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.