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Much-maligned ASU QB Carpenter knows this year will define him

The blood dripping down Rudy Carpenter's right shin is still fresh as he pulls his sock down to inspect the wound after getting clipped by a defensive lineman's cleats toward the end of practice. As he limps towards the sideline, slightly grimacing with every stride, coaches tell him to get treated. A trainer makes plans to see him back on campus. Soon his teammates walk past him off the practice fields to board maroon and gold trams that will transport the Arizona State football team back to Sun Devil Stadium less than a mile away, but Carpenter stops and makes a detour.

He never gets on the tram. Never makes it to the training room -- at least not until his cut became a scab under the blistering desert sun. He has more important wounds to mend as he plops his helmet on the scorching aluminum benches resting near the exit and sits down besides a reporter.

"I can't really blame people who have the perception that they do about me," he said. "I know I rub some people the wrong way, but it still hurts sometimes."

Carpenter is the most fascinating enigma in all of college football. A record-setting quarterback that has started 31 consecutive games, including three bowl games and three wins against archrival Arizona, yet is loathed by many at his own school. There is still a vocal contingent of Sun Devil fans that haven't gotten over the quarterback controversy of two years ago which saw then-coach Dirk Koetter name senior Sam Keller the starting quarterback only to reverse his decision in favor of Carpenter, then a sophomore, about 48 hours later.

While Keller, who immediately transferred to Nebraska, has since graduated and signed with the Los Angeles Avengers (an arena league team), Carpenter is still dealing with the aftermath, rumors and innuendo of the controversy that has come to shape his unparalleled career at Arizona State.

"Google my name," said Carpenter when asked to relay some of the things he's heard said about him by his fellow students. "You'll see. I try to ignore it."

Ignoring his critics, however, isn't always as easy as simply ignoring a search engine. There was the time he had a drink thrown on him as a sophomore by a middle-aged man while he was finishing dinner at a Boston Market near campus following a loss to Oregon. The time he got heckled by Arizona State fans in San Diego after the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas last year; students began clamoring for back-up Danny Sullivan to take his job despite Carpenter leading the team to a share of the Pac-10 title and the school's best season in over a decade. And most recently the time he had a water bottle thrown at him and was called derogatory names for wearing a fluorescent pink shirt to an Arizona State men's basketball home game against Washington State this year.

"That hurt the most because someone on the Internet accused me of making homosexual slurs," said Carpenter, who graduated last semester with a degree in interdisciplinary studies but will take a class in bowling or golf to qualify as a student-athlete in the fall. "They said I was using gay slurs towards people because they were trying to fight me at the end of the game. That's not true. One of the students yelled at me and said, 'Here at ASU we wear maroon and gold' and threw a water bottle at me and it hit my friend in the face. It was so crowded that I couldn't do anything even if I wanted to."

For being one of the largest universities in the nation, nestled near one of the largest metropolitan cities in the country, Arizona State is very much a small town when it comes to its athletes, especially its football players. Everyone has a friend who allegedly has had class with, roomed with, partied with, slept with and done any number of other things with so-and-so and those rumors soon turn into gospel. A few years ago those stories may have lived and died along Mill Ave. Now they are posted on the Internet for all to see and most to believe.

"With people on message boards they don't have to put their name on it; they can just hide behind a fake name and say whatever they want and people believe that stuff," Carpenter said. "I don't really read that stuff, but I saw that one article [about the incident at the basketball game] because it was sent to my mom and she was upset about it. I've had to explain the situation to my mom and it's really unfair. I believe in freedom of speech, but I think it's unfair that people can do stuff like that."

The oddest part of Carpenter's tumultuous relationship with the fans is the player he supposedly ran out of town (Keller) wasn't a national champion, a Heisman winner or even a particularly hard worker according to some former teammates. Outside of a comeback win in the Sun Bowl, where he started his first game in relief of injured quarterback Andrew Walter, Keller was 3-4 as a starter in 2005 before suffering a season-ending hand injury, and 4-6 at Nebraska before suffering a season ending collarbone injury.

"That always kind of boggles my mind because at the time I had won more games, but I think Sam was the type of player that the ASU fans liked," said Carpenter, who boosted his weight from 199 last season to 220 this season by spending much of the off-season in the team's weight room. "He was a fiery type of guy that took chances and was a gun-slinger type and at the time our fans didn't think I was that kind of player. But Sam was the one who left and they couldn't really get on Sam because he was in Nebraska. I was the only one they could get on."

Carpenter had an amazing relationship with fans before the Koetter's quarterback flip-flop. After taking over for the injured Keller and leading the Sun Devils to a 4-1 record down the stretch in 2005, including a 45-40 win over Rutgers in the Insight Bowl, he was a fan favorite. He led the nation in passer efficiency rating (175.1), interception percentage (.008) and yards per passing attempt (10.0). The problem is, he may have been too good, too soon for the Sun Devil faithful, who were still enamored with Keller's potential, knowing that they would have Carpenter for at least two more years. It was an embarrassment of riches that would simply turn into an embarrassing situation for Koetter.

No one outside the team will ever know the real truth of what went down behind Koetter's quarterback flip-flop. There have been enough conspiracy theories stemming from the situation to warrant an Oliver Stone screenplay. There was talk that Keller's excessive partying and alleged substance abuse was brought to Koetter's attention after he was named the starter. At the very least, the ever-growing gallery of unflattering pictures of him popping up online had to wave a few red flags about his commitment to football. There was talk that Carpenter threatened to transfer if he wasn't named the starter and that his father, Scott, flew in and told Koetter as much. Then there was that infamous team meeting where the Sun Devils' Leadership Group, a collection of about 15 juniors and seniors, sided with Carpenter over Keller in a closed door meeting with Koetter.

"I never threatened to leave. I wanted to leave." said Carpenter. "The reason why I wanted to leave was because I had seen the writing on the wall during spring practice. I felt that I had clearly beaten Sam out during spring practice and I wasn't named the starter. I actually wanted to transfer then. Nobody knows about that."

Koetter was able to convince Carpenter to stay, promising him that he'd get every chance to earn the starting job during camp. But Carpenter felt Koetter didn't live up to his end of the bargain, awarding the job to Keller based on seniority rather than performance on the field and in the film room. That's when he and his father had a meeting with Koetter where they expressed their feelings. "My dad came in with me to talk to Coach Koetter and I don't know why that was made into a big deal because any coach in any program when they're making a decision like that, they're not only going to talk to the player, they're going to consult the parents as well," said Carpenter. "People made a big deal that my dad was there to do the dirty work for me, but it wasn't like that at all."

"I knew that I worked hard and practiced hard and I lived my life the right way and I did things right and I knew people on the team respected that and felt that I had won the starting job through practice. Because I knew that, I wanted coach Koetter to know that and that's why he talked to the players on the team and that's when they expressed their views and he felt that, 'Hey, this is a team and this is family and we're going to make the best decision for the family and not just for one person.' "

No matter how logical or reasoned Carpenters explanation of the situation may be, he will never be able to win over that contingent of fans that see him as a spoiled child, who transferred over a dispute with coaches while he was in high school and nearly did the same in college. "I think people around here got the perception that I was a cry baby, that I wanted it my way, like I was going to take my ball and go home and all those things," said Carpenter. "That's not really true but I understand that's the biggest reason that the fans turned their back on me."

Carpenter is the antithesis of everything Keller was rumored to be. Carpenter doesn't go out. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke and he can't remember the last time he's strolled down Mill Ave. "It's not that I'm not social," he said. "I hang out with my teammates, but I would prefer to hang out with them outside of the bars and the clubs because I don't think that there are many good things that can happen in those types of places."

He spends most of his time with his girlfriend, Briana Hunter, a student at the Art Institute of Phoenix who he met through mutual friends while he was a true freshman and she was a senior at Hamilton High in nearby Chandler, Ariz. They share an apartment about a block away from campus on University Drive and spend most of their nights watching reality shows over dinner such as Intervention, The First 48 and The Real World.

"She's my best friend and we hang out 24/7," he said. "Football is my life, but the few hours that I have outside of football, it's good to be with someone that doesn't care that much about football. I mean she's one of my biggest fans and is never afraid to tell me after a game, 'What were you thinking on that play? That was terrible. Why are you throwing picks?' But I appreciate that about her."

The only thing that might compare to Carpenter's love for football is his affinity to boxing. Growing up with the sport around the house and on television, Carpenter's father gave Rudy and his brother and new pair of gloves every Christmas. They would beat each other up, but that was fine just as long as they didn't cry or lay on the ground for long. That lesson was branded into Carpenter's head when he was a 10-year-old Pop Warner player and got hit in his leg and fell to the ground and started to cry. Carpenter's father ran onto the field picked him and sat him on the bench and told him, "If you ever lie on the field and cry like that, I'll never let you play another sport again."

Since then Carpenter has picked himself up off the ground after every play, even when he should probably stay down at times with . "I don't know how he got up after some of the hits he took last season," said wide receiver Chris McGaha. "I saw a couple of those hits and I know I wouldn't have gotten up from that."

When asked what boxer he would most identify himself with, he pauses for a moment before showing off his historical knowledge of the sweet science. "I like George Chuvalo," he says of the Canadian heavyweight who was never knocked down in 93 professional fights between 1956 and 1979. "He fought for a long time and fought Ali twice and was never knocked off his feet. Some of those fights he lost, but he had a lot that happened to him throughout his life as well as a lot that happened to him in the ring and he got robbed a couple times, but he always came back and always kept on fighting and that's kind of what I try to do."

As he prepares to gingerly get up from the bleachers and head back to campus, long after most of his teammates have already changed and grabbed lunch, Carpenter reiterates that the only way to win over fans is by performing on the field and to that extent, he believes his legacy at Arizona State will be defined by what he does this season, not by the controversy and critics that have hovered over him the past two years.

"I don't think I could lie to you and tell you I don't know what I have a chance to do," he said. "I think anyone who says that is lying. I definitely know that I can be the all-time leader in wins, the all-time leader in yards, the all-time leader in touchdowns, the all-time leader in completion percentage, yeah I know all that. I know I could be the first quarterback to beat our rival four straight times. I know all that and yeah, it's very important to me."

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