Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr celebrates winning the Mountain West… (Gary Kazanjian / Associated…)
Derek Carr, like most of college football's royalty, was in New York City for an awards ceremony last week.
No surprise there. With quarterbacks accounting for four of the six Heisman Trophy finalists, the one who led the nation in total offense, yards passing, completions and touchdown passes seemed deserving.
Only he wasn't at that presentation.
Instead, the Fresno State senior was in New York to accept a scholar-athlete award from the National Football Foundation. It was an honor, but nothing compared with having a seat in the front row at the Heisman ceremony.
And it was a snub Carr says he won't forget.
"It's definitely fuel for the fire, that's for sure," said Carr, who will play his final college game when Fresno State takes on USC on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl. "Hopefully after my career is all said and done, I'll look back on it and it will be something we can just laugh and joke around about. "But . . . it hurt the first couple of minutes I heard the news."
That's far from the worst news he received this year, though. In early August, three days into preseason camp, Carr's son, Dallas, nearly died in a hospital hours after being born with twisted intestines, which threatened to cut off his blood flow.
It was nearly 3 in the morning when doctors told Carr his son required emergency surgery. Not knowing what else to do, Carr called Fresno State Coach Tim DeRuyter and cried his eyes out.
Two days later, Carr sought solace in football again when he returned to practice — only to get a phone call from his wife, Heather, saying that Dallas was being rushed into another operating room.
Carr kept his helmet on as he wept, not wanting his teammates to see their quarterback and leader break down as he jogged off the field. He allowed few others to know of his pain either, keeping the story quiet until Dallas was released from the hospital after 23 days, two days before Fresno State's Aug. 29 season opener.
"He's doing good" now, said Carr, who brought his son to New York. "He's at the point where he can recognize me. So when I come in the door, his face lights up with a smile and he starts kicking.
"It's amazing. It makes me forget about football, that's for sure."
Carr's life has taken a couple of dramatic turns in the last few years.
As a senior at Bakersfield Christian High, he was recruited by the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Louisiana State and USC, even though he had already announced his intention to follow his brother David up state Route 99 to Fresno State. He enrolled in college in the spring, at 17, skipping his final few months of high school in order to get an early start on his football career.
Carr played little his first two years, but that didn't stop him from living what he called the "college quarterback life."
At the height of his partying days, Carr met Heather Neel, a waitress at a BJ's Brewhouse about half a mile from campus. After working up the courage to ask her out, he spent their first date telling her what he was looking for in a wife.
Neel has said she wasn't turned off by Carr's arrogance, but, as a devout Christian, she couldn't handle his fast-lane lifestyle. So she told him to change or move on.
"Heather actually wrote me a letter and she said, 'You're not the person that I thought you were,'" Carr recalled. "I read that and I remember I stood up in front of my teammates and I told them, 'Hey, I've been telling you I'm a Christian and I've been living the party life and all that. And that's dead wrong.' And that's kind of when I got my thing right."
This season, Carr led the team's postgame prayer circle. And in place of goodbye, he now ends phone calls with a cheery "God bless."
But if Carr's marriage to Neel 18 months ago marked a spiritual reckoning, his transformation as a football player started shortly after his honeymoon, during Fresno State's first preseason camp under DeRuyter, who took over the Bulldogs program before the 2011 season.
As a former defensive coordinator, DeRuyter knew which offenses were most difficult to stop, so he sacked Fresno's pro-style attack in favor of a no-huddle, pass-happy spread built around Carr. In the two seasons since, Carr has passed for 8,970 yards and 85 touchdowns, helping the Bulldogs to a 20-5 record and two Mountain West Conference titles.
Carr has averaged four touchdowns and more than 400 yards passing a game this season, and a strong arm isn't his only attribute. The 22-year-old, a fifth-year senior, has also emerged as a vocal leader, frequently yelling himself hoarse during emotional sideline pep talks.
"He's worked his tail off," DeRuyter said. "He's like a coach on the field. He studies tape unlike any player I've ever been around. He just really exudes class and character.
"He's a father, a husband. He's gone through some off-the-field stuff with his son health-wise and it never affected him. He's just everything you'd want in the leader of your team."