NORMAN, Okla. -- Quinton Carter's giving career began simply enough. As a child, Carter remembered every family member's birthday, and he never failed to buy a gift. His siblings, an older brother and younger sister, didn't always have such reliable memories. Whenever someone forgot, Carter would take his gift and write all three siblings' names on the "From" line of the tag.
"Even though he paid for the whole thing," said Carter's mother, Sondra. "That's just Quinton."
Still, Sondra Carter couldn't believe her ears two years ago when her son, then a sophomore safety at Oklahoma, announced his plan to start a charitable foundation to help people in his native Las Vegas and in the Norman/Oklahoma City area. Quinton Carter didn't mean he would start a foundation if he reached the NFL or if he used his degree to make millions in business. He would get his foundation off the ground while still in college.
"That's what I enjoy doing in my free time," Quinton Carter said. "It's my recreational activity. I don't play video games."
So when Carter -- who is tied for the lead in interceptions (two) and fifth in tackles (30) on the team ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings -- isn't punishing receivers or going to class, he is designing programs, raising money and promoting SOUL (Serving Others through Unity and Leadership), the 501(c)3 non-profit he founded. So far, Carter has organized two free football camps in Las Vegas and held a Father's Day benefit to thank young, low-income dads for being responsible fathers. On top of that, he mentors a quintet of boys from Oklahoma City and makes weekly visits to a KinderCare facility in Norman, where the preschoolers call him "Mr. Q." When Carter was named to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team last month, his tiny friends from KinderCare rushed the stage to celebrate with him.
Carter's plans for the future are more ambitious. He's organizing a free Thanksgiving dinner called SOUL FULL aimed at international students -- and anyone else around OU's campus with nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. By 2012, he hopes SOUL also will help fund a practice in Las Vegas that will offer physicals, mammograms and other basic medical services to low-income citizens.
"In my heart, I think God really put me in a position," Carter said. "Not only is it a dream come true, but I'm in a position to help others. I'm going to take advantage of my position. There are young guys who have no dreams."
Carter comes by his altruistic streak honestly. Sondra Carter said neither she nor her husband, Clemon, realized it at the time, but they grew up poor. So when their children brought home friends or teammates who needed a hand, the Carters were always happy to provide it. Their middle child obviously took note.
"A lot of his friends went the opposite way," Clemon Carter said. "A lot of people in his school went the opposite way. A lot of people his age went the opposite way. I'm proud he chose the path he's chosen."
When Carter arrived at Oklahoma, he eagerly took part in the athletic department's outreach program. There, he met Cecil Rose, a former Oklahoma track athlete who will receive his Ph.D. in non-profit management later this year. Carter enjoyed the charity work he did through the athletic department, but he wanted to do more. And he didn't want to wait until he made it to the NFL. What if he didn't make it to the NFL? He would have wasted a prime opportunity to help when he had notoriety and a platform as an Oklahoma football player.
Carter came up with the foundation's name himself. Carter liked SOUL because it didn't include his name. "I didn't want my name in it," Carter said. "I didn't want the focus on myself." That attitude, Rose said, is what makes Carter different from the college athletes who pay lip service to community service. "They just do the photo-ops," Rose said. "He's actually hands-on and involved."
At first, Carter's friends and family didn't realize the breadth of Carter's charitable ambitions. "People don't really take you seriously," he said. "You just have to build step-by-step. It took a while for people to look at me and say, 'Man, he's serious about this.'"
That moment came when Carter staged the first Elevated Play Football Camp in Las Vegas in 2009. His uncle, Danny, helped him stage the camp with two weeks' notice, and the event drew 150 players. This year, more than 200 came to a camp that featured instruction from current Cincinnati Bengal and former Sooner Roy Williams as well as a host of college stars that included former Sooners linebacker Ryan Reynolds.
Growing up, Carter noticed that many of his friends and teammates didn't come from a two-parent home like he did. Most lived only with their mothers. So Carter has made it a priority to provide a positive male influence to boys from single-parent homes. His group from Oklahoma City includes five boys from single-parent households. Sometimes Carter takes them swimming. Sometimes he takes them bowling. Sometimes, the boys just hang out with Carter and his teammates. "A lot of young kids that came to the [Las Vegas] football camp are from areas with no role models," Carter said. "The kids I mentor in Oklahoma City, same story. They really don't have any positive male role models."
Carter launched his Gaining Ground program after he began working with Central Community Action, a branch of the United Way that provides housing to low-income families. Carter noticed that families appreciated when organizations donated Wal-Mart gift cards and other handouts, but he wanted to make a greater impact. So he and Rose organized a Father's Day event to say thank you to dads who made the effort. Spencer Stone Co., a Nicholls Hills, Okla., clothing store, donated suits. Some of the men, Rose said, had never worn a suit, much less been custom-fitted for one. "Even if I get a suit, where am I going to wear it?" Rose remembered one man asking. Carter had that taken care of, too. Cheddar's and Charleston's, two local restaurants, donated lunch. "It's rare to have fathers in their children's lives nowadays," Carter said. "It's an appreciation thing. That'll be annual as well."
While most aspiring professional football players dream of what they can buy with their signing bonus, Carter dreams of what he can pump into SOUL. If football brings him to a new city, he said, he plans to start another slew of SOUL programs in his next hometown.
Clemon Carter can't wait to see what his son dreams up next. "Some people won't accomplish in two lifetimes what he did in just a couple of years," the proud father said.
Quinton Carter doesn't think about his calling in such grand terms. Though his mind never stops spinning out new ways to help, his motivation remains constant. "It's simple," he said. "If I can touch one person and change their future and they can grow up and touch one person and change their future, that's all I'm shooting for."