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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON THE HIGH SCHOOLS

Culver City High QB Marquel Carter pushes cultural boundaries

The three-sport athlete has traveled the world, is fluent in Japanese and leads his team into its season opener Friday night determined to prove he's not just another player.

September 11, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Breaking down cultural barriers is a mission for 17-year-old Marquel Carter, asenior three-sport athlete at Culver City High who speaks fluent Japanese, stars at quarterback for the football team and counts Harvard and Stanford among the colleges he's interested in attending.

He won a sports essay contest last school year that included this vision: "I have a dream: to be somebody special, to change lives and to make a difference in the world."

He has tried fencing, snorkeling, snowboarding and lacrosse, traveled to Switzerland and Japan, and practiced Japanese taiko drumming. He's a shooting guard for the basketball team and competes in the long jump, triple jump and high jump in track.

"He's a remarkable young man," football Coach Jahmal Wright said. "He's a breath of fresh air."

Education is what has helped open doors for Carter since kindergarten, when he enrolled at the El Marino Language School in Culver City and joined the school's Japanese immersion program that instructs students all day in Japanese, whether studying science, math or history.

"Starting it from kindergarten, you have no choice but to like it," Carter said of the language.

His mother, Tika Tinnon, a single parent, could have enrolled him in the school's more popular Spanish immersion program, but concluded, "He could learn Spanish at any point in his life. Japanese is a little more difficult and meticulous and takes time."

Uncertain whether she made the right decision, Tinnon received confirmation one day while grocery shopping. She and Marquel, then 6, saw two Asian women picking out spices.

"They were speaking in Japanese," Tinnon said. "I go to Marquel, 'Do you understand what they are saying?' and he told me, 'Yes.'

"They told him something in Japanese and he understood. And they were shocked."

Carter smiles when asked how people react to his speaking Japanese.

"I used it a couple times in front of my friends and they were shocked," he said. " . . . I haven't used it in sports yet, but when I was younger I played for the YMCA and two of my friends who learned Japanese were on the team with me and we used to speak Japanese on the court so nobody knew what we were saying."

He's taking Advanced Placement Japanese 5 this year at Culver City, and his teacher, Chiaki Gomyo, said, "He speaks Japanese beautifully. He's one of the most outstanding students I've ever had. He's always participating in class and is really motivated to learn the language."

Carter has twice traveled to Japan, first as a fifth-grader when he spent two weeks as an exchange student, and then in the 10th grade when he served as an interpreter for his grandfather, a musician who was touring the country.

His mother has been adamant that he seek challenges and not stop at typical boundaries.

"I want him to have every opportunity available in life, and that's how I raised him, making sure he's exposed to everything, making sure there's no walls when he graduates from high school," she said.

As a quarterback, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Carter passed for 2,273 yards and 17 touchdowns last season and rushed for 589 yards and 13 touchdowns. He took over for Darius Banks, the most prolific passer in school history, and more than held his own. Culver City starts its season tonight hosting Playa del Rey St. Bernard.

"He had big shoes to fill, and for him to step in that role and thrive is a testament to who Marquel is as a competitor," Wright said.

"You can't put him in a box," the coach added, referring to Carter's on- and off-field accomplishments. "He doesn't want to be perceived like the norm."

Said Carter: "I wanted to do my best so people wouldn't label me as another sports player or just another African American sports player."

Last November, on the night Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, Carter and his mother traveled to downtown Los Angeles determined to experience a night of history among a "big group." They watched the election results along with hundreds of strangers over a Jumbotron near Staples Center.

Carter won't forget the moment.

"I remember thinking as he won, it's kind of like he was trying to accomplish the same thing I was: ending people's stereotypes and trying to make a better future for everyone," he said.

Now, Carter has to figure out what he wants to do with his future. He envisions something to do with international business.

And one other idea.

"He said he wanted to beat Kobe [Bryant] and learn more than seven languages in his lifetime," his mother said.

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latsondheimer

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