Syl Carter's son was only 3 when the neighborhood kids came calling. Kaleaph was a big boy, most everyone thought he was 6, and it seemed natural to the kids living alongside the Carters in the projects of Elizabeth, N.J., that Kaleaph begin his football career.
But Syl Carter knew her son was too young to get into the fast lane of grammar school games. He couldn't run as fast, he couldn't speak as well as the older children.
"He looked as old as the other kids," Syl said. "But he was still so young, there was no way he could communicate with those kids. I had to watch over him to make sure they wouldn't make him play."
That was the first and last time Kaleaph was held back from football because of his age, size or vocabulary.
Since then, he has played on football's higher planes--youth leagues in Plano, Tex., where "they take football serious, very serious," and high school ball at Edison High, where a main export is Division I football players, of whom there have been 75.
He started as a sophomore on the Edison varsity, an accomplishment only a few have achieved. Among the other sophomore starters are players such as Frank Seurer (Kansas City Chiefs) and Rick DiBernardo (St. Louis Cardinals) who have gone on to the pros.
He was a member of a Big Five football champion his sophomore year (1985) and has been among the state's top shotputters since he was a freshman. He is bigger than most of his counterparts, stronger and faster than still more, and as far as maturity is concerned . . .
"He's an adult," said Bill Workman, a former Edison coach now at Orange Coast College. "When I spoke to Kaleaph, I spoke to him as an adult."
Dave White, Edison coach, said, "He's such an articulate, classy kid. Coaches and college recruiters who come out to see him are always very impressed. It's hard not to be."
But this season, his senior year, he has played in only four games. Injuries have plagued him. Bothered by a neck injury, he played maybe five downs in the Chargers' opening-game loss to El Modena. In the third game of the season, Servite running back Derek Brown hit Carter and dislocated his left shoulder. Carter missed the next four games.
Carter, who gained 1,015 yards in the 1986 regular season, has gained 332 yards this season.
Actually, Carter, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 205 pounds, has played in only two full games. In the Chargers' second game, he gained 177 yards in 15 carries against Capistrano Valley, the county's No. 1 team. Last week, he gained 135 yards in 23 carries against Ocean View.
Which tells you something about Carter's talent. He's among the best running backs who have ever played in Orange County. He has rushed for 2,409 yards in his three-year career at Edison, making him the school's all-time leading rusher, ahead of such names as Kerwin and Dino Bell, Dave Geroux and Mike Dotterer.
The fact that he has been able to come back, the fact that his mind doesn't seem any worse for the enormous wear his body has sustained tells you that Syl is still watching over Kaleaph.
"All my children know that there is no sense in feeling sorry for yourself," she said. "Sometimes things go bad in life. It does you no good to cry over it. You've got to look ahead, see what you can do, where you can go from there. That's reality therapy. I insist on that from all my kids."
So don't expect misty eyes from Kaleaph when he looks back on the season. He concedes that it has been "frustrating, given the amount of anticipation I had for my last year," but he refuses to look back in anger.
"I'm lucky in several ways," he said. "This was almost an extra year. I've had my two years of varsity experience. Being injured has also allowed me to teach a lot of the younger kids some things I've learned.
"It's never easy to watch a game from the sideline when you know you could be in there if not for an injury. But I've seen a lot of players on this team make a lot of progress this season. I'm not proud of our record, but I'm very proud of the players."
The Chargers are suffering through the worst season in the school's football history, which started in 1969. Edison is 1-7. Injuries have decimated the team, Carter's being the most severe blow.
"What you lose when someone like Kaleaph goes out is more than a great player," White said. "You lose the leadership. When he's in a game, you can see the rest of the kids raise their game. They know if they can hold their block a second longer, Kaleaph can break a run. The defense knows that if they can stop the other team and get the ball in Kaleaph's hands, we have a good chance at winning. You don't meet many kids like him."
Until the time he was 8, he was the only kid in the Carter family. Syl remembers long conversations in the sandbox with Kaleaph.
"It was like we grew up together," she said. "He didn't have other brothers and sisters to talk to. I never spoke baby talk to him. I always spoke to him as an equal."
Kaleaph, who dreams of one day being a broadcaster, credits that approach.
"She always spoke to me as if I were on her level," he said. "I think a lot of parents speak down to their kids. I've never felt like I was on a lower level than anyone."
He never has been.