MIDDLETOWN, Ohio - Cris Carter, Sharpie in hand, is standing outside Apartment B at the old People’s Place Apartments on Lafayette Avenue, a poor section in this proud but tired-looking steel town of 50,000 in southwest Ohio.
The nearby residents who were staring through windows have moved outside. They’re inching closer to the famous face of the former Vikings receiver-turned-ESPN analyst. They’re curious about the two luxury limo vans and the traveling party, which includes an NFL Network crew that’s working on a documentary about Carter’s rags-to-riches journey from this very stoop to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame some 242 fate-filled miles away.
Jacob Wilder and Jenny Claudio now rent Apartment B. Until Carter knocked on their door, they had no idea that Joyce Carter-Stafford had raised her seven children using these four small bedrooms, an even smaller paycheck and an iron will that grew only stronger when her husband, Clarence, left her and those seven kids to fend for themselves.
Wilder and Claudio have asked Carter, the sixth of Joyce’s seven kids, to sign their front door. Carter surveys where he’s going to sign, joking that the door is about to become very valuable.
“That’s OK,” Wilder says. “We’re going to take it with us when we move.”
A happy day
On Feb. 2 — Groundhog Day, fittingly — Carter’s annual Hall of Fame heartbreak turned to tearful jubilation when the former Philadelphia Eagle, Viking and Miami Dolphin was selected in his sixth year of eligibility and sixth year as a finalist. He’ll be enshrined on Saturday, taking with him two of the greatest hands in league history and a highlight reel of precise route running, acrobatic leaps and his signature skill: two big toes perfectly trained to hug the last blade of grass between No. 80 and the sideline.
Carter’s 16-year career ended in 2002, yet he still ranks fourth in catches (1,101) and receiving touchdowns (130) and ninth in receiving yards (13,899). He’s the fourth Viking in five years to reach the Hall of Fame.
Calling Feb. 2 the “happiest day of my life,” Carter reminisced about this apartment and the humble doorway that led to a land of opportunity, not to mention a 29-year run in which he visited end zones early and often at every level throughout the United States.
Carter scored a touchdown on the first touch of his first organized game. It was 1973. Carter was 8.
“Armco Credit Union at Barnitz Stadium,” said Carter, referring to the steel company that sponsored his Pee Wee team and the stadium that had its surface named “Cris Carter Community Field” during Middletown’s “Cris Carter Day” festivities on May 7.
“Coach Butch Johnson called ‘18 bootleg,’ ” said Carter, a quarterback at the time. “I went 70 or 80 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.”
Of course he did. Just like he went to Ohio State and led the Big Ten in touchdown catches in 1984, 1985 and 1986. Just like he went to Philadelphia, scored on his first NFL reception and eventually caused then-Eagles coach Buddy Ryan to famously say, “All he does is catch touchdowns.”
To this day, on the eve of the NFL’s 94th NFL season, Carter’s 72 career red-zone touchdown catches rank No. 2. Only Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (78) has more.
One day, earlier in his life, Carter went fishing. Then he went the next day. And then he went every day after that for four weeks straight before he realized he was overdoing it.
“I have an addictive personality,” Carter said. “It can be a good thing when it’s channeled into something like football.”
Unfortunately for Carter, football wasn’t the only channel. He started drinking alcohol at an early age. Then he started using marijuana. At his high school graduation, he did cocaine for the first time.
He didn’t think it was a big deal. Didn’t think he’d ever get hooked like he’d seen others in this neighborhood get hooked. When it was football season at Ohio State and players were being drug-tested, Carter simply stopped smoking and substituted with alcohol.
Carter made another poor decision at Ohio State when he signed with agent Norby Walters before his senior season. When it was discovered, Carter lost his eligibility and was drafted by the Eagles in the fourth round of the 1987 supplemental draft.
Things were going well in Philadelphia. Or so Carter thought until Labor Day in 1990, when Ryan called him into his office for a four-minute conversation that jump-started what Carter calls the “worst day of my life.”
Carter had started 34 straight games. He had finished third in the NFL in touchdown catches with 11 in 1989. He also was about to be cut. Ryan had had enough. He was taking a stance against Carter’s drug and alcohol abuse.
“My wife [Melanie] was pregnant with our first kid, my son, Duron,” said Carter, who also has a daughter, Monterae. “And I had to go home and tell her I didn’t have a job.”
Ryan’s wife had pleaded with Ryan not to cut Carter.
“Buddy started out by saying, ‘I told my wife I was going to release you and she began to beg and plead, ‘Don’t cut that kid. There’s something special about him,’ ” Carter said. “Buddy’s telling this story and I’m starting to cry because it’s cutdown day and I know I’m about to be cut.”
The Eagles offered Carter a flight to anywhere he wanted to go. One-way, of course.
“Then they gave me a garbage bag and told me to put my belongings in that bag,” Carter said. “I’m walking across Veterans Stadium, going to empty out my locker, with a gray garbage bag. That was the first time in my life that anybody had ever told me that I was garbage.”
The Carter kids
The steel and paper-producing industries thrived in Middletown during the first half of the 20th century and a little beyond. Armco was founded there in 1899. In 1957, Look magazine named Middletown one of its “All-America” cities. In 2008, a year after AK Steel, formerly Armco, moved its headquarters out of Middletown, Forbes magazine ranked Middletown as the country’s 10th Fastest Dying City.
When the Carter kids were growing up, however, Middletown was a destination for strong-backed workers and young athletes who had the skills and toughness to dominate the scholastic sports scene while proudly wearing the Middletown Middies’ purple. Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas was a Middie.
The Carters started out in Troy, Ohio, about 50 miles away. At 17, Joyce became pregnant with her first child, Butch. When Butch was 8, Joyce and Clarence divorced. As Butch, who’s nine years older than Cris, and his siblings got older, one thing became clear:
“My kids were going to be athletes,” Joyce said.
So Joyce moved everyone to Middletown, where she took a job in the day care at the Robert “Sonny” Hill Community Center. The center’s small basketball court became the Carter kids’ home away from home about a quarter of a mile down the road.
Long before Middletown became the home of Cris Carter, it was the home of Butch Carter. Butch was named the state’s top high school basketball player in 1976. He signed with Indiana University, was drafted in the second round by the Lakers in 1980, played seven seasons for four teams and later became a head coach in the league.
“Butch was our only father figure,” Cris said. “Every dime he made growing up, he gave to my mom so we’d have food on the table. Butch didn’t think I noticed, but when we’d eat, there were seven of us and Butch wouldn’t eat until he knew there was enough for the rest of us kids.”
A lot of times, the only thing to eat was oatmeal.
“To this day,” Butch said, “I still can’t look at a bowl of oatmeal.”
Determined to win
When Butch went on to Indiana and the NBA, he’d take in some of his younger siblings during their spring break from school.
“I was a senior at Indiana and I’m running around campus trying to find Cris because he wandered off,” Butch said. “Finally, I find him at 1:30 in the morning. They had the car lights on and they’re pointed at this little basketball court. And Cris is playing Isiah one on one.”
That’s Isiah, as in Isiah Thomas.
“Isiah is a freshman and Cris is 12 or 13, I think,” Butch said. “Isiah is beating the crap out of Cris. Isiah comes up to me and says, ‘Butch, I’m sorry, but I can’t get him to quit.’ ”
Cris scored 1,600 points in his high school basketball career. He was named all-state and came close to quitting football before his junior season. He would have, too, if Bill Conley hadn’t been hired to coach the Middies football team before Carter’s junior season.
“People told me we had this one kid, Cris Carter, but he probably won’t play because his brother is in the NBA and he wants to focus on basketball,” Conley said. “But Cris did come to a football camp we had. The second day of camp, I said, ‘This guy is going to be something special.’ Then, all of a sudden, I see him do a 40-inch vertical and I said, ‘This is not a normal human being.’ ”
Conley convinced Carter he could play both sports and not hurt his chances of going far in either. Carter became all-state in both. And when it came time to pick a college, his decisions came down to Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame in football and Louisville in basketball.
The glory years
Al Milton is standing off to the side watching Carter grab the Sharpie and size up the front door at his old apartment. There was a time when Milton was the receiver and Carter was the quarterback.
“Cris came to me before our sophomore year and asked if I had any plans on going to college,” said Milton, who did go on to play quarterback at Vanderbilt. “Cris always knew he was going to make it big. I told him I hadn’t really thought about college. So he says, ‘Good, you’re going to be the quarterback and I’m going to be the receiver because they aren’t going to let a black kid play quarterback.’ So we switched. One of our first games, I threw about a 63-yard touchdown pass to Cris. The rest was history.”
Carter was blessed with many other fortunate twists and turns. Sept. 4, 1990 — the day after the Eagles cut him — was perhaps the most fortunate of all. That’s when the Vikings stepped up with a $100 waiver-wire check and a plan to get Carter some help for his substance abuse.
“I don’t know this for sure,” said Jerry Burns, the Vikings’ coach at the time, “but that 100 bucks has to rank right there at the top as the best bargain in NFL history.”
He might be right. After joining the Vikings, Carter became an eight-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first-team All-Pro. He had back-to-back, then-record 122-catch seasons (1994-95), eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (1993-2000) and five straight seasons with at least 10 touchdown catches (1995-99). From 1991 to 2000, Carter led the NFL in third-down catches (297) and third-down conversions (81 percent).
But the on-field success didn’t come until progress was made off the field.
“Oh, my goodness, I needed a lot of help,” Carter said. “That first day in Minnesota was very, very difficult because I would say the Vikings were somewhat aware of my situation but not fully aware.”
Carter credits Wheelock Whitney, one of the Vikings’ owners at the time, and his assistant, Betty Triliegi, a drug and alcohol counselor who worked with the team then, as two “angels” who saved his career, his marriage, his family and, well, his life.
It was Triliegi who issued Carter a memorable challenge on Sept. 19, 1990: Stop drinking for one week. Just one week.
“And that was the last day I ever drank,” Carter said. “I owe everything to the Vikings. They taught me how I should live the rest of my life.”
Carter was a rough kid with a fiercely competitive side. In that first Pee Wee game he played, he threatened to beat up teammates when they didn’t put forth as much effort trying to tackle one of the other team’s best players. Butch sat him down and had a talk about the importance of being a good teammate.
“Cris was a bit of a bully,” lifelong friend Jimmy Calhoun said. “First time we met was third grade. Cris had this one kid scared to death. He said, ‘Jimmy, I need protection.’ I said, ‘Give me that 25-cent ice cream cone you got in your hands, get Cris to follow you into the bathroom and I’ll be hiding in the stall.’ Cris came in, I came out and I picked him up and dumped him in a trash can. We’ve been friends ever since.”
There is one other person who didn’t back down from the Carter kids: Mom. Butch has called his father a “quitter” and a “failure,” but Joyce was anything but.
Joyce was a stickler for academics. Although she left high school to care for Butch, she did return when she was close to 40. She not only graduated, but she went on to get a master’s degree and become a teacher.
“Mom was known for taking you off the team if you had a C-minus,” John Carter said. “She’d say, ‘A C-minus is nothing more than a D. They just didn’t want to give you a D because they knew I’d take you off the team.’ She pulled my brother George off the team for a C-minus right before tournaments his freshman year. And the C-minus was in French, which George shouldn’t have been taking no French anyway. But Mom said, ‘You decided to take it. Off the team you go.’ ”
Temper tantrums also didn’t fly with Joyce. One time, Butch threw one at school and was sent to the principal’s office to be swatted on the backside. He took off for home. Joyce not only brought him back, she held him down so the principal could swat him.
Carter is now looking up at the second-story window of Apartment B. He’s laughing with John about the time they blew Joyce’s curfew, another huge no-no.
“Mom locked this door and they sent me up on the [porch roof] to go through the window,” Cris said. “Mom hears me and she’s waiting there with a belt in her hands. I didn’t know whether to go in the window or jump off the roof.”
A long time ago, Joyce coined a no-excuses motto — “Carters Don’t Quit!” — that rings in the ears of her children to this day.
“People ask, ‘How did you do it all by yourself?’ ” Joyce said. “I tell them I didn’t. I had God. There’s no way I would have survived these kids without God in my life.”
Before leaving Apartment B for perhaps the last time ever, Carter sets his feet and uses one of those soft hands to grip that Sharpie. In big, swooping letters, he writes: “Cris Carter #80 Hall of Fame 2013. God Bless.”
Later, he takes a long look at the door and his surroundings.
“When you’re a kid, everything looks so much bigger, you know?” Carter said. “But can you imagine seven kids and my mom, barely living check to check, all inside this apartment? She could have bailed out, but she always told me I would be something special. Standing here as a Hall of Famer all these years later, it’s awesome, man. Awesome.”