Football is more than a sport. It is the best reality show on television. Every year, kids from across the country battle with men for the honor of pulling on an NFL jersey. Fame and fortune are the lure for some, but the for the majority that make ~$400K and have careers that only last a few years, it’s about love of the game. Some stars are born, and others are made. This is a series telling the story of one such player, Seahawks Wide Receiver Chris Carter, and his attempt to realize his NFL dream.
EPISODE IV – “Humbled” Saturday, August 21st, 2011 10:20PM
There we were, surrounded by the families, friends and girlfriends of the Seahawks players. Our purple wristbands granted us entry into this private world. A couple dozen tables were setup in a small area of the convention center, walled off by blue curtains on all sides. Chris Carter Sr., his wife Leona, their daughter Alyson, her friend Megan, and I shared a table with the family that hosted Chris Carter Jr. during the lockout (Eric, Lisa and their 10-year-old son, Justin). It turns out James Carpenter’s wife, or girlfriend, was sitting with us as well. The team had just lost 20-7 to the Minnesota Vikings, and a whole host of things had not gone according to plan. Everyone was waiting for their Seahawk player to emerge from the locker room. The mood in the room varied from table-to-table depending on who the folks sitting there were waiting for. Marcus Trufant’s family was smiling and talking to some people from the Ben Obomanu and David Hawthorne contingent. Conversations among the people waiting for less established players, like Carter Jr., were stunted and forced, the way polite people talk when they have nothing to say. Five hours earlier, it was so different.
Lisa, Eric, Justin and I were late. Carter Sr. and Leona had invited us to meet them for a pre-game meal at the Pyramid Brewery at 5PM. The clock on the car dashboard read 5:05PM, and we were just getting on I-90 West. Lisa and Eric think of Carter Jr. as one of their own now, and are excitedly talking about the night ahead. They both gush to me about how great Carter Sr. and Leona are, as they just had dinner with them last week while driving their daughter down to college in California. The Carter’s had arranged to get tickets for Eric, Lisa and Justin, as well as passes to the family waiting area after the game. We spent the balance of the ride in talking about Chris’ chances of making the team or of making the practice squad. I explained that tonight would say a lot considering the starters were due to play the entire first half, compared to just one series in the first game. I also pointed out that special teams snaps were as, or more, important than plays with the offense. Carter had not gotten a single play on special teams in the first game, and he knew that was not a good sign. A tackle on coverage or a big block on a return could help him earn more chances. When you are fighting to make an NFL roster, every detail can help.
We arrived at Pyramid closer to 5:30 than to 5, and found the Carter Sr., Leona, Alyson and Megan sitting at a table in the North wing of the first floor. Carter Sr. is a striking, tall, man with a radio voice. He is proud, confident and friendly. After Eric and Lisa exchange handshakes and hugs, Carter Sr. shakes my hand and makes sure I am looking him in the eye when he says, “I really want to thank you for all you’ve done for Chris.” Leona is sitting between us and takes the opportunity to echo the sentiments. The irony of being thanked for getting this unique view into the sport and team I love was not lost on me. Leona is quieter than Carter Sr., but she is clearly a strong woman and caring mother. She radiates motherly warmth as she introduces me to her beautiful daughter, Alyson, and her friend, Megan (also not lacking in the beauty department). Alyson and Megan are students at University of Texas, and have been friends since High School. They both flew out for the game, having just arrived earlier that day. Everyone was only up for the night.
It was festive, the way Pyramid always is before a game, but this table was particularly giddy. The conversation immediately turned to Carter Jr., and they wanted to know what I thought of his chances. They had been all over the map, feeling confident and then skeptical and then cautiously optimistic. I told them the same thing I said in the car to Lisa about needing to find a niche on special teams, and that it would say a lot if he could get any offensive snaps in the 3rd quarter with the starters playing the whole first half. I admitted that the practice squad was a more realistic goal, in my opinion, but that you never know what could happen with injuries or a great performance. The Carter’s didn’t understand why the Seahawks felt the need to bring in new receivers like Brandon Smith, who was just signed last week. The reality is the Seahawks are waiving and signing players regularly, and that’s good news for Carter Jr. since he is still here. If the front office felt like they had seen enough from him, he’d be gone. The other reality is there are only two other slot-like receivers on the roster, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, and both guys that are firmly above Carter Jr. in the depth chart. Nobody at the table is fond of the practice squad idea, even as I rattle off examples of guys who have had great careers after starting there. The conversation flows into stories of Carter Sr.’s motorcycle, how he picked Leona out of cheerleading lineup (“she was second from the left”), and Alyson’s late enrollment into UT that landed her residence in a dorm lounge instead of a room. It’s all smiles and laughs, and when Eric and I attempt to try and split the bill, Carter Sr. tells us with a Cheshire Cat grin that we were the millionth table, and our dinner was free.
Left to right: Chris Carter Sr., Eric, Justin, Leona Carter, Lisa, Alyson Carter, Megan
With that, I split from the group to head up to my seats while the rest goes to pick-up their tickets and “backstage passes.” As I settle into my seat, I get a call offering to get me a pass as well. It’s becoming less and less clear who should be thanking whom here. The game starts and, as expected, the starters play the whole first half. There is no sign of Carter Jr. on special teams. Minnesota starts with the ball at the start of the 3rd quarter, and take 6 minutes and 26 seconds to drive to the Seahawks 48-yard-line before punting. Charlie Whitehurst and the second unit take over. Golden Tate, Kris Durham, Doug Baldwin and Pat Williams are getting the snaps. The Seahawks also deploy a heavy set of two tight end sets that leaves only two receivers on the field. It ends up being Seattle’s only touchdown drive of the night. It also takes nearly 9 minutes. In fact, the Vikings and Seahawks each only had one possession in the 3rd quarter. That’s where things started to get challenging for Carter Jr.
Playing time is planned out before each pre-season game begins. Starters get the first half, and then the 2nd unit gets X number of series and the 3rd unit gets what’s left. Typically, the 2nd unit would get at least a quarter or three series in the second pre-season game, whichever was longest. By the time the 2nd unit had finished its third series, there was only 2:24 seconds left in the game. Carter Jr.’s only appearance to that point had been on kick coverage following the Seahawks touchdown. He nearly made the tackle. I had made my way down to meet up with the Carters and Eric, Lisa and Justin with a few minutes to go. The smiles were gone. In their place was awkwardness, frustration and anger. These two families that had been bound so beautifully together by the dream of this one young man, now seemed like people who had only met each other a week before. Carter Sr. was understandably angry, “Chris has done everything they’ve asked of him, which hasn’t been much.” Lisa was sitting directly behind me and whispered in my ear, “They didn’t even give him a chance.” Everyone is confused about why Golden Tate is still in the game. Durham had been out with an injury the previous week, so he was getting some extra run as well. As Minnesota took the ball with just over two minutes to play, it looked like Carter Jr. would not even get in the game. Just then, Vikings RB Tristan Davis ran in a 35-yard touchdown that gave Seattle the ball one more time with 2:09 showing on the clock.
The 3rd string offense ran onto the field. Quarterback Josh Portis, last week’s hero, strapped on the helmet for the first time. All of us eagerly scanned for #16. Instead, Tate, Durham and Baldwin take the field again. “Come on!” Lisa screamed. “Put in Carter!” The drive is going nowhere, and quickly the scoreboard flashes 4th and 10 with just over a minute to go. Portis miraculously scrambles 11 yards for 1st down. And then, finally, Carter Jr.’s #16 can be seen running into the huddle. Portis throws perfectly to Pat Williams who drops it. He goes incomplete down the seam to TE Dominque Byrd. Then, he drops back and appears to see Carter Jr. flashing open down the left seam into the end zone, but takes a vicious hit just before he can step into the throw and it falls incomplete. Two plays later the game is over.
We wait to find out where we are supposed to go to meet the players. It’s taking a long time. Lisa and Eric try to explain to Justin that he needs to let the Carter family talk to Carter Jr. first, and that everyone is going to be a little down, so he shouldn’t expect a big smile when he sees his idol walk in. Leona, Carter Sr, and Lisa take turns asking me questions:
“Why was Golden Tate still in the game?”
“Why was Doug Baldwin still in?”
“How can the coaches evaluate a player when he doesn’t even get a chance to play?”
There are some anxious moments as Lisa is worried the roster will get cut by 10, to 80 players this coming Tuesday before the next game. Eric finds on his phone that it is after the 3rd game. That provides some temporary relief, but that fades when I answer their question about how playing time typically gets allotted in the 3rd pre-season game. Starters usually play into the 3rd quarter, and the 2nd and 3rd string gets squeezed even more. The most optimistic news I can offer is that Carter Jr. was not the only player to who got limited playing time. Portis was the star last week, and barely got two minutes. Ricardo Lockette has gotten a lot more attention than Carter Jr., and I didn’t see him get in the game at all. There are stories of NFL coaches and general managers “hiding” players during the pre-season so they can safely cut them and then re-sign them to the practice squad without alerting other teams to their talent. It is a stretch, but it’s possible.
We eventually got directions to where we needed to go. As we walked toward the convention center, I was thinking about Carter Jr. and how this had to be hardest for him. Knowing that people had flown up to see him, and that this whole group was coming to visit him afterwards would be humbling. Anyone that has tried out for a team, or sat at the end of the bench until “garbage time,” knows the feeling. It’s a sour concoction of humiliation, anger, self-doubt, and frustration. Kids don’t dream of being 3rd-stringers. People see the NFL and assume it’s all glamour. Money and fame can be powerful allies, but they can’t teach a person how to handle adversity. Ask Aaron Curry, who has almost $35M in guaranteed money, whether that cash helps him on the practice field or film room when everyone in the locker room knows he’s not worth it. Ask Deon Butler, who was a 3rd round pick, but can’t even fight for his job as he recovers from grisly leg injury. Pete Carroll’s whole philosophy of competition is cleverly rooted in the irrepressible reality of the male ego.
And so here we were, five hours after our festive dinner, waiting for Carter Jr. to emerge. Earl Thomas walks in. James Carpenter, Ben Obomanu, Leroy Hill all come and go. Robert Gallery strolls in and he chats with a few people while picking up one of his adorable kids. Tackle Paul McQuistan’s wife or girlfriend taps me on the shoulder to ask me to take a picture of their whole gang of 20+ people. Carter Jr. appears eyes down, and shirt bulging with the ice pack cling-wrapped onto his right shoulder from last week’s sprain. Lisa, Eric and Justin hang back as parents and sister administer hugs and offer words of support. It feels like we shouldn’t be there. It is bad enough to have a disappointing night. Nobody needs an audience. Carter Jr. quietly talks about not being in that situation [sitting on the bench] since High School. He’s a confident kid, but he looks shaken by the experience.
Roy Lewis walks in and starts shaking the hand of every person he sees in the room, taking some time to talk to each of them. He is the undisputed mayor of the Seahawks locker room. Lewis has been a friend to Carter Jr. from the beginning, showing him around town and mentoring him along the way. Carter Sr. makes a point to track down Lewis to thank him. Lewis walks back with him over to the rest of us, and offers more counsel.
“You can’t even worry about it.” Lewis said. “Every play is a line on your resume. You just have to keep putting out tape, and you’ll get your shot.”
The tension has dissipated a bit. Lewis shakes everyone’s hands, and moves on. Justin has been waiting patiently and decides the time is right to ask Carter Jr. if he’s going to sleep over at their place. It was so innocently oblivious to the circumstances of the evening that a few of us laughed. Justin walked away embarrassed, trying to hold back the tears. He didn’t care if Carter played or not, he just wanted to play some XBox with his idol. What happened next stuck with me more than anything else.
Instead of separating along family lines to have some privacy and lick some wounds, both families started making plans for breakfast the next morning. Justin was going to get his wish as Carter Jr. agreed to come over that night, along with his parents and sister. Eric was talking about whipping up some breakfast, and Carter Sr. said he could make a run to the store. Despite the awkwardness and disappointment of the evening, these two families were still reaching out to one another. The story of Chris Carter Jr. has always been about more than trying out for the Seahawks. It’s about the serendipity of life. That was never more apparent than at the moment when these two families, who had no reason to even know one another, chose to come together when even blood relatives would often choose to circle the wagons and split apart.
Carter Jr. has a tough road ahead of him. The roster gets cut from 90 to 80 players after the 3rd pre-season game. He’ll be lucky to get any playing time in that game, so he will need to make his impressions on the practice field. If he’s wise, he’ll pester the special teams coach Brian Schneider for more chances. His biggest obstacle will be maintaining his confidence as after this setback. The quickest way to get cut is to lose that edge. Something tells me there are a few people lining up behind him that won’t let that happen.