The act of catching a football in an NFL game faces many challenges.
Imperfectly thrown footballs, aggressive defensive backs, adverse weather conditions, and sideline and end line restrictions, all are obstacles that can prevent a pass reception.
Cris Carter was an elite NFL receiver who consistently overcame these obstacles to catch over 1100 passes during his 16-year NFL career.
Carter’s skill in catching the football led to him receiving multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors and ultimately being inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— TheAlchemistTheory (@TheAlcheTheory) May 20, 2020
We take a look at the life of Cris Carter – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Graduel Christopher Darin Carter was born on November 25, 1965 in Troy, Ohio.
Carter was named for his grandfather, Graduel.
However, in the seventh grade, Carter dropped his birth first name and changed “Christopher” to “Cris”, after Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth.
Collinsworth played for the Cincinnati Bengals – Carter’s favorite team growing up.
Carter grew up in a single-parent household, with his mother, three older brothers, and two sisters.
One of Carter’s brothers, Butch, later played and coached in the NBA.
In Carter’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Carter stressed the important role of Butch Carter as he was growing up.
“[Butch Carter] was the best basketball player in the State of Ohio.
He was also my father figure.
He was my role model as an athlete.
He did everything the way you’re supposed to do it, conducted himself, dressed in the manner, did well in school, worked extra jobs, helped his mom, and Butch Carter today as your baby brother goes into the Hall, you need to know you’re my hero.”
When Carter was seven years old, his family moved to Middletown, Ohio, where they lived in an apartment in a housing project, People’s Place Apartments.
Playing “Pee Wee” football at age 8, Carter scored a touchdown the first time he touched the football.
Carter, playing quarterback, remembered the play:
“Coach Butch Johnson called ’18 bootleg’. I went 70 or 80 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.”
Middletown High School
Carter attended Middletown High School, graduating in 1984.
He earned six varsity letters in basketball and football.
In basketball, Carter scored 1,299 points during his high school career.
In his senior year, Carter was named the basketball team’s most valuable player.
A key figure in Carter’s football career was his high school coach Bill Conley, who was hired to coach the Middletown High School football team before Carter’s junior year.
“People told me we had this one kid, Cris Carter, but he probably won’t play because his brother is in the NBA and he wants to focus on basketball. But Cris did come to a football camp we had. The second day of camp, I said, ‘This guy is going to be something special.’ Then, all of a sudden, I see him do a 40-inch vertical and I said, ‘This is not a normal human being.’”
Carter was more focused on pursuing a career in basketball until he met Conley. In his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Carter said:
“I was only playing football to stay in shape. [Conley] told me, looked me straight in the eye and said, Son, you have a better chance to be Lynn Swann than you do Isiah Thomas. And Coach Conley, I appreciate the football you taught me. I appreciate you taught me how to play the game. I appreciate how you taught me how to prepare for the game. . . . I idolize you, coach.”
In football, Carter was both a receiver and a defensive back.
During his senior year, Carter caught 35 passes and was named the football team’s most valuable player.
The quarterback for Middletown High School, Al Milton, said that he played football with one thought – “When in doubt, throw the ball up to Carter.”
Milton remembers one game when Carter scored three touchdowns in three different ways by passing, receiving, and an interception return.
Carter was voted to the 1983 Parade All America High School Football Team at wide receiver.
Carter was recruited by many major colleges, including Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Carter decided to play football at Ohio State and headed to Columbus, Ohio.
As a freshman for the Buckeyes in 1984, Carter saw significant playing time, catching 41 passes for 648 yards and eight touchdowns.
Carter’s eight pass reception touchdowns was tied for the most in the Big 10 in 1984 and set an Ohio State record.
Carter started his first game for Ohio State and caught his first two touchdown passes as a Buckeye, in a 35-22 Ohio State victory over Minnesota on September 29, 1984.
Carter’s most notable game his freshman year was when he caught nine passes for 172 yards and one touchdown in a 20-17 Ohio State loss to USC in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1985.
The 172 receiving yards by Carter set a Rose Bowl record.
After the Rose Bowl game, Ohio State quarterback Mike Tomczak said about Carter:
“How do I feel about Cris Carter? You saw him. He was great. He’s an exceptional athlete. I’m just sorry my career here has ended and that I can’t play three more years with him. He’s like a brother to me.”
In 1985, Carter had an even better season, as he caught 58 passes for 950 yards and eight touchdowns (which again tied for the most in the Big 10).
Carter’s 58 pass receptions and 950 receiving yards both set Ohio State records.
Carter began to develop a reputation for his ability to make amazing catches, including in a 10-7 Buckeyes win over Brigham Young in the Citrus Bowl on December 28, 1985.
Carter, who caught five passes for 71 yards in the game, made a spectacular one-hand leaping catch on the sideline for a 17-yard gain.
As described by Ohio State quarterback Jim Karsatos:
“When I finally saw it on film, he was tiptoeing the sidelines and he jumped up and caught the ball left-handed by the point of the football at least a yard out of bounds. Then he somehow levitated back in bounds to get both his feet in bounds. I swear to this day he actually levitated to get back in bounds. When I saw it on film, it just blew me away.”
Carter was voted first team All-Big 10 by the Associated Press and United Press International in 1985.
Carter had his best college season as a junior in 1986, catching 69 passes for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Carter led the Big 10 in 1986 in both receptions and receiving yards and tied for the lead in the Big 10 in touchdowns; he was also tied for second in the nation in receiving touchdowns.
During the 1986 season, Carter scored receiving touchdowns in seven consecutive games and had over 100 receiving yards in five consecutive games.
In just three seasons, Carter set the Ohio State career receptions (168) and career receiving touchdowns (27) records.
Carter was praised by opposing players and coaches.
Minnesota safety Donovan Small, after Carter caught five passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in an Ohio State 33-0 shutout of Minnesota on October 25, 1986, said about Carter:
“He’s first round. He’s just tremendous.”
After Carter caught seven passes for 103 yards and one touchdown in a 30-9 Buckeyes victory over Northwestern on November 8, 1986, Northwestern head coach Francis Peay said:
“Cris Carter would certainly get my vote as an All-American. He is a great receiver.”
Carter was voted as a consensus first-team All-American in 1986 by the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, United Press International, the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Football News, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and Scripps Howard.
He was Ohio State’s first All-American wide receiver.
Carter expected to have a great senior season at Ohio State.
However, on July 15, 1987, Carter was declared ineligible for accepting money from sports agent Norby Walters.
His college career over, Carter headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Carter was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round of a special NFL supplemental draft in 1987.
Carter caught only five passes for 84 yards in his rookie season in 1987.
He did score two touchdowns, including that his first NFL regular-season reception was for a touchdown in a 28-23 Philadelphia win over the St. Louis Cardinals on November 1, 1987.
Carter’s production improved in his remaining two years with the Eagles.
Today I learned Chris Carter played for the Eagles. pic.twitter.com/GIY2LaxXCP
— Mr. Steele (@SteeleYour) April 2, 2020
In 1988, Carter started all 16 regular-season games for Philadelphia and caught 39 passes for 761 yards and six touchdowns.
He also scored a touchdown on an offensive fumble recovery in the end zone.
In 1989, starting 15, and playing in all 16, regular-season games, Carter caught 45 passes for 605 yards and 11 touchdowns (third in the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 1989).
In two games against the rival Dallas Cowboys in 1989 (a 27-0 Eagles shutout on November 23, 1989, and a 20-10 Philadelphia victory on December 10, 1989), Carter caught seven passes for 97 yards and four touchdowns.
Carter’s play helped the Eagles make the playoffs in both 1988 and 1989.
However, the Eagles surprisingly released Carter just before the start of the 1990 season.
In a now-famous quote, Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan explained that Carter was released because “All [Carter] does is catch touchdowns”.
In fact, the real primary reason for Carter’s release was his drug and alcohol abuse; Carter had failed three drug tests with the Eagles.
Carter’s release was to be a key moment in his personal as well as professional life.
Carter was to later say in 2016 about Buddy Ryan:
“You saved my life with tough love.”
One day after the Eagles cut him, on September 4, 1990, the Minnesota Vikings paid $100 to claim Carter on waivers.
— The Twins Almanac (@TwinsAlmanac) September 4, 2020
According to Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns:
“I don’t know this for sure but that 100 bucks has to rank right there at the top as the best bargain in NFL history.”
Carter’s years with the Vikings were the key component in his Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
In addition, Carter’s signing by the Vikings was critical to his life off the field.
Aware of Carter’s drug and alcohol issues, the Vikings assigned him a counselor, Betty Triliegi.
On September 19, 1990, Triliegi challenged Carter not to drink alcohol for one week.
Carter never drank alcohol again.
On the field, Carter often played as a back-up wide receiver his first year with the Vikings in 1990.
Carter caught 27 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns in 1990.
In 1991, Carter started all 16 regular-season games for the Vikings and caught 72 passes for 962 yards and five touchdowns.
The following year, starting and playing only 12 regular-season games, Carter caught 53 passes for 681 yards and six touchdowns.
Perhaps the key development for Carter in 1992 was that former San Francisco 49er Roger Craig became his teammate on the Vikings.
Carter asked Craig what made Craig and San Francisco 49er wide receiver Jerry Rice such outstanding players.
Craig pointed to his and Rice’s offseason training.
Carter, who previously only played pickup basketball and ran wind sprints, decided to increase his training regimen.
“Everyone assumed that Jerry Rice was the best receiver. . . . And Jerry Rice trained at 7:00 a.m. on the West Coast, but with my trainer we came up with a plan. We said that we are going to outwork Jerry Rice before he gets up, when he’s sleeping, true story. We started working out before him. I caught thousands of balls one-handed. By the time Jerry Rice woke up I was done with my work, I was done doing whatever I wanted to do and I knew that if Jerry Rice was ahead of me, that day I had caught up to him a little bit.”
Carter’s increased training led to increased performance, as, beginning in 1993, he was invited to the Pro Bowl for eight consecutive years.
Carter caught 86 passes for 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns in 1993.
Showing his durability, Carter also started all 17 regular season and playoff games for Minnesota in 1993, beginning a streak of starting every regular season and playoff game played by the Vikings from 1993 through 2001.
On January 9, 1994, in a 17-10 loss by the Vikings to the New York Giants, Carter scored his first touchdown in an NFL playoff game.
Carter caught four passes for 83 yards in the game.
Carter raised his play to even a higher level in 1994.
Carter caught 122 passes for 1,256 yards and seven touchdowns in 1994.
The 122 pass receptions set an NFL record.
For his play in 1994, in addition to his Pro Bowl invitation, Carter was named first-team NFL All-Pro.
In addition, Carter was voted first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers of America, and The Sporting News, and first-team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly and United Press International.
Carter matched his 1994 record-setting year in receptions in 1995, again catching 122 passes (tied for second in the NFL) in 1995.
Carter exceeded both his receiving yards (1,371) and touchdowns (17) in 1995 over 1994.
Carter was tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns in the NFL in 1995.
Carter had a stretch of five two-touchdown games in six games in 1995.
In 1995, besides being invited to the Pro Bowl, Carter was voted second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and second-team All-Conference by United Press International.
In explaining Carter’s success, Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green stated:
“Every single training camp, Cris Carter worked every single day. He was called an iron man. We had only a few guys that could do that. It set such a great example for young players that we were trying to build our program with. There was no such thing as the veteran taking a few days off and resting up with Cris. Every single day he worked in training camp and I think that is part of his success.”
Carter continued his outstanding play throughout the 1990’s.
Carter helped the Vikings offense set an NFL record for points scored in a season (556) in 1998.
In 1999, Carter caught 90 passes for 1,241 yards and 13 touchdowns (again leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 1999).
For his play in 1999, in addition to his Pro Bowl invitation, Carter was named first-team NFL All-Pro.
— Pete (@Peter_Novaa) May 30, 2019
In addition, Carter was voted first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers of America, and first-team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly.
In 1999, Carter also won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, given to an NFL player both for his excellence on the field and for his philanthropy and community impact off the field.
In 2000, Baltimore Ravens coach and former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick said:
“On Sundays, I’ll take Cris over any player at any position.”
Carter caught 96 passes for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns in 2000.
75 percent of Carter’s receptions in 2000 went for first downs.
2001 was Carter’s final year with the Vikings.
Although he was 36 years old, Carter still caught 73 passes for 871 yards and six touchdowns.
Over his 12 years with the Vikings, Carter’s play helped Minnesota make the playoffs eight years and win the NFC Central Division title four years.
Carter played his final NFL season in 2002 with the Miami Dolphins.
Playing five games (and starting one game), Carter caught eight passes for 66 yards and one touchdown for Miami.
After the 2002 season, at age 37, Carter retired from the NFL.
The Years After The NFL
Carter married his first wife, Melanie, in 1990.
After their divorce, Carter married Susanna Baumann in 2018.
Carter (with Melanie Carter) has two children – Duron Carter (who played in the Canadian Football League) and Monterae Carter.
Since his retirement, Carter has had various jobs in broadcasting, working for HBO, Yahoo Sports, ESPN, and Fox Sports.
In addition, Carter owned Cris Carter’s FAST Program, a sports training center in South Florida, and a security company with his brother, John.
Carter has also become an ordained minister.
Carter has been involved with various charitable causes, including the Carter-White Charitable Foundation, which benefits underprivileged children, the Viking Super Challenge, which helps students stay off drugs and remain in school, and the Cris Carter Academic Honor Roll program, which rewards high school athletes who excel both in the classroom and on the playing field.
Carter also has helped provide meals to families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2000, Carter was selected as a member of the Ohio State Football All-Century Team.
Carter was inducted in the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame in 2003.
On September 14, 2003, Carter was inducted in the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor and his number “80” was retired by the Vikings.
Carter was named to the 1990’s NFL All-Decade Team, as selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Carter (with Jerry Rice) was a first-team wide receiver.
In 2013, Carter was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He was presented for induction by his son, Duron.
Carter’s biography on the Pro Football Hall of Fame website includes the following quotation from Carter:
“Every minute that I stepped on that field from the time that I warmed up, I was trying to put on a show for those people. So they would be proud. I come from some humble beginnings, and I just believed that when people pay their money, hard-earned money, that they deserve a certain level of performance.”
Carter has a prominent place in NFL record books.
Carter currently ranks sixth in NFL career regular-season receptions (1,101), thirteenth in NFL career regular-season receiving yards (13,899), fourth in NFL career regular-season receiving touchdowns (130), and eighth in NFL career regular-season touchdowns (131).
Carter’s receptions were not only critical for touchdowns, but also they were also vital for first downs.
In the nine seasons that Carter played that first down statistics were kept (1994 to 2002), Carter caught 499 regular season passes for first downs.
Concerning the above-described quote from Buddy Ryan, he was correct that Carter certainly could “catch touchdowns”; however, he was incorrect that “all” Carter could do was “catch touchdowns”.
As one of the great receivers in NFL history even when he was not catching touchdowns, and, even more importantly, for the extensive charitable work that this Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year has contributed to society, Cris Carter has done so much more than just “catch touchdowns”.