Northwestern walk-on Austin Carr not throwing away his shot
If football didn't work out, Austin Carr had a back-up plan. It involved costumes, make-up and sing-a-longs. It would have been set to a soundtrack.
Sounds strange, right? It makes sense if you understand the foundation: Carr, the Northwestern receiver who leads the Big Ten with 112.2 yards per game, was raised in a household that celebrates music, with a drummer father (Evan Carr's band, Bozaque, did shows with Ice-T) and piano-playing mother. He is what you might call well-rounded, excelling on the football field and on stage, where he starred in musical theater productions each of his four years at Benicia High in Northern California. His crowning achievement, he says, came his junior year, when he headlined Benicia's production of Beauty and the Beast, playing the Beast. "Please do not look up pictures from that," he begs, only half-kidding. He also had roles in Once Upon a Mattress (village ensemble person), Into the Woods (Cinderella's Prince) and The Music Man (barbershop quartet).
When it came time to choose between his two loves, he decided to invest fully in football, eager for an opportunity to contribute to one of the top college programs in the country. It did not mater that he had no Power 5 scholarship offers coming out of high school; Carr believed he could compete at the highest level. Much like the characters in Hamilton, the wildly popular musical that's sold out Broadway every night since its August 2015 debut and which Carr has recently become a fan of, he could relate to being young, scrappy and hungry. You could say … he didn't want to throw away his shot.
"Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, obviously," Carr says, digressing into a completely different topic. His favorite musical, he says, is probably Miranda's first hit, In the Heights. Carr holds a special affinity for the classic Hairspray.
But back to football. At Benicia, Carr was an explosive, versatile weapon on offense, rushing for 1,481 yards, recording 844 receiving yards and accounting for 30 total touchdowns. He graduated as the all-time leading rusher and scorer in Panthers program history. But he received next to nothing, scholarship-wise. Sacramento State showed some interest, as did Division-III schools Cal Lutheran of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and Willamette University in Salem, Ore. (D-III schools do not offer athletic aid.) He applied to Northwestern on a whim, thinking, "Chicago would be a really dynamic place to be." He also considered San Diego State and TCU. Wherever he went, he knew he wanted to try football.
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A spring visit to Northwestern's campus confirmed he wanted to move to the Midwest. He contacted Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald, who told Carr there was a spot for him on the roster and that maybe, possibly, he could contribute one day.
"It was basically a cold call, from him, asking about football and I was like, 'Well, sure,'" says Fitzgerald, Northwestern's 11th-year head coach. "Then, his freshman year, I get the injury report from our trainer, and Austin has cut his finger with a butter knife. The trainer tells me he might need surgery because he's 'almost a concert pianist' and we're going to get an MRI because he needs to make sure there's no ligament damage. And I'm like, 'You have got to be kidding me.'"
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Carr says his first few weeks of college football were the same as any other walk-on trying to adjust to a major jump in the size and speed of other players. "I'm looking around my class and seeing guys who got offered by Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan," Carr says, "And I'm thinking, 'There is so much talent here, this might be a process.'"
Carr, who measures 6'1" and 200 pounds, spent the first two seasons "just trying to get better," redshirting in 2012 and not seeing any game action as a redshirt freshman in 2013. After that season, when Northwestern finished 5–7, receivers coach Dennis Springer pulled Carr into his office for a reality check. "You're getting better," Springer told Carr. "But you need to fight to stay relevant. You need to give me a reason to put you on the field."
Carr decided it was time for an overhaul. He didn't think it was possible to commit to being better just at football; it would take discipline on and off the field to accomplish his goals. He says that manifested itself in a myriad of ways: studying every single day to up his GPA, not cutting corners in the weight room, being "the guy who was willing to put in extra work." He saw instant results. That winter he started to win one-on-one battles with defensive backs.
"When I started to catch passes it was like, 'Oh wait that was Austin getting open?'" Carr recalls. "Heads started to turn and people were saying 'Wow!'"
He played for the first time the following season, as a redshirt sophomore, taking advantage of injuries to appear in all 12 games and catch seven passes for 100 yards. His first reception came on Aug. 30, 2014, against Cal, a moment and game where he still remembers numerous details. After hauling in a three-yard catch, Carr ran back to the middle of the field thinking, "There are tens of thousands of people here watching me play football!"
"I'd never had that," he says now. "I was so excited I almost started to hyperventilate. Typical for a rookie."
Carr became integral last season, finishing with 302 receiving yards, second on the team. But he's exploded this year, leading the conference in receiving and totaling 1,010 yards and 10 touchdowns on 70 catches. (The Wildcats' next-best receiving option is Flynn Nagel, who has just 289 yards on the season.) Fitzgerald says that's both a testament to Carr's personal improvement—he notes Carr's route-running ability and smooth hands that allow him to catch almost anything thrown his direction and turn it into a big play—and the development of Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson, who last season completed just 51% of his passes but is up to 57% this year and has more than doubled his passing yardage per game.
For his part, Carr is grateful he walked on at a place where "they really do give you an opportunity, for an extended period of time, to prove yourself." Sometimes he's still puzzled that he belongs, lined up across from four and five-star prospects, players who had so much recruiting mail they couldn't keep track of it all.
"When I'm out there making plays and playing with them, the world gets to see that," Carr says. "But my teammates always remind me, no one was saying anything about Austin Carr a year ago."
He's still not convinced people are talking about him. While Fitzgerald says Carr will have the chance to play on Sundays, Carr can't even wrap his mind around playing professionally. "I mean, you're not talking about me, right?" he says. "You're talking about those guys who are twice as big as me, who will play in the NFL for 5–10 years, right?"
He pauses. "Of course I hope I get that opportunity but to be honest, those letters haven't even registered in my vocabulary yet."
Plus, he's got other things to think about. While football has worked out so far—much better than he could have anticipated—Carr still finds time for music. He won Northwestern's student-athlete talent show his freshman year, when he played the piano and sang a medley of "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon and "Ordinary People" by John Legend. He took third his sophomore year as part of a band and had a "recorder face-off" with Northwestern's defensive tackle Max Chapman his junior year. Last year he sang again, this time an original song he'd written (in his oodles of free time) called "Broken In."
"I love performance and music, and being in that show is a taste of that," Carr says. "It fills that creative desire and allows me to stretch that muscle. It's kinda my opportunity to shine off the field."
Music's a suitable backup plan, for sure. For now, though, Carr is busy shining on the field.