Kerry Carter Reflects on Curtis Williams

We present a "Bootleg-exclusive" piece by Derek Johnson, a frequent contributor to Dawgman.com (Scout's Washington affiliate). Derek has published a book that includes a moving account of the tragic injury of a Washington football player at Stanford Stadium in 2000. That unfortunate day is one that no Stanford or Washington fan will ever forget. We pause to remember the late Curtis Williams.

Editor's Note: By special arrangement, we feel fortunate to provide the following "Bootleg-exclusive" piece by Derek Johnson, a frequent contributor to Dawgman.com (Scout's Washington affiliate). Derek has written several well-received books about the UW program and has just published another one that includes a moving account of the tragic injury of a Washington Husky football player at Stanford Stadium in 2000. That rain-soaked afternoon of October 28th was a sorrowful day and the unfortunate play was followed by heart-wrenching moments of stunned silence that no Stanford or Washington fan will ever forget. The catastrophic accident, like the one suffered fifty years ago by Stanford quarterback Don "Rock" Campbell on the opening kick-off of the 1948 Big Game, dramatically illustrated the risk associated with playing an entertaining, but violent sport. Kerry Carter, one of our favorite players of the Willingham era and a terrific guy, happened to be on the other end of the fateful collision. It is an experience that continues to remind each and every one of us to treasure our health and happiness. We hope Curtis will be looking down on Saturday's game and will enjoy watching his Huskies make a valiant, but vain effort against the Cardinal.

Kerry Carter Reflects on Curtis Williams

On October 28, 2000 at Stanford Stadium, former Cardinal running back Kerry Carter took a handoff and plunged into the right side of the line.  Coming up from his safety position was safety Curtis Williams of the Washington Huskies.  The resulting collision rendered Williams a quadriplegic.  It also left Carter to deal with the emotional complications that such a situation creates. 

Earlier this year, as I conducted countless interviews for my new book The Dawgs of War, I tracked down Carter.  A former Seattle Seahawk, he was now preparing for the 2009 season with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.  He seemed hesitant to talk.  When I explained that my book was going to be about the Washington Huskies Rose Bowl season, and that the late Curtis Williams and quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo would be the book's protagonists, Carter agreed to the interview.  "I had decided to never talk about this again," he said.  "But this book sounds like it might contribute something positive."  

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That rainy day nine years ago at Stanford Stadium is one that witnesses will never forget.  The Huskies were 5-1 and battling to stay in contention for the Pac-10 crown.  The Cardinal, coming off their Pac-10 title in 1999, were struggling through a difficult season.  Throughout the first half, Washington safety Curtis Williams had come in repeatedly toward Carter with his head lowered.  Officials warned Williams twice to cease this practice or else penalties would result. 

"In looking at the way he was coming to tackle me, I was going to throw my head down in the first half," Carter recalled.  "In the second half, my intent was to try to use the fact he was coming low to avoid him.  That's the way to set them up.  Once they think you're going to bang with them every time, then you can kind of slip off."

The fateful moment that changed so many lives came late in the third quarter. 

"It was an ISO play," Carter said.  "I took the ball as trying to set him up and do something different.     But he came from inside-out.  When I cut off the block, I stepped forward and put my shoulder down, and he hit me really hard right on my shoulder.  I bounced off and fell to the ground.  I got up and was walking back to the huddle, when I saw that he was still down.  It seemed like regular play on my end, so I didn't realize right away that it was something serious."

Playing linebacker for Washington that day was Derrell Daniels.  The collision occurred just a couple feet away from where he was.  "I was on the backside of the play," Daniels said.  "I went scraping over the top.  Stanford ran an ISO play.  I came through and tried to make the tackle.  The running back had beat me to the hole, so I just dove to try to wrap him up.  I see someone come in and make the tackle and they fall backwards.  I was like, OH!  Someone got ran over!  He's gonna hear about it during film study on Monday!  Everybody gets up but Curtis was still laying on the field.  Anthony Kelley was talking to him—Are you alright?  Are you okay? Anthony Vontoure came over and said, Hey if you can hear us talking, please blink or wiggle your fingers.  But he wasn't moving AT ALL.  I stood over him and peered through his facemask.  Just the look in his face was that of terror.  His eyes were wide open and his lip was quivering.  It was drizzling, which made it worse.  I was hopeful it was just a concussion.  They put him on a stretcher and took him off the field.  We were over by the sidelines gathered in prayer."

As the game resumed, the Stanford players saw their Washington counterparts falling apart emotionally.  UW linebackers Anthony Kelley and Jeremiah Pharms were openly sobbing and shouting threats of bodily harm toward Carter. 

Late in the fourth quarter, Stanford rallied from a 24-6 deficit to score three touchdowns in five minutes.  To do so, the Cardinal twice converted on-side kicks, both of which were recovered by Carter.   

In addition to Williams' injury, that day remains remembered for Marques Tuiasosopo leading an 80-yard drive in the final seconds for Washington's miracle win.  But as UW center Kyle Benn recalls, "That whole day is black in my memory.  Just a gray, crappy day where nothing good came out from it, even the win."

As the Washington Huskies rushed to Stanford Hospital, the Cardinal gathered together in their own locker room.  They submitted themselves to their usual prayer, but then included a special prayer for Curtis Williams and his family. 

"Jamien McCullum was from Seattle and one of my really good friends," Carter said.  "I talked to him, and he said he was going to the hospital, but he didn't think it was a good idea for me to go.  Coach Willingham didn't say too much to us.  He said he was going to check into the status and see how things were."

As hours and days passed, it became clear to those in the know that Williams would never walk again.  Meanwhile, Carter dealt with the situation in a manner befitting his private nature.

"On Sunday, I called mom in Toronto like I always did," Carter said.  "I didn't mention it to her.  My mom worried about me a lot since I was on my own and so far from home.  I also know her personality.  I just didn't want to worry her.  One of my coaches told her before I did, as I recall.  I just wanted everyone's focus to be on Curtis Williams, and not on me.

"I'm a very spiritual person and I take a lot of time to meditate and pray," he said.  "For the next few days, I spent time quieting my mind and getting into deeper levels of this.  I spent a lot of time meditating and praying for him and his family, for whatever solace they could get out of this situation.  It was a life-altering situation, not just for him, but for everyone around him.

"People that know me know that I'm a private person.  I didn't speak about this with even the coaches.  I only spoke about it really with a select group of special friends.  A lot of people didn't want to bring it up.  But a lot of other people kept saying 'Hey I hope you don't blame yourself'.  I kept telling them, 'I'll be fine and I'll deal with it.  The focus should be on him and the Williams family.'  I was trying to get out of the spotlight." 

As the weeks and months passed, Carter never did go to visit Curtis Williams. 

"That was based on advice I was given," Carter said.  "I kept thinking, Should I go up to Fresno to see him?  I was told I shouldn't.  I think my coaches and teammates were trying to protect me.  Jamien said he would keep calling and talk to (Washington linebacker) Ben Mahdavi to get updates.  So I did the only thing I knew how to do, and that was to keep playing."

Carter's junior season of 2001 was an up-and-down affair.  NFL scouts wondered if the Curtis Williams situation had taken away some of Carter's aggression and confidence on the field.  Even still, he rushed for 456 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.  This included a career-high 29 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown in Stanford's win over fourth-ranked UCLA.  He also had a banner day against fifth-ranked Oregon in Autzen Stadium in Eugene.  Carter scored four touchdowns including the game-winner with 1:10 to play.  The performance made Carter the only player in Stanford history to tally four rushing touchdowns in a game on two occasions. 

Wanting to prove the scouts wrong and regain his top form, Carter was working out religiously in the spring of 2002.  His senior season would soon be upon him.

But then came May 6, 2002.

"I was working out at the Reikes Center (in Menlo Park) to get ready for next season," Carter said.  "I was warming up on an exercise bike and was looking up at the screen and watching ESPN.  On the ticker on the bottom of the screen, I saw something about Curtis passing away.  And then the story came up on SportsCenter.  It took a little while to set in.  I lost track of time and just kept riding.  I was really trying to find some kind of answer.  I've always believed that everything happens for a reason.  I was having a hard time finding any positive or good reason for this occurring.  I've always tried to find the positive in every situation, and yet for this, there seemed to be no silver lining in the cloud."

"Everything that happens to you has an impact on your life.  That incident put a lot of things into perspective for me.  After the news came of Curtis passing away, everyone was bombarding me with calls, asking if I was okay.  I thought I was okay until the 20th call came in.

"It did make me take a closer look at my goals and my life.  It made me look at the bigger things.  Football was great, it was a lot of fun and it got me a free education—but at what price?  I often ask myself that.  I was always very focused and in the moment as a football player.  But that day and that moment changed that.  It put a lot of things in my head and changed me as a player.  It took me a long time to get back to the point where I could be completely focused and be fully in the now on the football field.  So I'm definitely a different person because of that.  But different is a relative term as well, because in life change is necessary…"

Carter's soft-spoken voice trailed off in a moment of contemplation.  Then he concluded:  "You know, people always say that they want to live a life without regrets.  And I would definitely say that I've lived a life without any regrets… except for that day." 

Derek Johnson's book, The Dawgs of War: a Remembrance, is available at www.derekjohnsonbooks.com

He can be reached at derekjohnsonbooks@comcast.net


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