Going back to his roots

When Kevin Carter was growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., few thought he would become a top NFL player. In fact, he spent his freshman year of high school in the marching band. Find out from Carter's life-long friend how he became the menacing defensive end he is today in this exclusive premium piece.

Bart Brooks had a decision to make earlier this year.

The Tallahassee native had the opportunity to take his first head-coaching job at Santa Fe High School, near Gainesville. It would certainly be a step up from being a defensive coordinator. His wife was with him. She told him he should take the job on the spot.

But Brooks wasn't ready to say yes just yet. He had a phone call to make.

"I have to talk to Kevin first," Brooks told his wife and his future boss.

"Kevin" is Kevin Carter, the former University of Florida All-American football player and now Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end.

Carter is also Brooks' best friend, dating back to their high school days Lincoln High School in Tallahassee.

"I wanted to wait so I could talk to Kevin first," Brooks said. "Just because he knows the stress. High school and pro football are different levels, but the time requirement is the same and I wanted to talk to somebody about that. And he would tell me how to handle that, how to handle the wife that doesn't see you much.

"The one thing I know from Kevin is he's a commitment guy. If he tells you he's going to do it, he's going to do it regardless."

Commitment seems to define Carter's football career. He made a commitment to Florida when it wasn't necessarily cool to do so, back in Steve Spurrier's second year at the school. Being a Tallahassee boy didn't help, either, as he caught plenty of grief for signing with the Gators.

But Carter's reward at Florida was a four-year career where he started almost immediately and helped the Gators to three Southeastern Conference titles in four years. That led to a first-round draft selection by the St. Louis Rams in 1995, a Super Bowl ring and a record for durability that few NFL players can match.

He hasn't missed a NFL game in his entire NFL career, a span of 12 seasons and 192 games, the longest active NFL streak, along with his new teammate, Derrick Brooks.

How does one stay that healthy for that long? Carter considers his best off-the-field asset to be a life of moderation.

"I'm blessed," Carter said. "I'm blessed, I'm thankful. I live a moderate life off the field; I think that definitely helps as well. I have a six-year-old son, Zion, and he is my focus. He and my wife, Shima, and my extended family are what I involve my time and efforts into when I'm not playing football, so I think that definitely helps. Training, trying to take care of my body, prepare and go out there everyday and really train hard, hit hard, run, play and you have to go out there and give a lot of effort, but you have to do it the right way and take care of yourself."

Carter wasn't always the chiseled, 6-foot-5, 305-pound end we see today. Brooks remembers a time when "scrawny" might have been a better word to describe Carter.

The pair actually met in the ninth grade when both were in a class together. They sat next to each other, but they didn't talk much at first. In the 10th grade, as the pair enrolled in more honors classes, they saw each other more and talked more. It didn't hurt that Brooks was already on the Lincoln High football team, and Carter decided to come for the team that fall.

Carter spent his freshman year in the band.

"At first he was a little short and chubby, wore thick glasses and we cracked on him a lot," Brooks said.

That first day of varsity practice, Carter didn't actually distinguish himself.

"He came up and we were running sprints on a hot day and we were running like 40 60-yard dashes," Brooks said. "Kevin and I were running next to each other. He fell out. We had to call the trainer. He was just standing there, and I turned my back for a minute and when I turned back around he was on the ground. It was scary."

Brooks noticed a change in Carter almost immediately, saying that he quickly became one of the team's best-conditioned athletes. It wasn't enough to get Carter on varsity — where Brooks was playing offensive line — until late in his sophomore year.

Then something happened between Carter's sophomore and junior years. He grew — a lot.

"He grew about seven or eight inches and started filling out and working out," Brooks said. "He went from being average to All-American almost overnight. We were doing the same weight, and one day I just couldn't keep up with him anymore."

Tampa Bay defensive end Kevin Carter, middle, congratulates kicker Matt Bryant after a field goal earlier this season. (AP photo/Chris O'Meara)
Few could after that. Carter grew into a Parade All-American linebacker by his senior year. As a prelude to his NFL career, Carter agreed to play both ways his senior year, doing time on the offensive line next to Brooks.

At the same time, their friendship grew. The pair started hanging out more, going on double dates and doing everything together.

Not even Carter choosing to go to Florida, instead of Florida State, could break these two up.

Well, it tried.

"He didn't speak to me for a week," Carter said after a training camp practice in August. "He's (Brooks) a Florida State grad (Brooks put in three years as a football player at Central Florida before transferring to FSU to finish his degree). And he didn't speak to me for a week. He was so angry and upset. Wouldn't say a word. He wouldn't call me. He wouldn't come near me."

Truth be told, Carter's decision blindsided Brooks the night Carter told him.

"The thought of him going to Florida?" Brooks said. "Georgia, Nebraska, Notre Dame — I could deal with that. But Florida? It wasn't on my radar."

That phone call went something like this:

"What's going on?" Brooks said

"I just committed to Florida," Carter said.

"Excuse me?" Brooks said as he fell back on his bed. "You can't do that!"

Brooks said it was a shock.

"I'm sure he was probably reluctant to call me," Brooks said. "I think it was the hardest thing for him to call me, knowing how I felt about Florida and Florida State. Sunday night, the next day, it was hard for me to visualize him wearing that uniform."

How did it happen? Call it the power of Spurrier.

"He (Spurrier) wasn't just about football, although I was so pumped up about it after talking to him about football," Carter said. "He really inspired me at the time to really look at my life and believe that I could achieve anything that I wanted to do, that I could develop properly as a man. I believed in that and I went to Florida and it came true."

Carter joined Florida at a time when it was beginning its upswing into the national elite. Three SEC titles in four years were evidence of that. He signaled his presence early, becoming the first true freshman to start on the defensive line since 1979 when he started against Syracuse on Sept. 21, 1991.

He played in 47 games, making 37 starts, most of which came at left defensive tackle, where he still plays today. He finished his career with 203 tackles, 39 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks. Along with his all-America selection in 1994, he earned all-SEC first-team honors his final two seasons at Florida.

Carter also met his wife, Shima, while at Gainesville. Carter said there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't think about Gainesville.

"Being a part of that experience at that particular time period is one of pride because I feel like the teams kind of leading up to then had been really good, but not great," Carter said. "And when we brought it home (in the SEC) for three out of the four years I was there, we felt like we really laid down the foundation for something special that's carrying on today."

Even Brooks can no longer dispute that going to Florida was the best thing for Carter.

Just as he did in Florida, Carter made an immediate impact when he arrived in the NFL in 1995 as the sixth overall pick in St. Louis. He started all 16 games and ranked second on the team and second in the NFL among rookies with six sacks.

Carter methodically built a reputation as a fearsome, consistent pass rusher who was never out of the lineup. That reputation hit its apex in 1999, his fifth NFL season.

That year Carter earned his first Pro Bowl nod after registering 17 sacks, a career high and NFL high that season, and four forced fumbles. He was named a consensus All-Pro selection as well.

That was the season of Kurt Warner's meteoric rise at quarterback, and Carter got his first taste of postseason success. He finished the playoffs with six tackles and three sacks, as the Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. Carter now had the one thing that eluded him at Florida.

Carter spent one more season in St. Louis before leaving for Tennessee in 2001. At that point, Carter's career began to transform from a fearsome pass rushing end to one of a valuable utility lineman.

He had just two sacks in his first year in Tennessee, but led the team with 34 quarterback pressures at left defensive end. The next season, 2002, he followed that with a 10-sack season and his second Pro Bowl nod.

In 2003-04, Carter split his time between end and tackle. His work inside with the Titans was instrumental in allowing them to finish as the NFL's best run defense in 2003, as they gave up 80.9 yards and held then All-Pro back Jamal Lewis to just 35 yards in a playoff game.

In 2005 Carter left Tennessee for Miami and began a new transition — as an end in a 3-4 defense. It was a challenge Carter had never taken before.

"The reason I went to Miami was because they played a 3-4," Carter said. "I had never played it before. It was a challenge, it was a good situation. I had the chance to play with a lot of great players. I saw the opportunity and went after it."

Carter spent two seasons as Jason Taylor's partner in Miami, and registered 11 ½ sacks in two seasons. But that wasn't enough to keep Carter with the Dolphins, who cut him in February for salary reasons.

That left the door open for Carter to return to a 4-3 alignment with the Buccaneers, a defense he's admired from afar for some time.

For the Buccaneers, the decision was easy. Carter's experience as an end and tackle, and his track record for performance — he had 97 ½ career sacks entering the 2007 season — made him a player the Buccaneers had to sign when he came available.

"I'm glad he's here and not in Miami, I can tell you that right now," Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said during training camp. "He's a real pro. He hasn't missed a game and he doesn't miss many practices. He'll be here every time he can be here. That gives us depth. Greg Spires doesn't need to be playing 65 plays, you know? You need depth. That's where you go back to your (pass) rush. You can't be rushing in the fourth quarter and those guys are on their 65th play. Your defensive line, to get a good rush, has got to have some depth."

Whatever the Bucs need, that's what Carter will do, Brooks said. He's been doing that his entire life — as a football player, as a father and as a friend.

"People ask me, ‘How in the world did he not change?" Brooks said. "That's just Kevin. He'll have time for anyone, even guys in high school that he doesn't talk to all the time. We have a relationship where I'll call him before I call my own brother. He's a sounding board for me. And he's the guy I get advice from him. I hold him in such high regard. He tells me the truth, what he truly feels and not just a line."

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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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