Warren Sapp was the first into the small room in Canton McKinley high school to meet with the media the day before he’d officially be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sapp busted through the doors with the same outgoing and charismatic attitude for which the former defensive lineman has become known.
Cris Carter quietly followed Sapp into the room a moment later with his eyes to the floor, reflecting on the gravity that he’s only a day away from being officially enshrined into the Hall of Fame after five previous candidacies.
“Just meeting all the guys,” Carter said, holding back tears while trying to convey his feelings. “It’s amazing. I have been trying for six months to try and explain, and now we just met with over 100 Hall of Famers. There really is no way to explain it. What you’re apart of, what you’ll always be – this is the first time in my career, and I heard the Hall of Famers say it, where your stats and stuff are irrelevant.”
Carter joins a 2013 class that also consists of Sapp, Larry Allen, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells and Dave Robinson, but the wide receiver joins the prestigious fraternity with the most troubled past of the group.
An Ohio State receiver in the mid-1980s, Carter saw his All-America career cut shot after his decision to sign with a sports agent as a freshman came to light after his junior year. His former head coach, Earle Bruce, was fired at the end of a disappointing 1987 season that would have been Carter’s senior year.
The Philadelphia Eagles instead took Carter in the fourth round of the supplemental draft, but he was released in 1989 by head coach Buddy Ryan because of his substance-abuse issues, particularly with alcohol.
At the time, it seemed as if the life of one of Ohio State’s most brilliant receivers was spiraling out of control. Overcoming alcoholism, however, proved to be the catalyst for what ended up being one of the best wide receiver careers in NFL history.
“It is well documented: my substance abuse and being an alcoholic (was the hardest thing I have ever had to overcome),” Carter said, this time succumbing to tears. “Until Sept. 19th, 1990 when I stopped drinking, that’s when my life started getting better. There was no football decision. That life choice that I made on that day is the most significant thing that would lead me to getting here.
“I just started out on that day, Sept. 19, I was just trying not to have a drink for one week. And here I am, Aug. 2, 2013, and I still haven’t had a drink. I could have been so many other things besides where I am now.”
After being cut by the Eagles, Carter was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings – which was to Parcells’ dismay, who tired to claim Carter while serving as the head coach for the New York Giants.
Parcells reached out to Carter by phone and simply asked, without saying hello: “How fast can you get to New York?” Carter instead – at the time unwillingly – moved to Minnesota to start the next chapter of his NFL career, but he said that Parcells’ call gave him the much-needed confidence that he still had something to offer.
But off to Minnesota Carter went, and with the help of team counselor Betty Triliegi – who remains a closer mentor for Carter to this day after challenging him to become sober in 1990 – the wide receiver got his career, and life, back on track.
It turned out to be the fast track.
When Carter’s professional career ended in 2002, he ranked second in NFL history in touchdown catches (130) and receptions, behind only perhaps the league’s most legendary receiver, Jerry Rice.
Though Carter is now fourth in both of the categories now after being passed by Tony Gonzalez and Marvin Harrison in career receptions and Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in touchdowns, he became synonymous with scoring during his 16-year NFL career.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, Carter scored 10 or more touchdowns in a season six times and led the NFL in receiving touchdowns three times (1995, ’97 and ’99).
“The only thing I really wish is that we could have won the championship for the people,” said Carter, who was on the brink of a Super Bowl appearance twice as part of two Vikings that advanced to NFC championship games.
“That’s my only regret from being in Minnesota. What (the fans) did for my life, every time I went out there I used to play for those people and man did I want to win. People talk about it and guys who don’t win championships, but man I wanted to win. I wanted to win and I wanted to win for the fans because they deserve it in Minnesota.”
Carter wasn’t the fastest or most athletic receiver the NFL – or Ohio State – has ever seen, but he could simply catch the ball. Current OSU head coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach under Bruce while Carter was enrolled, said practice was routinely stopped to admire a play made by the wide receiver.
“I catch the ball,” said Carter, describing the type of receiver he was. “You throw the ball, I catch it. Throw it close to me, I catch it. You make me have to do something crazy to catch, I could still catch it.”
Both Meyer and Bruce will attend the official enshrinement ceremony on Saturday. Carter, who said hasn’t written speech for the ceremony, will be introduced by his son, and former OSU receiver, Duron Carter.
Carter, who took a picture with the more than 100 returning Hall of Famers in the morning, still is overwhelmed by the honor.
"The reason you're in this picture, is because the history of the NFL or the bible of the NFL, the story couldn't be told without having you in it. I would say that's fairly significant."
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