inch radius, he’s going get it.’ ”
William White, Carter’s roommate at Ohio State who played defensive back for 11 years in the NFL, sounds as if he would jump into any verbal fray with Spielman.
“If you put Cris Carter with Joe Montana for 15 years, what do you think he would have done?” said White, whose days trying to cover Carter date to high school, when Carter played football and basketball at Middletown and White did the same at Lima Senior. “I would rather guard Jerry Rice than Cris Carter.”
But when Carter becomes the 22nd modern-era receiver inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night at Fawcett Stadium, those who honor Carter won’t talk just about his numbers and leaping ability and acrobatic catches. They will laud him for conquering problems with cocaine, marijuana and alcohol that led to him being cut by Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan after the 1989 season.
Even Carter’s entry into the NFL carried some scandal. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1987 supplemental draft after it was learned he took money from an agent while at Ohio State.
“The thing people should know, that kids should know, is that you can have a dark chapter in your life, but it doesn’t have to be the final chapter,” Carter, now an ESPN analyst, said during a telephone interview Monday. “You have to make choices in life. If you want better results, don’t keep doing the same thing.”
Spielman said he admires Carter for “beating the odds.”
“A lot of guys who have struggled with what he struggled with, a lot of times they fall off the face of the earth,” Spielman, now an ESPN college football analyst, said in a telephone interview last week. “I like the fact Cris never blamed it on anybody but himself. For him to almost throw everything away, to resurrect his career and become a hall of famer is a credit to him and to the people around him who gave him that second chance.”
Carter’s roommate at Ohio State for 18 months, White said Carter was the best man in his wedding. They are godparents for each other’s children. White said he tried to help Carter conquer his problems in college.
“I was able to know Cris Carter when he was all about himself, doing the things he wanted to do,” White said by telephone Monday. White now lives in Powell, Ohio, and is a regional vice president for Project Lead the Way, which provides innovative curriculum used in schools. “He got kicked out of Ohio State for various reasons.”
But Carter wasn’t listening to White back then.
“I was there in college when he was doing it, at that time preaching what he should and should not do,” White said. “He left me and went to Reggie White. Going to Philadelphia was probably the best thing that could happen to him because he met up with Reggie. I remember when Reggie baptized him in his pool Cris called me and was all excited. Getting into the Word of God and realizing the world is bigger than just him. He was put here for a reason and his talent was to help and inspire others. That what’s he’s gone on in his life to do.
“We’re all ex-something. We’ve all got something in our past we’re not happy about. He was exposed. He was able to use that and say, ‘You can change. Just because you’re this you don’t have to stay that way. It’s all about a choice.’ ”
Carter said Monday that he talked to Ryan once about why he was cut, when he had the opportunity to interview Ryan during his early days in television. But Carter said on a recent NFL conference call that was not the lowest point in his life.
“At the time I was clean and wasn’t using any substances,” Carter said on the conference call. “The times where I was trying to stay clean and I couldn’t stay clean, those were the lowest moments.”
Bill Conley was Carter’s football coach at Middletown High School for his last two seasons and a 17-year assistant at Ohio State, including while Carter played there. He helped Carter choose football over basketball when he was headed for Ohio State. Conley, now coach at Ohio Dominican, praised Carter for becoming “a real role model for everybody.”
But that didn’t happen until the Minnesota Vikings spent $100 to pick up Carter on waivers. There he became an eight-time Pro Bowler and recorded eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
“I did have to start over, start from the bottom again,” Carter said Monday. “It was a long process. It was a daily slow grind.”
With the Vikings, Carter again became the player White and Spielman were used to seeing in practice.
“I wish there were highlights of all my days at practice,” Carter said on the NFL conference call. “Almost every day I tried to do something that would be like ‘Wow.’ I haven’t caught a ball that I was really shocked because during practice I caught pretty much every ball from every angle.
“We used to make little wagers with the receiver group who would make the best catch of the day. Also you couldn’t have a drop. I tried to go weeks at a time without dropping a football.”
White said one day Carter told him before an OSU practice he was going to catch everything left-handed.
“I wanted to guard him. If I could guard the best player in college football, Saturday should be easy,” White said. “Even when Cris was covered, he’s not covered. They’d throw it up high and he’d jump up and catch it with one hand. I’d push him and say, ‘That’s not even normal.’
“We were more in awe of his talent. Even though he was probably the most talented person on our team, he was also one of the hardest workers.”
Conley and Spielman said the best catch they saw Carter make in a game came in the 1985 Citrus Bowl against BYU.
“I remember [quarterback] Jim Karsatos talking about how he tried to throw the ball away on the BYU sideline and Cris went up and got it with one hand,” Spielman said. “That was the best catch I ever witnessed.”
Countered Carter on Monday, “I don’t think it was the most difficult catch I’ve ever made, but I can understand why they would say that. You can see it on YouTube. It was an unbelievable catch.”
Carter doesn’t know why he had to wait until his sixth year of eligibility to be elected to the hall of fame. White isn’t happy that Carter was snubbed for so long, but will be in Canton to help Carter celebrate. Carter said it’s possible past and present Ohio State coaches Earle Bruce, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer will attend.
“Politics should not have to do with what someone does on the field, whether you like them or don’t like them,” White said.
But Carter doesn’t need to see his bust or put on the yellow jacket or stand in front of a podium for the magnitude of the honor to sink in. It already has.
“I know my life is changed forever,” Carter said on the NFL conference call. “I know it’s something I never imagined happening for me. I know the history of this game. I know what the hall of fame means.
“My buddies, the guys I played football with when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, they’re still my best friends, all those guys will be there. My high school coach Bill Conley will be there. These are all the people who not only knew me, but helped develop me. And also, when I went through my darkest hours, they stood by my side, they didn’t abandon me and they always thought I was going to do something special with my life. I’m glad I was able to get it together and not disappoint them.”