A $100 move by the Minnesota Vikings in 1990 turned into a million-dollar lifesaver for Cris Carter.
When the Philadelphia Eagles put their troubled wide receiver on waivers before the 1990 regular season, the Vikings took a chance on Carter, who had struggled with substance abuse. But even Carter admitted Thursday when talking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame that the team didn't know the full extent of his issues.
"The first day was very, very difficult. I would say the Vikings were somewhat aware of my situation but not fully aware. But once they opened that file they became fully aware of it and realized I had an issue and they put certain steps in place that day that at that time I wasn't using," Carter said. "My biggest problem was struggling with cocaine. At that time, I wasn't using but I was still using alcohol. ... Sept. 19, that was the last that I ever drank."
Carter paused while recalling the story, fighting back the tears. The place he was in 23 years ago seemed so distant.
Earlier this month he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio after 12 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and 16 in the NFL. He made the playoffs in eight of his 10 years with the Vikings, was part of only two losing seasons, and set numerous records along the way.
In 2000, Carter became only the second player in NFL history to catch 1,000 career passes. He finished his career with 1,101 receptions and 130 touchdowns, both ranking second in NFL history at the time of his retirement. His 130 touchdowns came from 13 different quarterbacks. He had 13,899 yards receiving.
He had 42 100-yard games receiving and recorded 1,000-yard receiving seasons eight consecutive years, and set the NFL record (at the time) with 122 receptions in the 1994 season. He followed that up with another 122-catch season in 1995.
He was named to the All-Decade Team of the 1990s and won the 1999 NFL Man of the Year Award. He was also a first- or second-team All-Pro in 1994, 1995 and 1999 and was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times (1994-2001).
Yet when it came to talking about his career on Thursday, he thought about the people who influenced his life more than the lessons he learned on techniques and conditioning that often accompany football.
He talked about Red McCombs' ownership group breathing life into the Vikings franchise in 1998 and the current Wilf ownership group that has helped him navigate trying to get into the Hall of Fame and finally getting there in his sixth year of eligibility. But it was the ownership group in 1990, with Roger Headrick and Wheelock Whitney among the so-called "Gang of 10," that helped turn Carter's life around. Betty Triliegi, a counselor on sober living, holds a special place in Carter's journey.
"Betty issued me a challenge (in 1990)," Carter said. "It was for a week that I wouldn't drink. I haven't had a drink since then. I was just trying to make it through the week and just survive, really. That's what I was really trying to do, just make it through one week and then eventually after surviving I could feel my body starting to change and I could feel my ability start to really – I could be as good as I wanted to be and then upped my conditioning, I dropped my body weight and then the rest was history."
Triliegi's company at the time, BT Consulting, worked with the Vikings for nine years, and the Vikings' ownership group stood by Carter as he developed on and off the football field.
"Personally, what they did for my life, that changed my life. Besides my mother – there's a lot of people that helped me out, but there's not a people I can say I wouldn't have made the Hall without their involvement – but I can stand here today as a man that if you wouldn't have helped me that day when I came here, that second week in September, I wouldn't have made it," Carter said as Whitney looked on during Carter's press conference. "I'm forever indebted to the Vikings organization for the skills and the power they gave me that I can have success, that I didn't have to be that other person. And to be able to go and be productive in life, that's the thing I'm most proud of."
Leslie Frazier didn't coach Carter, but the current Vikings coach said he has seen Carter mature over the years.
"We're all very familiar with the statistics and the many things he's accomplished on the field, which is one of the reasons he'll be entering the Hall of Fame, but the thing that has impressed me most in getting to know Cris is the transformation as a person," Frazier said. "When you consider … growing up in the projects and you look at where he was at Ohio State, what things were like for him with the Eagles and the transformation as a man, along with the talent that he has and he's been blessed with, you knew he was a great football player, but to see the man that he's become, that's what really inspires me and inspires so many. The humility that he shows, it makes a difference."
Carter said he has cried every day since finding out he made the Hall of Fame, calling it "overwhelming" and "the most unbelievable thing that ever happened to me."
Being inducted to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, holds a special place for him because he grew up in Middletown, Ohio. He went to the Hall of Fame on a youth trip and has been there once or twice since, but his induction in August will obviously be different.
"(Canton) is 241 miles from the housing project I grew up in. From that doorstep to George Halas Hall, it felt like 10 million miles because of the journey I had to get there," he said. "You don't grow up in that little place like that and think you're going to end up in Canton. You really don't. For me, it's a special meaning."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.