The "X" Factor

Highlighted from this month's cover story in Student Sports Magazine, here's a closer look at two-sport phenom Xavier Carter, who overcame a painful knee disease and a slow start in sports to become the top boys sprinter in the nation and a Randy-Moss type receiver prospect. (To subscribe to SS Magazine, the nation's top high school sports publication, call 800-660-1334).

The most important race in Xavier Carter's life was one he lost.

In happened when the Florida native, nicknamed "Pee Wee," was playing AAU basketball in the fifth grade. A teammate two years older named Brian challenged him to a foot race in the parking lot.

"We had a practice on a Friday and were talking about the Hershey track meet the next day," Xavier explains. "He said, ‘I can go out in the parking lot right now and beat you.'"

The impromptu dual was no contest: Brian won easily. Rather than take solace in the age difference, Carter set his jaw and defiantly told his father, Ken, on the way home, "I'm going to beat him the next time we race."

As fate would have it, the two lined up next to each other in the 100 meters the next day at the Hershey meet. Ken Carter was worried about the psychological effect of Xavier probably losing again.

"I told him, ‘Come here,'" recalls the athlete's father, "to get him out of line so he wouldn't be beside Brian, but Xavier went right back to his spot and wouldn't you know he took off and blew him away."

"Brian tried to blame it on his shoes," laughs Xavier, "but it came down to one thing: I was determined not to lose. I have a fear of losing that drives me; I don't like to lose at anything. When I was in the fifth and sixth grades I'd get beat, finishing third or fourth, and would cry."

Today, Carter, a junior at Palm Bay High in Melbourne, Fla., rarely shed a losing tear. He is the top boys sprinter in the high school ranks and hasn't finished second in track cleats since the ninth grade, when he lost in the 100 meters to current Miami Hurricane defensive back Glenn Sharpe. Even that race he feels he should have won.

"He was in line eight and I was in line one. I didn't see him and I eased up."

In April of this year, the 6-foot-2, 185 pound standout caught the attention of the track world when he became the first athlete to win the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints at the prestigious Arcadia (Calif.) track meet, which is over three decades old. Within an incredible two-hour span, Carter set a meet record with a 10.38 in the 100, then scorched the track with a 20.85 in the 200 (in a drizzle and 1.0 mph headwind, no less) and a 46.72 in the 400.

On hand to witness the historic event was Carter's track and football coach, Alonzo Jefferson, himself a standout athlete as a running back and receiver at Notre Dame in the mid ‘80's, and, importantly, Xavier's uncle. He says his nephew almost turned down the chance to triple at Arcadia.

"We talked about it and considered not running the 100 because everybody was saying it couldn't be done. In fact, Xavier was behind at 30 meters but turned on the gas and won. We knew at that point it'd be a great day. We went out to dinner that night and thought, ‘What a hell of a day.'"

It's been a pretty good year as well as Carter is closing in on qualifying for the 2004 Olympic trials—at the Mobile (Ala.) Showcase of Champions the week before Arcadia, his 45.88 in the 400 was just off the Olympic qualifying standard of 45.85

As good as Carter is in the sprints, you'd think it'd be his passion but he admits . track isn't even his favorite sport---football is. With his speed, it's not surprising that the receiver is a Hot 100 national recruit and already has offers from more than a dozen major colleges to play both sports.

Currently, his leaders are UCLA (visited during Arcadia trip), Oklahoma ("like their style"), LSU (parents met in Louisiana, mom went there), and Florida (teammates from last year, Joe Cohen and Reggie Nelson signed with the Gators).

An obvious key to the lucky school that signs Carter is the strength of the track and football programs, but Ken Carter says the colleges should be brushing up on their academic statistics as well.

"The school where Xavier goes will have to be one that graduates athletes, especially African-American athletes."

While head football coach Dan Burke says Xavier is a "track star who plays football," it's intriguing to try to estimate how far the athlete can go on the gridiron since he's really only focused on the sport since the ninth grade to missed time due to a medical condition called Osgood-Schlatter Disease, one of the most common causes of knee pain in young athletes.

At the age of 12, Xavier hit a growth spurt where in three months he grew six inches. "It seemed like every week or two I'd look at him and he'd be taller," recalls his father."

The height burst came at a painful price: the the rapid growth causes swelling and tenderness in the knee and shin bone. Usually cured over time as the patellar tendons of the knee become stronger, the disease forced Xavier to sit out of all sports activities for eight months.

"It drove me nuts," Carter remembers. "All my friends were playing football and I had to sit around waiting for my body to catch up. My knees were so bad, sometimes I'd bump a table and they'd swell for weeks."

Sitting on the sidelines made Carter itchy to get on the field and hit somebody, a trait not always found in track athletes. "I like football more because of the contact, the physicalness and because it's more of a team sport."

The aggressive talk isn't just for show according to head football coach Dan Burke.

"He's not fragile like some track guys. Xavier is the first one down on every kickoff. He's obviously an exceptional athlete and I've never seen him tired, but the No. 1 thing is he works hard; he's always at the front of the pack in practice."

Last season, the Pirates won their second state football title in three years, but it didn't come easy. Palm Bay stumbled out of the game with two close losses before regrouping and winning 13 straight to finish No. 25 in the Student Sports FAB 50 rankings. Carter remembers the make or break point of the season after the second loss.

"We were all frustrated, turned on each other and fighting in practice. Finally, we had a team meeting and said, ‘Things aren't going to change unless we make it change,' and we did.

The junior receiver caught 28 passes for 757 yards and nine TDs for a team that had other offensive weapons like fullback Cohen and receiver Nelson. This year, the offensive coordinator—who happens to be Uncle Alonzo—will try to get the ball into his nephew's hands more by occasionally lining him up at running back. He laughs when asked if nepotism will help boost his nephew's stats.

"We're a 60-40 percent running team and Xavier understands our primary goal is to win the state title again, not to pad stats."

After getting getting over the Osgood-Schlatter disease, Xavier was able to quickly get up to speed (so to speak) in track also. In the seventh grade, "Pee Wee" was running the 100, 200 and 40 at the Junior Olympics in Cleveland. The next season, as an eighth grader, his times were so good they would have captured high school state titles in three of the four Florida divisions.

But as he began to make a name for himself in track and football, the junior didn't limit himself to just two sports. This season, for example, Carter was the leading scorer on the basketball team with 17.2 points and earned all-state honors. He's also a certified lifeguard, which is convenient since he's all of 10 minutes from the Atlantic ocean. Swimming, however, isn't why he hits the beach every weekend.

"I go to look at the girls," he admits honestly."

He'd play baseball, too, if it didn't conflict with track. Carter admits he is toying with the idea of playing on the diamond this summer.

"I'd try to hit it in the gap to the wall," he says kiddingly, "and get an inside-the-park home run."

Inevitably, the question arises that the Carters have been asked a kazillion times before: track, football or both?

First, the father's opinion.

"I think Xavier should do whatever he feels comfortable with. I don't think he'd be happy with just one sport. He gets tired of football when basketball comes around and gets tired of basketball when track comes around."

The athlete himself says his goal is to go to a college where he can do track and football and try for the NFL after shooting for the '04 Olympics, probably in the 400, which Xavier himself thinks is his best distance.

"Everyone dies in the last 100 meters, but I have a long stride and pick up speed and can kick at the end."

His coach in both sports, Uncle Alonzo, disagrees, saying the 200 is Xavier's best event because "he's so explosive from start to finish." The track coach and his star sprinter agree on one thing: to set state records in the three events this year and by next year qualify for the Olympic trials with times around 10.1 to 10.2 in the 100, 20.1 to 20.2 in the 200 and under 45 seconds in the 400.

For all his success, Carter is, by all accounts, an exemplary "yes sir, no sir" individual who lets his actions speak for him. Carry a 3.2 GPA, Xavier got in trouble once, cheating on a test paper in the sixth grade, and his father took him out of a track meet saying,

"You're going to be in your room for a while." That was all it took for him to get on the straight and narrow. "Xavier doesn't give me lip," says his father, "and he's very protective of his sister and brothers. He does his chores, cuts the yard, takes out the trash and cleans his room... well every now and then. He doesn't give me lip and listens and is respectful."

After only a short time around Carter, it's obvious he's confident with his abilities and comfortable with himself, but isn't one to brag. In fact, he doesn't like to talk about a race or game much once it's over.

"Sports is not his life," his father says adamantly. "Xavier doesn't even like to talk about sports. When it's over, he's talk for a minute and say, ‘Let's talk about something else." He does it, is happy, then moves on. He doesn't really care about all that. In Cleveland, Xavier didn't even get his medals—we had to remind him to go get them."

The teenager's approach to sports is surprisingly simple.

"I go into it as just another race or game," he says. "I try to stay focused and compete to the best of my ability. I know if I do that, it will be a good outcome. I'm not a cocky dude, I thank the Lord for giving me talent to do well.

Others will say, ‘You really ate those dudes up,' and I'll tell them, ‘Hold it down, I don't like to talk about it.' Sometimes guys walk around the blocks and eye you down, but I just run my race and go home and do what I was doing before."

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