Derek Carr's senior season about far more than football
Heather Carr looked her husband in the eyes. It was Aug. 6, and the couple's newborn son, Dallas, had just been taken by an ambulance to Valley Children's Hospital in Madera, Calif. Dallas, who was born only a few hours earlier, required emergency surgery to correct his twisted intestines, which threatened to cut off his blood flow.
The couple prayed together. Heather asked her husband the critical question: Is he going to make it?
"To have to answer that question to my wife was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, to hold back the tears, to hold back my human feelings," said Derek Carr. "I had to tell her, yes, he's going to make it."
Dallas made it through the operation. The Carrs breathed a momentary sigh of relief. But Derek's emotional year has far from slowed down.
Carr, Fresno State's fifth-year senior quarterback, is best known nationally for his exploits on the football field. He has led the Bulldogs to a 7-0 start in the 2013 season, and he has passed for 2,574 yards and 25 touchdowns, seventh and second in the FBS, respectively. Despite playing in the Mountain West, he's garnered some buzz as a long-shot Heisman Trophy contender.
"He's the best quarterback in the nation," said redshirt sophomore Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams. "He's better than all those guys that are in that Heisman race. I'd say the only thing that's keeping him back is that we're not a BCS team."
Still, for all of his success, Carr's year has been about far more than simply football. It's been about family, fatherhood and forging stronger bonds with his coaches and teammates.
On Aug. 6, three days into the Bulldogs' fall camp, Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter received a call around midnight. Like anyone whose phone rings after a certain hour, his initial reaction was to brace for the worst. Yet Carr was on the other end, waiting to deliver the news that Heather had given birth to boy.
"When those phone calls happen, your first thought is one of dread, like 'Oh God, is it the police department?'" DeRuyter said. "But when I picked up my cellphone and saw that it was Derek, it was quite a relief."
By the next middle-of-the-night call two hours later, however, Carr's ecstasy had morphed into anguish.
"He was understandably very emotional," DeRuyter said of Carr's frantic attempts to inform him of Dallas' emergency. "I couldn't understand what he was saying."
After missing two days of practice to be with his wife as doctors operated to repair Dallas' intestinal malrotation, Carr returned to the team on Aug. 7. He was immediately put back through the emotional ringer. Carr learned at practice that day that Dallas needed another operation to remove a portion of his intestine.
"I'm glad I had my helmet on," Carr said. "I never want my teammates to see me like that. I was crying. I remember [offensive coordinator Dave] Schramm hugging me. He said, 'Your faith and your family is more important. Get out of here. Go take care of them.'
"I called Heather to see if she was doing OK, and of course she wasn't, but I calmed her down. That's my job. My job is to hold back the tears for her and make sure I stayed strong for her."
A devoutly religious man -- he says his proudest accomplishment at Fresno State was leading a chapel service when the Bulldogs played in Hawaii and the team chaplain couldn't make the trip -- Carr credits his faith for helping him remain poised throughout Dallas' fight. Even with Dallas in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital, Carr didn't miss another practice the rest of the preseason.
"I told him, 'Take as much time as you need to,'" DeRuyter said. "But he's got this burning desire to be our leader and do things this way. He said, 'Coach, there's nothing I can do for those few hours.'"
That didn't make it any less difficult for Carr to leave his wife and baby as he prepared for the upcoming campaign.
"I remember how many times he would tell me, 'I just want to be here with you guys. I don't want to have to go back to practice right now,'" Heather said. "It was hard for him to see [Dallas] with all the tubes and then not get to sit and hold him, just have to be with him for an hour and then go off to practice."
As grief permeated Carr's every thought, football provided a temporary interruption. His instincts on the gridiron forced him to compartmentalize his anguish. "You get out on the field, I'm more concentrated on not getting knocked out," Carr said. "When I was on the practice field, it was easy."
After 23 days at the hospital, Dallas finally returned home on Aug. 27, two days before Carr passed for 456 yards and five touchdowns in Fresno State's season-opening 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers. Dallas has been thriving since, and the Carrs recently took their first family trip to the pumpkin patch. "I even got [Derek] to change a few diapers," Heather said.
Carr is thankful for the support he received from the football community. Fans reached out to offer words of encouragement. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood and Boise State coach Chris Petersen both found Carr after their teams lost to the Bulldogs to inquire about how Dallas was doing.
Fresno State remains in the hunt for a BCS berth. The Bulldogs have steadily crept up the polls, and at No. 16 in the latest BCS standings, are well positioned to earn a bid if they can finish the regular season unscathed. Carr's odds of becoming the first Heisman winner from a non-AQ conference in 23 years, while enticing to think about, are significantly slimmer.
"That'd be something cool to show my son some day," Carr said of the Heisman. "It'd be great for the city of Fresno. Everything that I do, it's not about me. I like to see the joy on other people's faces. I think it'd be great for our program."
Carr has plenty he'd like to achieve on the field before he finishes his Bulldogs' career this winter, and most of his goals seem within reach. Off the field, however, he's thrilled just the way things are.
"I come home, and it doesn't matter what I did that day at practice," Carr said. "[Dallas] puts a smile on your face."