I showed up to Middletown High School this morning about an hour ahead of schedule. As I pulled into the main entrance there was artwork on the fence surrounding the school’s track that read “WELCOME BACK CRIS!!” with the two exclamation points fitting perfectly with the excitement I felt about today’s events from the moment I set foot in the parking lot.
The Middletown Middies had decorated the front door with purple balloons, which are the school’s color, but fit great with Cris Carter’s Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance were honoring Carter as a part of their “Hometown Hall of Famer” program that celebrates the roots of the greatest players, coaches, and contributors with special community events and plaque dedications. I was thrilled to get the press release and invitation to the event and even more thrilled when I realized I was going to be able to attend.
When I walked through the front door of the school I checked into the front desk. The lady asked who I was and when I told her she grabbed a list of names that said “VIP’s” in bold letters at the top and quickly scanned it before looking at me sheepishly. I had a slight moment of panic, hoping she had another list that said “Hack Bloggers” at the top, and that I hadn’t wasted a day off and four hours of drive time for no reason.
She was nice enough to let me through and directed me towards the modest gymnasium that was filled with purple balloons, a purple stage, a “red carpet” that was actually purple, and purple chairs. It was also full of people wearing the previously mentioned VIP badges, cameramen, and a power suit or two. I quickly planted myself against the nearest wall, close to the back of the room, and just started observing.
I listened to a group of men standing near me, who I later found out were some of Carter’s old buddies from school, talk about their time playing football together. I was amazed at how well they remembered every last detail; who was lined up where, who got out in front with a lead block, and which guy got knocked out on which play. Almost every time Carter’s name came up in the conversation the words “reversed the field” were used immediately in front of the word “touchdown.”
After taking in as much of that conversation as possible, I wandered about for awhile, admiring the equipment and professionalism that NFL Films brought to the event along with some of the other big-time news outlets that were setting up to cover the occasion. Somehow, the iPhone and pencil I had in my pockets made me feel like perhaps I had underdone it a bit.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker releasing students from class. Pretty soon the Middies cheerleader squad was front and center, the pep band was warming up, and students began to fill the bleachers. They filed in until the gym was filled to the max. The event was preceded by a very enthusiastic pep rally and I decided to step into the hallway to see if I could get a better vantage point from another entrance.
In the hallway was where I first saw Carter, standing in a stylish tan suit talking with somebody with NFL Films hovering around to catch every move. I stood there for a moment and my immediate impression of him, a man I had never met before, was that he is a professional entertainer to the Nth degree. If today was any indication, I suspect that Carter goes through life displaying the impeccable blocking and open stance that would make the most refined Broadway actors at least a little bit jealous. Running routes and being in front of a camera aren’t the same thing, but Carter has clearly mastered the latter just like he had the former.
I popped back into the gymnasium just in time for a group rendition of the National Anthem and then the event was underway.
The ceremony opened with remarks from the High School Principal and representatives from Allstate Insurance and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, explaining that this is the third year that the Hometown Hall of Famers program has been in existence, and the Middletown is the 74th school to receive the prestigious honor and the plaque to commemorate the event. The plaque, as explained, would normally be placed in Canton but will instead reside in Middletown High.
Carter’s brother Butch, a former NBA player and coach, then took to the stage. After some brief opening thank yous, Butch immediately got choked up mid-sentence when trying to describe just how much the Carter family cares for each other.
The elder brother described Cris as a great “copier.” He told the audience that Carter had a great mind for watching somebody do something a certain way, learning how to do it that way, and then copying it. “In school, they call it plagiarism,” Butch quipped while also accusing his brother of stealing Cris Collinsworth’s way of spelling his first name.
Butch then introduced Carter and the gymnasium erupted in applause from an assembled group that was, by all appearances, genuinely happy to be hosting their Hometown Hall of Famer. The doors next to me burst open and an enthusiastic Carter made his entrance, breezed by me as he waved to the crowd, again with an undeniable stage presence, and headed down the purple carpet laid out in front of him. Carter took time to greet his family and friends, exchanging high fives and hugs, and even managed to break into a little dance to the beat of the pep band before taking the stage.
Sensing the pep rally atmosphere, Carter conjured up a scene from Friday Night Lights by asking the crowd “how you doing” three separate times, indicating that the previous responses were not adequate for such a great day. The crowd fed off the energy and he had everybody’s attention.
“First of all I’d like to thank everyone that is from Middletown, has ever believed in Middletown, and who knew this could be a special place to be,” he said. “Welcome, and I am glad to be back home.”
Carter went out of his way to introduce his wife.
“I’ve been married to her for 23 years and she’s the greatest woman I have ever met,” he said prior to introducing his daughter as his biggest fan in the world. He went on to thank the rest of his family members for always supporting him.
The speech took a bit of a dramatic twist when Carter introduced Earle Bruce, who coached Carter at Ohio State, and was fired after what was supposed to be Carter’s senior season as a Buckeye. As most of you are well aware, Carter had secretly signed with an agent one year too early, and was deemed ineligible for his senior year and had to enter the NFL via the Supplemental Draft.
“You always believed in me,” Carter said to Coach Bruce. “You didn’t necessarily believe in throwing the ball, but you believed in throwing it to me.”
Carter himself then appeared to swallow hard and fight back against a flood of emotion.
“When I let you down before my senior year,” he said after a long pause, “I was not able to play football for the Buckeyes. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me. And I’ve never had a chance to tell you this, Coach, but from the bottom of my heart I’m sorry. I wish I could go over and do it again. And if I could I would play my senior year for the Buckeyes. My fate would have been different and I believe that your fate would have been different, and for that I am sorry.”
Carter also described his Middletown High School coach, Bill Conley, as the biggest dreamer in his life.
“I took what you guys taught me and I ran with it,” said Carter. “And I appreciate it.”
My favorite moment of the whole ceremony came when Carter began to address the students directly. After only a few sentences were spoken, a group of students must have been getting restless because they were generating more noise than Carter apparently cared for, and he stopped mid-speech to shoot an icy glare in that direction.
“Excuse me,” he plainly said. “Please don’t be talking.”
In that exact moment, with about 2,000 people in fairly tight quarters, you could have heard a pin drop. I don’t know which kid he singled out to stare down, but I am guessing that student might have needed to change his britches following the ceremony. Carter clearly commands a certain amount of respect and, in that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder how many receivers meetings resulted in Randy Moss being on the wrong end of that type of scolding. I also couldn’t help but wonder how Carter can even manage to breath the same air as Skip Bayless, let alone work with the guy at ESPN.
Carter had good reason for wanting the attention of the students. He had clearly put a lot of thought and emotion into what he was about to tell them and didn’t want any of them to miss the chance to heed his advice.
“Regardless of what your circumstances are there are no excuses allowed,” he told them. “I don’t care if your mama is raising you, I don’t care if you are living with your granny, I don’t care if you got eight or nine siblings, I don’t care if you live up on the hill or on the other side of the tracks or in the projects, there are no excuses.”
Carter then, in a fairly forceful manner, insisted that every single one of the students go home and write down exactly what it is they want to do when they grow up. Pointing to his brother, he said that at the age of 12 he was told to write down what he wanted to be, and he wrote down “professional athlete.”
“At the end of the day you are responsible for your own dream,” he said. “You are responsible, but if you don’t believe in it enough to write it down it is not a big enough dream for you to have.”
“What will Middletown be known for when you leave here?”
Carter ended the address to the students and opened up about just how much it meant to him to be honored in his hometown.
“I have to tell you, I’ve done a lot of great things in my life, and I’ve been given a lot in my life,” he said. “But this day, this day here today, at Middletown High School, this is one of the greatest days of my life.”
I took some time to scan Twitter while students exited the gymnasium and couldn’t help but notice that a great many of them had already sent out messages talking about how much Carter’s speech moved them, inspired them, and motivated them. Their words, not mine.
Carter remained on the stage as the students headed back to class, and I once again went into lurk-mode, listening to Coach Bruce gush over Carter’s talents. I listened to one of Carter’s old friends describe him as a “little bit of a bully” to a newspaper reporter. I heard Carter take time to tell reporters that he often noticed his brother Butch, the biggest of seven children, waiting until everyone else had eaten before allowing himself to have dinner to ensure there was enough to go around.
Carter was graciously answering everyone’s questions and must have taken hundreds of photos with students and staff over an incredibly short period of time. I mostly yielded to the big dogs that were in the house, and let the professionals do their thing, but then the coordinator of the event waved me to the front and made sure I had my chance to ask questions to what suddenly looked like a very exhausted and emotionally drained Hall of Fame wide out.
Knowing that Carter had a number of other schools to visit, was to be the keynote speaker at another event, and was also to have a stadium named after him all during the remainder of the day, I felt like asking him anything more would have just been jumping on the pile too long after the whistle had blown. After all, what could I possibly ask him that the Star Tribune or Daily Norseman hadn’t already asked in the last couple of days?
Instead, I drew on a recent conversation I had with one of our readers via text message.
I shook his hand and told him that I knew the best Vikings fans in the world and that they all say “congratulations” and “thank you for the memories.”