“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.