Welcome to wide receiver, the most difficult position from which to dominate an NFL game. Everyone else on the field must perform before the ordinary receiver can. The linemen must block, the backs must decoy, the quarterback must put the ball on target, and the whole thing, of course, depends on the coach having called a decent play in the first place. Only after all this can a receiver shine. If football is chess, the modern game's best receivers—players like Lance Alworth of the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s, Paul Warfield of the Miami Dolphins and Lynn Swann and John Stallworth of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s—have been bishops. One of them, used properly, can do great damage. Two can dominate the board.
On the whole, however, today's receivers play more like pawns. They are frequently faster than receivers of the past, but they don't seem to avoid or take hits very well. They tend to drop a money ball under duress, and they have trouble finding the dead spot in the zone. A decent double-team throws them into a state. If they get perfect calls, perfect throws and single coverage, they can get the job done. But dominating a game is beyond them.
Anthony Carter of the Minnesota Vikings and Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers are the exceptions. They are true bishops. Either can dictate the course of a game. Rice, 26, has a Super Bowl ring. The 28-year-old Carter is still looking for one. Many in the league believe he has his best chance to win a championship this season with the powerful Vikings.
Rice, at 6'2", 200 pounds, is built like Hermes. Carter is 5'11" and has no legs to speak of. Over the years his playing weight has fluctuated between 155 and 170 pounds. He jogs with an uneven, flat-footed gait. "I've always said if the good Lord put anybody on earth to play football, it was AC," the Vikings' coach, Jerry Burns, has said. "He just forgot to give him a body."
A body would only get in the way. When Carter sees a pass, his stride smooths out, speeds up and lengthens to nearly three yards. He walks with a clomp, but he runs like liquid. For Carter, as for Rice, it is the smooth stride that enables him to make instantaneous changes of direction. Mix in his discipline while running routes, his absolute concentration, his fearlessness and his confidence in his ability to finesse the defender, and you understand why he is separate from the pack.
What separates Carter from Rice are his deft calculations—his "nose for the ball"—and his usage of available airspace. He is a master of all the field's dimensions. Carter runs slants over the middle, dancing dangerously beneath the linebackers. He exels at quick outs and curls, and he makes the deep turn-ins in front of maniacal safeties. All the seams in and beyond the deep zones are within his reach. But it is in the third dimension, midair, that Carter plays alone. "Against Detroit last season we were just going for field goal position before the half," says Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson. "I throw him a little out, the cornerback comes up to make a good play, and AC just spins way up in midair, catches it, bounces off the defender and goes for a 25-yard gain to set up the field goal."
"I always watched Paul Warfield, and what I saw was how he picked up the ball early," says Carter. "He made a decision on the ball. Now I seem to pick up the ball, see how fast it's coming, where it's going, and how I can reach it before the defensive back can stop me. I have the edge in the air."
"Well, he's not lying. He can adjust to the football like no one I've ever seen, that's what makes him great." says Bo Schembechler, who coached Carter at the University of Michigan. "Bad balls, ball over the wrong shoulder, balls that shouldn't be caught don't matter. He catches 'em."
"I've thrown him plenty of passes that weren't on rhythm," says Wilson, "but nobody makes an adjustment on the in-flight pass like AC."
Carter first flashed his brilliant NFL playoff colors on Jan. 3, 1988, when he silenced a New Orleans crowd by setting a league record on an 84-yard punt return to start a 44-10 Viking rout. A week later, Minnesota faced the 49ers in San Francisco. Carter jumped all over Candlestick Park, rising above the crowd to catch 10 passes for a playoff-record 227 yards. Rice was held to 28 yards on three catches.
"It was a beautifully graceful exhibition of athletic ability," says George Seifert, who was the 49ers' defensive coordinator then and is now their head coach. "Many times we had great coverage. But Anthony had such timing, a superb sense of approaching the ball. He played above us. He was like Ruth pointing to the stands that day."
The next week, trailing Washington 17-10 in the NFC title game at RFK Stadium, Carter, Wilson and company staged a dramatic last-minute drive that came within five yards of giving them a chance at the ring. On fourth-and-four from the Redskins' six-yard line, he burst off the line, put a wiggle on corner-back Darrell Green and hooked into the end zone as Wilson fired a bullet. Carter put his stomach between Green and the ball. Wilson, however, was throwing to running back Darrin Nelson, who was open, but Nelson couldn't hold on to the ball when he was hit just short of the goal line.
"Later, Anthony said of me, 'He's good, but he ain't that good.' " says Green, "and people laughed, but I didn't. He's Anthony Carter. You've got to throw the ball to him against any one man."
Finding themselves as a playoff wildcard team again last season, the Vikes took care of the Rams in short order at the Metrodome, 28-17. Carter's acrobatic 46-yard reception in the fourth quarter set up the clinching touchdown. Then it was on to Candlestick, Rice's backyard. The 49ers crushed Minnesota 34-9 as Rice reintroduced the Viking secondary to the rules of the game, while the Vikings didn't throw the ball to Carter at all in the first half. Not once.
"Two or three balls a game, you can't do much with that," says Carter. "I had the flu before the game, but so what? I had on my most playoff-game face."
"I have never known a receiver who thinks he gets the ball thrown to him enough." says Wilson. "But we did have critical stretches where he didn't get the ball as much as he should have."
"We can run our goal-line offense off Jerry Rice because he's a big, strong target as well as graceful and fluid," says Seifert. "But though Carter is smaller, he has great strength too. He is no will-o'-the-wisp."
Welcome to Florida, land of sunshine and sinkholes, jai alai, handguns and more big, fast and obvious football players than you can shake a swizzle slick at. It is home to pink stucco. Disney World. Bobby Bowden, Don Shula and the bishop of Riviera Beach, Anthony Carter.
"I'll never leave. I don't want to. This has always been home." says Carter. He looks down on Riviera Beach from his condominium on the 16th floor of the Corniche, one of a row of high-rise towers driven like pegs into the beach along North Ocean Drive, on Singer Island. Riviera Beach and the mainland of Palm Beach County lie across the bridge. "Well, it's all Riviera Beach to me," Carter says, flashing a smile. "I'll show you. Won't take long. No crowds. It's summer. All the snowbirds are still in the north."
The July sun is merciless as Carter steps out of the building and walks toward his car. He shades his eyes and grunts. "We'll need some dew," he says. "Dew" is what some Rivierans call air-conditioning. Here, AC is reserved for Carter.
Less than two miles across the bridge is Wells Recreation Center, which is adjacent to the field where Carter first caught a football. Just down the street is Suncoast High, where Carter played football and basketball and ran track, a star at 155 pounds. Less than a mile away is the small house on 10th Street where he grew up, the youngest of five sons of Manita Carter, his doting mother. His father, Nate, left when Anthony was six. Most of Carter's seven sisters and brothers and 24 nieces and nephews live nearby, well within maximum effective gossiping range. As Little Gnat—that's what Anthony was once called—astounded his family by playing for Michigan, then the USFL Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders, and now the Vikings, he became Riviera Beach's resident celebrity. For Carter didn't merely play. He won championships, changed thinking, jump-started leagues and caught touchdowns from Ann Arbor to Sweden. He has won everything but one thing.
"I want that ring. I need that sucker," says Carter. He doesn't want a Super Bowl ring to wean it probably wouldn't fit comfortably on the warping fingers and battered knuckles that turn the steering wheel of his Mercedes toward the home of his best friend, Melvin Simmons. "Not to wear. To have. Share. Until then, I've just done O.K."
Carter, of course, has done more than merely O.K. At Michigan, they gave him number 1 and called him Little Shemmy because of his close relationship with Schembechler. Carter was an All-America three times and set 19 Michigan offensive records. Sixteen still stand. "Carter," said Schembechler after a moment of consideration in his Ann Arbor office, "is the greatest athlete I've ever coached."
With Carter as a precocious sophomore and a senior quarterback named John Wangler, Michigan won the Rose Bowl 23-6 over Washington after the 1980 season. That was back when Bo wasn't supposed to win the Rose Bowl because he didn't understand the complexities of the air game. Carter caught five passes in the game, one for a touchdown. "We had strong running teams," Schembechler says. "But Wangler had been injured and couldn't run. So it was simple. I never had a receiver like Anthony. After we won the Rose Bowl, Anthony was sitting in the training room on the traveling trunks. I said, 'Anthony, what are you doing here?' He told me if he went out, all the media would come to him and ignore the other guys. He didn't want the other guys ignored. That's why I like Anthony. He's solid. He left a legacy here that will be hard to equal."
In 1983, Carter signed with the Michigan Panthers of the new USFL. He promptly won the league's first championship game for the Panthers, 24-22 over the Philadelphia Stars. The Stars had double-covered him on the winning play in the fourth quarter at Denver's Mile High Stadium, yet Carter completed a breathtaking 48-yard pass-and-run from Bobby Hebert and cruised into the end zone, untouched.
He turns the car off Blue Heron Avenue and heads into a neighborhood of modest bungalows. People wave from porches. That's Little Gnat, who catches touchdowns all over the world. After Michigan merged with Oakland, Carter's receiving took the Invaders to the third USFL title game, which Oakland lost 28-24 in the summer of 1985. When the USFL ceased play after that season. Carter couldn't come to contract terms with the Dolphins, who had drafted the NFL rights to him in '83, and Miami traded him to Minnesota in August for linebacker Robin Sendlein and a second-round pick in the 1986 draft. Whatever his travels, though, when football is done, Carter returns to Riviera Beach.
Carter greets Simmons with a loving insult and they head to dank Jules' Gym—Jules is Carter's uncle by marriage—around the corner. There, in semidarkness, they lift iron.
Simmons has been boosting Carter since he was the 84-pound good luck charm of Carter's teams at Suncoast High. Says Simmons, "I was the trainer on every team he played on. He had the knack. Anthony right, Anthony left, Anthony over the middle. Nobody can go deep like Anthony...."
Later, after dropping Simmons off at his job, Carter and his wife, Ortancis—known as Tan—attend a family gathering at the home of one of Carter's relatives. Tan is a former Riviera Beach councilwoman and the force behind the travel agency she and Anthony own in a Palm Beach Gardens minimall. Tan arrives at the party with a flourish of smiles and swirling silk.
"I think my drive and aggressiveness attracted Anthony," she says. They met eight years ago, when Carter was at Michigan. Now they've been married six years and folks are finally used to the idea. Tan is "thirtysomething," as she says, her husband's senior by nearly a decade. She had two daughters, Tara and Nikki, when she married AC. Both are in college. She used to have to smile bravely through family gatherings, deflecting or ignoring the chance comment and giving Anthony a hearty last laugh at the gossipers who said she was taking AC for a ride.
"No matter how hard people tried to break us up, we hung in there," says Tan. "Anthony is serious. He taught me about football. He told me the things he wanted to do in life. Educate kids, buy his mom a home, own some nice things. Anthony is quiet. And he's no saint. But he always had this sense of responsibility. Everybody around here had their daughter set to marry him. Many of them are still waiting."
"A lot of men shy away from aggressive women. Not me," Carter says, driving toward the ranch home he bought his mother in West Palm Beach. "People don't look at the big picture. You've got to know the right angles. Most people miss them. That's why I stay in Riviera Beach. If I leave, if I don't get the ring, who does everybody look to then? It's my job to show 'em how it's done."
The extended family spends a lot of time at the House Anthony Bought, and 30-odd people can cause a lot of wear and tear. Carter quietly replaces the furniture and carpeting as needed.
"Anthony seems to have a built-in antenna for playing football," says Manita Carter. "I don't think you can explain it any other way." She is sitting on her plastic-covered couch beneath a large, framed photograph of Anthony at Michigan. "I remember he got his first pair of football shoes when he was 11," she says. "I remember he nearly went to Florida State. But one of their assistants came down here with this pretty girl that Anthony liked. Well, I didn't like it. I figured if they would use the girl to do that, they would use her to do something else. I told him he couldn't go to Florida State. He got mad and said, 'Well, I just won't go to college.' I said, 'Fine,' and went to work at my job at the Keyco Hotel on Colonnades Beach. Next thing I know, there he is, wanting to introduce me to the man from Michigan.
"What Anthony is not, is selfish. He always considers others."
In his four seasons with the Vikings, Carter has averaged 19.1 yards on 191 catches for 28 touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl the past two years and set the Vikings' season record with 1,225 receiving yards last year, the first Viking in seven years to surpass 1,000 yards. He is already the team's third-ranking alltime receiver in yardage (3,654), third in touchdown receptions, fourth in average per catch and 10th in total catches. "And I'm still waiting for them to throw me the ball," says Carter, who ranked ninth in the league in receptions last year.
He would like to be more involved in the offense this season, and he would like a new contract, although his current one doesn't expire until the end of the season. His present salary of $450,000 is not bad money in Riviera Beach, but it's less than half what Rice gets. He skipped the start of training camp last week in the hope of getting a raise. "My attitude is that AC is the best receiver in the world," says Carter's agent, Bob Woolf. "The Vikings are trying to say statistically he's the 20th-best in football, only the third-best on the Vikings' team!"
"Jerry Burns told me that he thought Anthony was the best receiver in football," says Schembechler. "Then I heard they somehow had him rated as the 20th-best receiver in football. That's how Anthony found out. I told him."
Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn insists the team rated Carter as the third-best player on the Vikings and he denies the club ranked Carter as the 20th receiver in the league. Lynn says he would probably rank Carter in the top 10 statistically.
In any case, the chance to catch the ring could make Carter swallow his pride. "Take nothing away from JR," Carter says of Rice. "But I don't envy him. I know I can compete. I'm on a different team in a different system. I want the ring. I'm not saying anybody could do it, understand. But I could do it."
The ring is up in the air again, there for the taking. Last week, Carter headed north for the season, to show the snowbirds how it's done.