Think of them as bail bondsmen for the defense:
Hello, safeties? Listen, we're in a bit of a fix up here. Some tailback just perforated the defensive line and made the linebacker look like a matador, then hip-faked the corner onto his girdle pads. Are you busy?
The safeties either stop the renegade runner in his tracks, or show up on the other guys' highlight film, skulking shamefacedly in the background during the touchdown celebration. These days, despite its robust mean SAT of 1,067, Southern Cal is fast becoming known as a safety school. For the third straight season, the tandem of Mark (Aircraft) Carrier and Cleveland (Cadillac) Colter will be clobbering runners and disrupting air traffic. The disparate personalities of Carrier and Colter, both 21, have not prevented them from being the best of friends, or from being the best pair of safeties in the nation.
Carrier, the junior free safety, is a gung ho, heavily muscled company man, as beloved by coaches for his workaholic habits as for his talent, which earned him a spot on four All-America lists last season. Colter, who lines up on the strong side, made one All-America team, even though he missed the last four games of the season and played in five others on a damaged left knee. Want to watch a man squirm? Ask secondary coach Bobby April about Colter's work habits. What you get is an oration on the senior's "knack for making the big play" and his "tremendous athleticism"—everything but his work habits.
September 3, 1989
"They don't call him Cadillac for nothing," says Carrier, smiling. "The man is always on cruise control."
You hear that a lot around USC: Carrier has achieved excellence because of his work ethic; Colter, despite his. In the last year, however, Colter has had to rinse away that rap with perspiration. To come back from his knee injury—torn ligament and cartilage—he has had to run, squat and Cybex his way into shape.
"No one thinks I'm going to be back all the way," says the 6'1", 195-pound Colter. "They're going to be testing out my side, and I'll be seeing a lot of footballs. I love that." Colter lines up on the two-receiver side of the field, usually keying on the tight end. The 6'1", 180-pound Carrier, meanwhile, must see the big picture. Before each snap, with opposing backs and receivers shifting and in motion, Carrier calls out adjustments for the defense. "It gives me a sense of control, of being the quarterback on defense," he says.
While Carrier dons his game face even at practice, Colter believes that it's folly to go as hard in an August drill as he would in the Rose Bowl. So he doesn't. As much as his selective intensity chagrins the Trojan coaches, they cannot afford to keep him off the field. Making an arm tackle against Arizona in USC's fourth game last season, Colter was swung around, legs akimbo. He landed awkwardly. "The next morning my knee was the size of a grapefruit," he recalls. For the next five weeks he barely practiced. The coaches had him undergo treatment from Monday through Thursday in order to have him back for game day.
Alas, the joint buckled on Nov. 12, during drills before the Arizona State game. When doctors told Colter his season was over, he cried in the locker room. Without him, in the final game of the regular season, a battle of undefeateds for the nation's top ranking, USC lost to Notre Dame 27-10.
"Not having Cleveland for that game really hurt us," says USC coach Larry Smith. The Trojans should again be in contention for the national title, but Colter sees this season through a more personal prism: "I want to have about 10 picks, win the Jim Thorpe [an award that goes to the country's best defensive back]—Mark has next year to win it—and get drafted high."
April coaches his very different safeties very differently. Colter needs the occasional kick start; Carrier is his own harshest critic. One absorbed too much criticism growing up; the other could have used more. As a child in Long Beach, Calif., Carrier couldn't do anything right for his father, Will. "Even if I thought I'd played the game of my life, he'd tell me what I did wrong," he says.
Carrier's mother, Marie, separated from her husband when Mark was 10 years old; soon after, Will was paralyzed below the waist in an automobile accident. Says Mark, "I didn't understand why they were getting divorced, and here was something else I didn't know how to deal with." Football and fistfights became the outlets for his anger. "If somebody rubbed me the wrong way, I'd fight," he says.
On the ball field Carrier, a safety since ninth grade, tended to injure his Pop Warner opponents. "He broke one boy's kneecap." says Marie. "Another one they took off on a stretcher because they were afraid Mark had broken his neck."
The Trojans recruited Carrier out of Long Beach Poly High. With Carrier, says April, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts: "He was not that fast, not that strong. He was not as talented as he plays." April told Carrier that he had the chance to be one of the greatest players in USC history, if only he would work harder, which was like telling Jack Nicholson to emote more. So Carrier did. After being redshirted with a fractured bone in his left foot his first season. Carrier has started every game since and has six career interceptions and 229 tackles.
These days, not even his father can find fault with Carrier. Will attends USC home games, where he cheers lustily for his son. "We're buddies now," says Mark. "Before, it was him talking to me as his little son. Now it's man to man."
Will's role in his son's upbringing faded gradually after the divorce. Cleveland Colter Sr. disappeared suddenly from his son's life. One day when Cleveland Jr. was eight, his father went to the dentist for minor surgery. While under anesthesia, he had a heart attack and died. It fell to Kathy Colter to raise her three sons, Cleveland and his two younger brothers, by herself.
Kathy moved the family from Phoenix to Tempe, Ariz., where the boys might benefit from the male influence of their grandfather. Still, there was a scarcity of discipline. Colter recalls driving around Tempe in the family car while his mother was at work, when he was 14 years old. "Cleveland likes things at an easy pace, that's for sure," says Kathy. "He'll do his workout, but he'll pick the time to do it."
Colter says that his attitude toward off-season conditioning has improved, but the coaches at USC were steamed in mid-June when Colter announced that he would go home for the rest of the summer, rather than work on his knee under their watchful eyes. Carrier took it upon himself to call Colter several times to grill his friend: What are you doing to work out? How often? For how long?
Colter says he does what is necessary. "They think I'm going to lie around doing nothing," he says. "They think I don't know what's at stake."
At stake for USC is the national championship. At stake for Colter are bushels of draft dollars. "The Cadillac will be ready," he decrees. As will the Aircraft. Should the Thorpe award come down to a battle between these two friends, PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT, as is inscribed at the base of the statue of Tommy Trojan on USC's campus. Let him who deserves it bear away the palm.