Clutch, difficult catches helped set Vikings' Carter apart
MINNEAPOLIS — Cris Carter’s entry into the exclusive club in Canton will be commemorated with a bronze head-and-shoulders bust, like all of the Pro Football Hall of Fame members before him.
His hands might be a more appropriate body part to feature.
Over 16 seasons in the NFL, with fire and grit and flair, Carter exemplified just what a wide receiver is paid to do: catch the ball.
After overcoming some well-publicized troubles in his early years, Carter became a highlight-reel fixture and unflappable performer in the 1990s for the Minnesota Vikings. He wasn’t the fastest, the biggest or the most elusive of the bunch, but he made happen some of the most impossible grabs and often did so at the most opportune times.
Tiptoeing both feet at the sideline and successfully pulling in a pass in the split-second before falling out of bounds.
Leaping to his feet after being whistled down and sticking his arm straight out to signal a first down.
Jumping in front of two defenders to corral a ball in the end zone with his fingertips.
Those are the images of what set Carter apart. After missing the cut five times for the Hall of Fame, Carter was finally voted in. He’ll be inducted on Saturday with this year’s group about a 3½-hour drive from where he grew up in Middletown, Ohio.
“I catch everything that the normal people catch and I catch a few things that no one catches. That’s what I used to say to myself before every game,” Carter said recently.
Four of his former Vikings teammates, Chris Doleman, John Randle, Randall McDaniel and Gary Zimmerman, preceded Carter with enshrinement over the past five years.
Carter retired after the 2002 season behind only Jerry Rice for all-time receptions and touchdowns. He’s fourth in those categories now, passed by Tony Gonzalez and Marvin Harrison in catches and Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in scores. Wherever he landed on those lists was always going to be a product of his fierce determination.
Raised in poverty in a four-room apartment with a single mother and five siblings, Carter could’ve easily strayed from his Hall of Fame track. He was ineligible for his senior year at Ohio State because of a federal investigation for organized crime that revealed he signed early with an agent. He forced Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan, who famously said of Carter, “All he does is catch touchdowns,” to cut him after the 1989 season. Then, Carter’s abuse of alcohol and drugs were destroying his career, let alone his life.
But with arguably the best investment in franchise history, the Vikings paid the $100 waiver fee to claim Carter. Ten years later, he had been picked for eight Pro Bowls, made the playoffs eight times and, in the latter part of his career, helped lead one of the most potent passing games in the league. The Vikings never reached the Super Bowl with him but were NFC runners up twice in that span.
Carter hatched an offseason conditioning plan with his personal trainer to fuel all those accomplishments, using Rice, the San Francisco star, as his motivation and a time-zone advantage as his reward. The addictive behavior that fueled his chemical dependency worked in his favor on the field.
“By the time Jerry Rice woke up I was done with my work,” Carter said, adding: “I knew that if Jerry Rice was ahead of me, that day I had caught up to him a little bit.”
That drive to be the best also produced a brash personality and the potential for conflict with opponents. There are many memorable video clips, too, of Carter shouting at a teammate or a coach.
Moss thrived under Carter’s mentorship as a rookie but later grew tired of him and blasted him on Twitter last year after critical comments Carter made as an ESPN analyst of Moss’s work ethic. Carter later wrote in his autobiography “Going Deep,” that the two are back on good terms.
“If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do on the field he really held you accountable,” former Vikings wide receiver Jake Reed said in a phone interview. “Some guys couldn’t deal with it because he was so strong of a personality. Some guys responded to it well. It was fine with me, because we wound up being best friends.”
Reed recalled a game at Atlanta in 1991 when Carter caught a touchdown pass with one hand over two defenders. From then on, he was never surprised by any of the grabs his buddy made.
“He’d stand sideways, turn the ‘Jugs’ machine to 55 miles per hour and catch the ball with one hand, standing 10 yards away,” Reed said. “I wouldn’t try that because I’d break my fingers.”
Carter was rarely hurt. He played in every game in all but one of his 12 seasons with the Vikings.
“Every minute that I stepped on that field from the time that I warmed up, I was trying to put on a show for those people,” Carter said. “So they would be proud. I come from some humble beginnings, and I just believed that when people pay their money, hard-earned money, that they deserve a certain level of performance.”