Time Trial Cris Carter, the Vikings' 34-year-old record-setting receiver, hears the clock ticking on a career that is missing one important prize--an NFL title

July 02, 2000

Cris Carter was only eight when friends got a glimpse of his
competitive fire. Playing in his first football game, in a
peewee league in Middletown, Ohio, he got mad when teammates
halfheartedly tried to tackle an oversized opponent. Cris
started in on his teammates, ready to fight anybody who wasn't
willing to play as hard as he could. The afternoon ended with
Cris's older brother Butch dragging him off the field, lecturing
Cris that this wasn't the way team sports were played.

But Cris couldn't help himself. He was born with talent and a
mean streak, and to this day few would say that the Minnesota
Vikings' seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver has lost any of his
passion for the game. As Butch, former coach of the NBA's
Toronto Raptors, says, "When Cris competes, he's going to hurt
you."

Even though he turns 35 in November, Carter in many ways remains
the kid who demands so much of himself--and expects the same kind
of effort from those around him. After 13 seasons in the pros he
is still one of the NFL's best receivers, a player with great
hands who has made a living running routes across the middle. In
the 1990s, Carter's 835 receptions and 95 touchdown catches
ranked second only to the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice, and
since '94 nobody has caught as many passes (597) and touchdowns
(72) as Carter has. Says Baltimore Ravens coach and former
Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick, "On Sundays, I'll
take Cris over any player at any position."

Last season, after Minnesota stumbled to a 2-4 start and Jeff
George replaced Randall Cunningham at quarterback, George and
Carter hooked up 44 times for 621 yards and nine
touchdowns--including nine catches for 141 yards and three TDs
against the Bears on Nov. 14--during a five-game winning streak
that put the Vikings back on track. He finished the year with 90
catches for 1,241 yards and 13 scores; Minnesota went 10-6 but
lost in the divisional playoffs to the eventual Super
Bowl-champion St. Louis Rams.

Now, however, Carter is at a crossroads. The core of a Minnesota
team that went 15-1 in 1998 and came within one victory of
reaching the Super Bowl is undergoing a major renovation before
his eyes. Personnel decisions the Vikings made in the off-season
have Carter facing the strong possibility that his career may end
without a championship. "We're going through the same things
every other [playoff] team goes through," says Carter. "It's just
that in places like San Francisco, Dallas and Green Bay, they've
won Super Bowls before the team gets torn apart."

Carter wanted the Vikings to re-sign George, a free agent and the
league's third-rated passer last season, but coach and vice
president of football operations Dennis Green wouldn't offer the
passer a multiyear contract because second-year man Daunte
Culpepper is waiting in the wings. After George signed with the
Washington Redskins and Green couldn't persuade Dan Marino to
delay his retirement and play one season in Minnesota, the
starting job fell to Culpepper, who has yet to throw a pass in
the NFL. The 11th pick in the '99 draft, Culpepper will be the
club's fifth quarterback in as many seasons.

What's more, the Vikings shed a couple of high salaries by
releasing 11-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel and by not even
trying to re-sign free agent Jeff Christy, the NFC's Pro Bowl
starting center the past two seasons. Both were scooped up by the
Vikings' NFC Central rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the
division last year. While Carter hopes Minnesota can still
contend for a championship, he also looks at the situation
realistically.

"We're relying on some younger guys who haven't been playing,"
Carter says of Culpepper, left guard Corbin Lacina and center
Matt Birk. "I've seen Randall McDaniel not be able to walk
during the week and then go out and play. I've seen Jeff Christy
do that. You know how certain guys will respond. There are
certain situations with Daunte that I don't know what he'll do.
You can hope and wish, but I've seen some of the craziest things
happen when those lights go on."

Carter keeps himself in tremendous shape, but he knows the clock
is ticking. Fellow wideout Randy Moss, who burst onto the scene
as a rookie in 1998, figures to play an increasingly prominent
role in the offense, and even though Carter has played in 112
straight games, he was hobbled by a sprained right ankle late
last season and underwent arthroscopic surgery last month to
remove bone spurs in that ankle. "I'm looking to play at a level
at which I know I'm doing all I can," says Carter, who is signed
through 2002. "If I can do that this year, regardless of
circumstances--who's at quarterback, who's blocking, the
schedule--I'll retire, even if I don't have a championship."

Carter realizes his best chance to reach the Super Bowl might
have eluded him when the Vikings were stunned by the Atlanta
Falcons in overtime in the 1998 NFC Championship Game. As he wept
at his locker, several people tried to console him. When they
told him that the team would be back, Carter thought, You don't
understand. We may never be back here. Still, there's a lot of
fight left in him.

Last summer retired Vikings kicker Fuad Reveiz invited Carter to
speak at a charity event in Knoxville, Tenn. Carter talked about
his struggles as an alcoholic and a cocaine addict during his
days with the Philadelphia Eagles, from 1987 through '90. In the
audience were his children, Duron, then 8, and Monterae, 5, who
were hearing about their father's demons for the first time.
While Monterae couldn't comprehend the magnitude of her daddy's
statements, Duron's eyes widened like those of a youngster who
had just been told the truth about Santa Claus.

The man standing before Duron had been an ordained minister since
1996 and a community activist whose work would earn him the NFL's
Man of the Year award for '99. Now Duron heard that this man had
also flunked three drug tests with the Eagles. The revelations so
stunned Duron that he eventually pulled his dad aside and asked
if this was true. Cris nodded.

"That's who I am," says Carter, who adds he hasn't had a drink
or touched recreational drugs in 10 years. "I tell people that
when they see alcoholics and drug addicts on the streets, they
should think about me. People don't want to believe that's who I
am because it's so easy to create another image--NFL Man of the
Year, family man, a man who loves God. Yes, all those things are
part of the picture, but so are the other things. They're all
part of how I got to where I am now."

"Cris has always been an all-or-nothing kind of guy," says Keith
Byars, who played with Carter at Ohio State and in Philadelphia.
"That's good when it's channeled in the right direction. But
when he was doing the wrong things, he was committed to that,
too. When he was doing drugs and alcohol, I'm sure he was trying
to be the best addict out there. Now, after all he's been
through, he has priorities."

When the Eagles waived Carter in September 1990, the Vikings
picked him up despite his considerable baggage. He remembers
Minnesota receivers coach Dick Rehbein telling him that he
wouldn't be starting as long as Anthony Carter and Hassan Jones
were healthy. Rehbein, now the quarterbacks coach for the New
England Patriots, thought Cris was smart and talented, but, he
says now, "I don't know how much Cris liked to practice or work
out back then."

Although Carter had been a devoted student of game film and
regularly stayed after practice to perfect his pass routes, he
learned a valuable lesson with the arrival in Minnesota of Roger
Craig, the All-Pro running back from the San Francisco 49ers.
When Carter asked him why he and Rice were such outstanding
players, Craig told Carter, "We take our off-seasons seriously."

To that point Carter's off-season regimen had consisted of
playing pickup basketball and occasionally running a couple of
miles or a series of wind sprints. Now from April until the
start of training camp he usually starts his days behind Pope
John Paul II High near his home in Boca Raton, Fla., for up to
six hours of torture. At 8 a.m. on a recent morning in May,
Culpepper and Moss are among about a dozen pro athletes who have
arrived at the school to work out together. While many appear to
still be waking up, Carter shows up carrying a cooler and
wearing a look that suggests every minute he is going to spend
there will be productive. Over the next two hours the younger
men try to match his intensity in quickness, speed and agility
drills.

From there Carter drives to the headquarters of FAST, a speed,
agility, quickness and strength fitness program of which he is
part owner, and launches into 90 minutes of strength training.
He ends his workout day with a two-hour-plus session at Bikram's
Yoga College of India. He and his wife, Melanie, stretch and
sweat in a studio in which the temperature hovers near
100[degrees] Carter follows a similar routine five days a week.
"Work is all I know," Carter says. "There are no tricks. Right
now I don't even think about football. I just push my body to
the limit. When football season comes around, then I put it all
together."

Having embraced his faith during his struggle with addiction,
Carter takes a missionary approach toward younger players. During
an April minicamp he told Culpepper that he needed to take
charge, saying, "I'm one of the leaders, but you're the
quarterback." Carter also invited Culpepper to train with him in
the FAST program.

Each of the past three years, Carter has spoken at the NFL's
rookie orientation, revealing the temptations a pro encounters
and his own inability to resist them at first. Carter also tries
to reach the participants in FAST, which oversees the training of
about 1,000 athletes, some as young as nine years old. "It's
important for younger players to listen to veterans who have
avoided trouble, but sometimes they tune out the goody-goody
types," says Harold Henderson, the chairman of the NFL Management
Council. "To hear Cris talk, someone who has been tempted and
succumbed, is different."

Still, at times Carter's outspokenness has put him at odds with
teammates. Last season, after Minnesota cornerback Jimmy
Hitchcock was beaten on a game-winning touchdown pass against the
Packers, Carter berated him on the sideline. During a
players-only meeting a few weeks later, Hitchcock chastised
Carter for criticizing teammates. Then, in February, Carter
ripped Vikings Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Randle as being
selfish for refusing to restructure his contract at a time when
the team was looking for salary-cap relief.

"Cris is a great teacher, but the older he gets, the more he is
learning that not everyone comes into this league with his
talent," says Minnesota wideout Matthew Hatchette, who also
trains with Carter in the off-season. "He's realizing that some
of us have to work pretty hard at this."

Teammates also have questioned Carter's relationship with Green,
alleging the wideout has quasimanagerial input on personnel
decisions. Carter and Green deny that but admit that the coach
keeps Carter, in his role as a team leader, abreast of these
decisions. "When Denny has to make a decision, he doesn't think,
I wonder how Cris will feel about it?" Carter says. "With all the
recent moves, Denny called me to say, This is what we're going to
do. Our relationship is blown out of proportion. When the players
tell me they need something and I go to Denny to get it, then my
relationship with Denny is fine. Plus, if I were part of the
decision-making process, would Jeff George be gone?"

When Carter goes, he will leave many people wondering what his
career would have been like had he always been so focused. His
924 receptions and 114 touchdown catches rank fourth and second,
respectively, in NFL history. Yet he doesn't dwell on what might
have been. He's only interested in making the most of the time he
has left. He's only interested in fighting to the end.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES HAVING PULL Carter (center) roped in Vikings such as Moss and Culpepper (far left) for a round of his grueling off-season workouts. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER NIMBLE MOVES Carter, who had 90 catches for 1,241 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, does yoga to help stay fit. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [See caption above]

"I tell people that when they see alcoholics and drug addicts on
the streets, they should think about me."

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