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Cris Carter Catches On : Pro football: This year, he leads the league in receptions and is on pace to break Sterling Sharpe's year-old record for catches in a season.

November 20, 1994|RON LESKO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MINNEAPOLIS — Cris Carter tells you he might join the seminary after football, and you don't know what to make of him.

He is serious, it seems, but it can be hard to tell with Carter sometimes. Like when he was in Philadelphia.

He said he was serious about football, but it was never very easy to be sure. There were times he seemed more interested in carousing until early Sunday morning than playing on Sunday afternoon.

Buddy Ryan didn't like it, and he let Carter know. Carter didn't like that, so the Eagles let him go. Minnesota spent $100 to grab Carter off waivers, and he has turned into one of the best bargains in NFL history.

In his eighth season, Carter leads the league with 77 catches and is on pace to break Sterling Sharpe's year-old record of 112. This year, there is no question that Carter is serious about football.

"I was just young, just enjoying it, living life day by day," Carter said of his rocky three years in Philadelphia. "I decided one day that I needed to do some things different."

That day was Sept. 4, 1990.

Ryan called Carter to his office to tell him he would start the season as a backup. Cocky and quick-tempered, Carter wouldn't accept that, and the Eagles released an angry young man five days before the season began.

"There were ups and downs in Philadelphia, just like anything else," Carter said. "I had some success there, played at a young age, had some big plays, went to the playoffs. I was just never really happy."

And never really in control of his life, a carryover from the tumultuous end to his college career.

Carter was an All-American his junior year at Ohio State, and most believed he would be a first- or second-round pick following his senior season. But he never got to play after admitting he took $6,800 from agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom.

Walters and Bloom both received prison terms two years later for their involvement with athletes, including Carter. For his role, Carter pleaded guilty to mail fraud and obstruction of justice, and was handed a $15,000 fine and 600 hours of community service.

The Eagles took Carter in the 1987 supplemental draft. He played in nine games and had five catches as a rookie, but had 87 catches and 17 touchdowns over the next two seasons.

He was on the verge of NFL stardom, but seemed more interested in his showy lifestyle. That changed the moment he walked out of Ryan's office that afternoon in 1990.

"He never really did anything outside the 20-yard line," Ryan said at the time.

Carter refuses to vent any bitterness about Ryan or his release from the Eagles. He just continues to prove Ryan wrong.

He says he hasn't touched alcohol since -- he never had a drinking problem -- and gradually has developed deep religious beliefs.

"You get to a point in your life when you just get tired of rippin' and runnin'," he said. "You just want to be happy, and I really wasn't happy until I found God, regardless of what I had done on the field."

He caught 27 passes his first season in Minnesota, and has led the team each of the past three years with 72, 53 and 86 catches from a steady rotation of mediocre quarterbacks.

He finally emerged as one of the league's premier receivers this year after Minnesota traded for Warren Moon.

"If he had a guy who was going to get the ball to him a lot, he could put up some unbelievable numbers," said Vikings coach Dennis Green. "He's got a lot of years to play, and I think the timing is right for him and Warren to hook up at a stage where they both have a real good appreciation on what it takes to win."

Only slightly less volatile on the field than his days in Philadelphia, Carter has benefited from Moon's calm personality as much as his tight, accurate passes.

"If I ever get out of line, he's the guy who can get me back in line," Carter said. "He's one guy who I look up to. The other guys I respect, but he's the one guy I look up to, as a person and as a football player."

Carter needs to catch six passes a game for the rest of the regular season to break Sharpe's record. On his current pace, Carter would finish with 123 receptions.

New York Jets coach Pete Carroll said all Carter needed was a quarterback who would get him the ball.

"Now you're seeing what he's got," Carroll said. "That's probably why he's been frustrated at times over the years, because he knew he had it. He's real special."

Carter doesn't have the speed to beat defenders deep often, but he is fearless across the middle and has outstanding hands. At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Carter also can use his 36-inch vertical leap to go over most defensive backs.

"He's rare in that sense," Carroll said.

Carter's stormy stint with Philadelphia may have cost him a chance to be recognized sooner alongside Sharpe, Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin and the NFL's other elite receivers.

Paired with Moon, he is making up for lost time.

"I think now people will also look at Cris in the same light as they view the other guys, because he is more acrobatic, will make more difficult catches, than all those other guys," Green said.

So Carter finally has found his peace on the football field. He is getting the ball nearly as often as he wants -- "In his mind, he's always open," says Green -- and he has matured into a leader on the Vikings.

Questions of life after football remain unanswered. For now, Carter says he is leaning toward the seminary and service as a minister.

"I want to learn more about the Bible, to study it in a situation where I won't have that many distractions," Carter said.

He's also considering coaching or TV commentary. But there's plenty of time to decide which career he wants to take seriously.

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