Seahawks looking for Carlson to step in and start as a rookie

If you said Litchfield native John Carlson made it to the NFL on talent alone, you wouldn't get any of the football coaches he's played for to agree with you.

If you said Litchfield native John Carlson made it to the NFL on talent alone, you wouldn't get any of the football coaches he's played for to agree with you.

Carlson's high school coach Jon Johnson, his college coach Charlie Weis and his new NFL coach Mike Holmgren all insist the talented tight end got where he is because of his love and desire for the sport, his willingness to learn and work hard, his modesty and his intelligence. Sure, he's got a little bit of talent in that 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame. And it doesn't hurt that his hands are the size of hubcaps.

"There's no question about the enormous amount of talent he has," said Johnson, who coached Carlson on the varsity at Litchfield for four seasons. "I remember watching him in seventh grade in a basketball game and he dunked the ball in a game and the whole gym got quiet. They couldn't believe it."

Carlson has never been a slouch. He's spent countless hours in the weight room, knowing he needed to get bigger and stronger at each level to continually improve so he could help his team more.

"He's chiseled up," said Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis. "He's one of those six-pack ab guys, or 12-pack ab guys, for that matter."


Step 1: High School

Carlson started at tight end as a freshman for Litchfield, but not until Johnson had a discussion with one of his assistant coaches, who just happened to be Carlson's father, John Sr.

"John (Jr.) had the size to play on varsity as a freshman so I talked to his dad about bringing him up," Johnson said. "I think (John Sr.) had some reservations because John was also a good basketball player."

Carlson Sr. is also the head boys basketball coach at Litchfield and John Jr. was developing into a star in the sport and would eventually help the Dragons win three state titles and score over 1,600 points in his career.

"We decided to keep John on the junior varsity team to start with," laughed Johnson. "I think he lasted about three days of practice and we brought him up."

Carlson caught 20 passes his freshman year at tight end, including 10 for touchdowns, while averaging 18.5 yards per catch. The quarterback that year was his brother, Alex, a senior.

"I remember our first game that year was against Dassel-Cokato and one of our players on kickoff coverage got hurt," Johnson said. "So the next time we were on kickoff coverage, I grabbed the closest player to me and threw him out there. It happened to be John. And he went down and just clobbered the kid on the other team. I mean, he just clobbered him. So I kept him on the kickoff team the rest of the year."

Carlson was also a standout linebacker for the Dragons, seeing spot duty as a freshman and becoming a full-time starter as a sophomore. He led the team in tackles his sophomore year with 75. He also switched from a tight end to a running back that season and gained 470 yards and scored six touchdowns, while catching 15 passes for 154 yards. He went back to tight end his final two seasons and caught 19 passes as a junior and 41 his senior year. In all, he caught 95 passes for 1,324 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also finished with 226 tackles.


"He was always a big-play kid," said Johnson. "He was so hard-working. He spent countless hours in the weight room. You could hardly keep him out of there."

Step 2: College

Carlson was receiving scholarship offers for both basketball and football, but when Notre Dame entered the picture, it became too hard for Carlson to turn down a chance to wear the gold helmet.

He saw action as a redshirt freshman, a rarity at Notre Dame. He caught six passes for 31 yards that year.

As a sophomore, playing behind current Miami Dolphin Anthony Fasano, Carlson caught seven passes for 56 yards and his first collegiate touchdown. He then became the full-time starter his final two years, catching 47 passes for 634 yards from current Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn during his junior year.

"This is a kid who improved week by week because he wanted to," said Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. "He was always willing to learn. He would seek help from coaches and do whatever it took to improve. He always put the team first. He didn't care if he caught a pass or not as long as contributed somehow to the success of the team."

Carlson was one of three candidates his junior year for the John Mackey Award that is given to the nation's top collegiate tight end.

At the beginning of his senior year, Carlson was listed as the top player in the nation at his position by several national publications. He was projected as a first-round draft pick.


But Notre Dame struggled mightily, having lost several skill-position players to graduation, and finished with a 3-9 record.

With the team's downfall, Carlson's stock also declined. The Notre Dame captain caught 37 passes, but his average plummeted from 13.5 yards per reception as a junior to only 9.3 as a senior, partly because of the team's unheralded signal-callers.

"I think that is probably what put him over the top," said Weis. "He would share the blame and do what he could to keep everyone positive. Talking to him, you would never know we were having a sub-par year."

After the season ended, Carlson became ill with a parasite that caused him to lose 17 pounds in four days and forced him to miss the Senior Bowl and a chance for pro scouts to evaluate him.

Carlson regained most of his weight in time for the NFL Combine, a rigorous set of skills tests in which players have a chance to increase their stock value. Generally, if a player has a slight injury or is afraid his tests will hurt his draft position, they will skip the Combine.

But Carlson decided to participate despite being weak and having less stamina.

"We toiled over the fact that we should even let him work out at the Combine," said Weis. "He had just gotten his weight back from 234 to 251 and he was still as weak as anything.

"I encouraged him to go through the stuff at the Combine because by the time his Pro Day came around, his numbers would be back to normal and everyone would know that he wasn't making any excuses, but that he was sick. And that is exactly what happened."


Carlson was a sub-par 4.89 in the 40-yard dash and had a vertical of around 30 inches at the Combine.

But at the Pro Day at Notre Dame, a workout that pro scouts are invited to at his home field, Carlson's times in the 40 were between 4.67 and 4.72 and his vertical increased to over 35 inches.

Step 3: The NFL

Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has always liked having a tight end who can play every down and catch between 75-80 passes a year. He had Brent Jones when he was an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers and Mark Chmura while a head coach with the Green Bay Packers. Both tight ends were Pro Bowlers and both helped their teams win Super Bowls.

Holmgren had tabbed Carlson as the tight end he wanted even before the Combine, despite Carlson having fallen from a projected first-round draft choice to a third- or fourth-round selection. Holmgren felt other teams knew he was one of the top prototypical tight ends in the draft.

"John Carlson, to me and Tim (Ruskell, the Seattle general manager), was the most all-around tight end in the draft," Holmgren said. "We liked the guy all year long and we were looking at him hard. When he ran a 4.9 at the Combine, we were asking what happened?

"We got word from his agent and doctors that he had a parasite and had lost 20 pounds (actually 17) and shouldn't have gone through the Combine. But he pushed through and I'm sure that hurt in a lot of eyes. But when he ran well at Pro Day, we went "whew". It worked out well for us."

Holmgren feels Carlson will step in and help the team right away.


"The tight end is a very important position on our offensive team," said Holmgren. "In the last couple of years, we had to scheme some things, but now I think we can leave him on the field most of the time."

The Seahawks wanted Carlson so much, they gave away a third-round draft pick to the Baltimore Ravens just to move up 17 spots in the second round to get him.

"We weren't sure he would be there when we made our pick (55th overall) in the second round," Holmgren added. "We knew other teams wanted him. I hope he will be a real contributor for us his first year."

What To Read Next
Get Local