Cris Carter took the long and twisty route from Middletown to Canton, less than a four-hour drive.
From the time Carter graduated from Middletown High School in 1984 until it was announced Saturday night that he was elected into the National Football League Hall of Fame, he played at Ohio State University where he was ineligible his senior season after secretly signing with an agent; was a fourth-round draft pick in 1987 by the Philadelphia Eagles, then was released in 1989 by then-Eagles coach Buddy Ryan because of Carter’s admitted alcohol and drug abuse; then played the next 12 seasons for the Minnesota Vikings and one season with the Miami Dolphins in 2002.
Then he waited six years to get elected to the Hall of Fame.
On Saturday night, before having a celebratory dinner with his family in New Orleans, where the Hall of Fame announcement was made, Carter asked his oldest brother, Butch, “Do you know what 224 means?”
Butch didn’t know.
Then Cris, 47, told him that was the mileage from People’s Place Apartments in Middletown — where Clarence and Joyce Carter lived with their kids after they moved them to Middletown from Troy — to the steps of the Hall of Fame. Butch understood why Cris, now an ESPN NFL analyst, was emotional during the Hall of Fame press conference at the New Orleans Convention Center stage.
“He wanted it bad,” Butch Carter said Sunday afternoon from New Orleans. “Besides being reborn and knowing he’s going to heaven, this was the most important day for him. It validated him for all the things he had done wrong and amended them.”
It showed, Butch said, that “a kid can make a mistake or two and not get buried by it. He was always a hall of famer to me because of the way he turned his life around, the way he played in Philadelphia where he was a leader, and the way he and his wife raised their two kids. This shows that life is a journey that lasts a lifetime, not a day or a month.”
Butch Carter, eight years older than Cris and the oldest of six children, sometimes took him during his spring break on the road when he played for the Indiana Pacers. After a game in Boston Garden, a game in which Celtics great Larry Bird scored 50 points, Butch asked Cris as they walked about of the arena what he learned.
He was surprised by the answer: “Larry scored 41 of them left handed,” Cris told him.
“He was always a forward thinker,” Butch said of his brother. “He didn’t miss a beat.”
He also was blessed with unbelievable natural talent, coaches and fans said. Carter played 16 NFL seasons, becoming only the second player in NFL history to reach 1,000 receptions in a career. He caught at least 70 passes in 10 seasons, and totaled 130 touchdown receptions from 13 passers.
But he probably could have played that long in the NBA or been an Olympic track athlete.
Bill Conley, who coached Carter for two seasons at MHS, remembered a day when the football team was moving weight equipment from Verity Middle School to the high school. Conley told Carter to walk up the steps and help load the equipment off the dock.
Instead, from a standing position, Carter leaped more than three feet onto the dock.
“I knew right then he was not an ordinary human being,” Conley said Sunday afternoon from his office at Ohio Dominican where he’s head football coach. “He was something special.”
What separated Carter from other high school athletes was his love of competition, Conley said. He never took a play, never took a practice off, he said.
“Whatever he did, he wanted to win,” Conley said.
When Conley heard Saturday that Carter was elected, he too got “very emotional,” he said. Conley coached some great athletes at Ohio State, where he was hired after two seasons at Middletown, and Carter was the first in the Hall of Fame.
Carter’s competitive nature also got him in trouble at the Middletown Community Center. More times than he cares to remember, James “Pete” Snow said he kicked Carter out of the center for “running his mouth” during nightly pick-up basketball games. Then Carter returned to the center, and Snow made him apologize for his behavior.
As a freshman, Carter played quarterback for the Middies, and the summer before his sophomore year, he pulled Al Milton, a teammate, aside and asked if he had aspirations to play football in college. When Milton said he wasn’t sure, Carter told him to play quarterback and he’d switch to wide receiver. Milton said in the early 1980s, there weren’t many black quarterbacks in college.
Milton said he was “too elated” for Carter’s enshrinement, which will take place Aug. 4 in Canton. He said in Middletown, those who played with Carter, lived vicariously through his NFL career.
“We went as he went,” Milton said. “When he was down, we were down. We are going to the hall with him.”