Walking into Eric and Lisa’s house for dinner was a little awkward for Chris Carter. He had never met either one of them before, and was asking if he could move into their home. This was not the tryout he envisioned when dreaming of breaking into the NFL as a young boy growing up in Danville, CA. Then again, nothing about his path to the pros was ordinary.
Carter’s first memory of getting hooked on football came during the after-school program he went to in elementary school. One of the employees, Jason, taught him the basics of route running and playing the game. Carter’s parents, Chris and Leona, didn’t let Chris play football until he reached 6th grade. He started there as a running back before eventually transitioning to wide receiver at San Ramon Valley High School. Jerry Rice captured Carter’s imagination as a kid living in the Bay Area. At 5’11”, Carter was never going to be a Rice clone, but he studied the Hall of Famer and knew route running was something that could be learned at any size.
It took until his sophomore year for Carter to make the varsity squad, and until his junior year to start. A underwhelming junior season left his college recruitment mailbox empty. The team was a disappointment as well, finishing 5-5. Carter and team re-dedicated themselves heading into his senior season, and it paid huge dividends as the team won the section championship and Carter was among the state leaders with 63 catches for 1,515 yards and 19 TDs. He was named MVP of the title game, scoring three touchdowns. His stellar season attracted some attention from college programs, but little UC Davis was the only school that showed consistent interest through the recruiting process.
“Davis is not where I thought I’d end up,” Carter said. “I thought my numbers would get me into a Division I school, but I was wrong.”
After committing to Davis, Carter redshirted his freshmen year. Watching from the sidelines was tough, but again the waiting paid off when he won Rookie Of The Year honors for his conference as a redshirt freshmen. UC Davis was transitioning from being a Division II school to a Division I AA. The school had a tradition of winning, and was quickly humbled when facing the higher level of competition. In just his second college game, Carter’s UC Davis team was set to play TCU in Fort Worth. Carter had family in Texas, and had hoped he would be able to play college ball in the state. While his team got pummeled 46-13, Carter flashed his potential by hanging 6 catches for 109 yards against a talented Division I TCU team.
“That was awesome,” Carter said. “It was a day I’ll always remember. It gave me confidence that I could play with guys that were supposedly a lot better than me.”
He started training with Thomas Weatherspoon during his school breaks. Weatherspoon worked with pro players, including Marcus Trufant. Carter gained more confidence.
“I realized I was keeping up with pro players, and that was the first time I started thinking I had a shot of playing after college,” Carter explained.
His sophomore year brought a new challenge. The Aggies played their second game of the season at Portland State. The notoriously hard turf contributed to a posterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee that ended his season. The doctors told him at the time to forego surgery.
“They told me the muscles would compensate for the lack of ligament,” Carter said. “So I just rehabbed it and played my junior and most of my senior year without a PCL. I could still feel my knee, but I could do most of what I needed to do.”
With four games to go in his senior season, Carter realized something was not right in the knee. The doctors found that he had been tearing cartilage as his body compensated for the lack of PCL. He opted for surgery, which included getting a new PCL from a cadaver and getting cartilage grafted from another part of his body. He spent a couple months on crutches with a straight-leg brace. The timing could not have been worse. After making 1st Team-All Conference as a junior and enjoying a steady stream of pro scouts attend his senior season practices, Carter was invited to the NFL Combine. His surgery left him unable to participate in any of the drills.
“I was in the group with Dez Bryant,” Carter said. “To be that close, and not be able to do anything was really tough.”
Carter waited for a phone call from a team. None came. He moved back home with his parents, and continued his rehab. He credits their never-ending support for keeping his spirits high. “I always thought I’d get a shot,” he said. “I just wasn’t sure when.”
Getting a job at a local gym helped him stay in shape and make some money. The experience was disconcerting as he found himself in a sort of athletes graveyard. Kind of like being left out in the cold without a coat.
“Everybody seemed to have a story about, ‘Back in the day, I was going to be great football player until I got injured,’ and it was hard not to question yourself,” Carter remembered.
Then, between some informal workouts with the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League, he was out at lunch and got a call from a 425 area code. Carter answered and Trent Kirchner, Seahawks Assistant Director of Pro Personnel was on the line. The call came in December of 2010, and Kirchner told Carter that they’d like to setup a workout when he was feeling healthy enough. The workout was scheduled for January 11th, the Tuesday after the Seahawks shocked the Saints in round one of the playoffs.
That day proved to be Chris Carter’s combine. He was brought in with a group of other players, including former 49ers quarterback, Nate Davis. The odds of a player with Carter’s history (lightly recruited out of high school, projected as a mid-to-late round pick after college, suffered a serious knee injury) ever stepping on a pro field for even a tryout are incredibly long. Nobody would blame Carter if the moment overwhelmed him.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d ever been in an indoor facility before. I didn’t know what to expect. There were no defensive backs. I look over and see the cones setup for the 40 and the shuttle. The strength coach started taking us through the warm-ups. Halfway through the warm-up, you see Pete and coaches walk in, and I’m thinking, ‘This is the real deal.’ I had to calm myself down. At the end of the day, it’s just football.”
Just as he did at every trial before him, Carter rose to the occasion. He caught every ball thrown his way, and quickly caught Coach Carroll’s attention.
“I don’t know if it was nerves or I was just super fresh, but I felt like I was coming out of my breaks better than ever before. After I ran a couple of routes, Pete pulled me off to the side and started telling me that he grew up in Marin County which was an hour or so from where I grew up,” Carter said.
Carroll joked with Carter for a bit before having him slide inside to run some routes out of the slot. A few reps later, Carroll pulled him aside again and asked about his health and his time in college. He told Carter it looked like he was all the way back from the injury. No other players were pulled aside by Carroll during the workout.
Footage of Chris Carter running routes in practice for UC Davis
The Seahawks fed Carter lunch and sent him back to the airport. He felt good about his performance, and then got another call from Kirchner who told him he had done well and that he, “had a good feeling.”
A few weeks later, the team signed Carter to a futures contract. Before the lockout slammed the VMAC doors shut, he had a chance to meet the likes of Matt Hasselbeck and Roy Lewis. Lewis took Carter under his wing, giving him a tour of the city, and telling him tales of how he broke into the league as an undrafted free agent. Hasselbeck contacted the whole team during the lockout to arrange regular workouts, and Carter’s agent urged him to find a way to attend.
Needing a place to stay, Carter’s mom talked to her best friend back in Texas who happened to know a guy in Bellevue named Eric. They talked to see if Eric knew anybody with space for Carter during the lockout. Eric spoke to his wife Lisa, who noted they had an open room with their daughter away at college. They decided to invite Chris over for dinner to see what kind of guy he was. After all, Eric and Lisa still had a 10-year old son at home, and couldn’t let just anyone share their roof. Another tryout for Chris. Another test that 99% of the players in the NFL never had to pass in order to pull on a jersey. And he aced it just like every test before it.
Carter effortlessly balances being a courteous guest, a role model for Eric and Lisa’s son (who is now an avid football fan), and then working out with world-class athletes like Matt Hasselbeck, John Carlson, Golden Tate and more. He’s not a guy that screams NFL athlete when you look at him or talk to him. He is humble, but conveys a sense of inevitability that belies his status and stature. He knows the state of the roster, and while he’d love to learn under a slot receiver like Brandon Stokley, he surely wouldn’t complain if there was one fewer slot guy to beat out. Ask him who he is comparable to as a player, and he sheepishly mentions Wes Welker, before quickly clarifying that he’s not anywhere near his level yet.
Players in Carter’s situation have a massive mountain to climb in order to make the 53-man roster. He knows his best shot will be to find a way to contribute via special teams. Most fans don’t realize how few chances players get during training camp to make an impression. Reps are given to veterans, and then to draft choices, and the remaining scraps are doled out to the undrafted free agents. The Seahawks, though, have a history of finding diamonds in the rough. Leonard Weaver, David Hawthorne, Roy Lewis, and many others have forced they way onto rosters out of obscurity. Why not Chris Carter?