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 Article of Interest - Inspiration

Anthony Carter's son is his No. 1 priority
Former U-M football star spends days caring for Anthony Jr.
by Michael Rosenberg, Detroit Free Press, October 12, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit www.bridges4kids.org


The legs look the same as they always did. Bony, skinny, downright calf-less.

 

Michigan will honor three-time All-America receiver Anthony Carter at halftime of its 3:30 p.m. game against Penn State today. Carter also will sign autographs at the WJR motor home at Crisler Arena from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Donations to the Anthony Carter Jr. Cerebral Palsy Foundation can be made there.

They still look like they can barely support an entire body. Except now there are four of them, and two of them can't support an entire body.

Inch for inch, pound for pound, Anthony Carter's legs accomplished as much as any other pair in college football history.

Now they have a matching pair. Anthony Carter Jr. was born with his father's legs but none of his physical ability. Anthony Jr. has cerebral palsy, a result of childbirth trauma that has left him in a wheelchair. He spends his nights lying on his father's lap as they watch television.

"Say hi, Anthony!" the man tells the 7-year-old. "Say hi!"

Anthony Carter Jr. can't say "hi." He is unable to breathe without the help of an artificial trachea in his neck, unable to eat without a feeding tube through his stomach, unable to walk at all.

When Anthony Jr. was born, Anthony Sr. got the following news from one of the nurses: "He's a vegetable."

Those are the words she used.

"Can you believe that?" asked Anthony's wife, Kim, who almost died during the childbirth.

These days, people don't use those words. But they often think it as they approach the kid in the wheelchair.

"People will come right up to you and look at him and start asking questions," Kim said. "They're not being nice. They're just being nosy."

Anthony Sr. said he doesn't let that bother him. He is used to being recognized by strangers. It still happens a lot -- in his home state of Florida; in Minnesota, where he starred in the NFL; and, more than anywhere else, in Michigan, where he remains one of the most popular Wolverines ever, 20 years after he left school.

People look at his face. Then they look at his legs. Then, slowly, they walk over to him and ask . . .

"Are you Anthony Carter?"

And he looks at them and says, "No."

And sometimes he adds, "People tell me I look like him, though."

Eventually, he tells them that he was just kidding, ha ha ha ha, yes, he really is Anthony Carter. Usually.

Carter never has liked the attention of strangers. This has been clear for more than two decades. He never liked it as a three-time All-America receiver at Michigan, where his teammates called him "The Hermit." He never liked it as Pro Bowl receiver in the NFL, where he avoided reporters as deftly as he avoided defensive backs.

Michigan will honor Carter today at Michigan Stadium for his recent induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, and the school's public relations staff had better keep an eye on him. Ask him to step onto a field in front of 110,000 people -- without a football helmet to hide under -- and Anthony Carter might bolt.

So the shyness is part of it, part of why he says he isn't Anthony Carter. There is something else, too, though. His days and nights are dominated by Anthony Jr., which means they are dominated by a disease that causes damage to the body and the brain . . . and, well, there must be days when he doesn't feel like Anthony Carter at all.

"When I see a highlight or something, I can't even believe it's me," Carter said. "How did I do it? How did it happen? How could somebody do something like that? But that's me. That's me doing it."

Lloyd Carr couldn't believe it either. The year was 1980, and Carr had just been hired as a U-M assistant coach. He said he "could not believe" what this 5-foot-11, 160-pound sophomore receiver could do.

In the 22 years since, Carr has moved up to head coach and seen many great players come through Ann Arbor, including Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson.

But he has never seen anybody like Carter.

"He is, in my judgment, certainly the most exciting football player that I've ever seen," Carr said. "I mean, Anthony Carter had the ability that every time the ball was in the air towards him, everybody got to their feet, because they knew if they sat there they might miss something spectacular.

"Woodson was a great football player, and so was Desmond. But Anthony was just different. Anybody who saw him play. . . . He just made so many spectacular plays."

The first time he touched the ball as a freshman at Suncoast High in Riviera Beach, Fla., he returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. First time at Michigan, same deal: punt return, 78 yards, touchdown.

When Carter arrived at U-M, Dick Rifenburg held the school record with 16 career touchdown catches. Carter had 14 in his sophomore year alone and 37 in his career. When he left school, Carter owned every significant school receiving record and several NCAA records.

"He was just so much better than everybody else and so special, everyone knew it," said John Wangler, Michigan's quarterback in Carter's first two years. "It wasn't even an issue. He was that much better than everybody else."

In four years at Michigan, Carter averaged 17.4 yards every time he touched the ball. That's the best mark for a full career in college football history.

But these are just numbers, of course, and they don't fully describe what it was like to watch Anthony Carter catch a pass and dart every which way he could, past helpless defenders and into the end zone.

"The thing about Anthony is that he had the same speed sideways that he did going straight ahead," Wangler said. "A lot of guys say they run a 4.4" 40-yard dash. "Anthony ran a 4.4 sideways."

Anthony Jr. is 7 years old, about the same age his dad was before his athletic ability drew him out of the crowd.

Anthony Jr. is 4-feet-4 and 50 pounds and confined to a wheelchair. He rarely leaves the house.

"Every dad wants to see their son probably as a replica of himself," Kim said. "That part of it, the running, the ability to do the small things, makes a difference."

Anthony Sr. said that when he looks close enough, he does see a replica of himself.

"I see a lot of me in some of the things he does," he said. "Even though he's in this situation, he has a lot of me in him. That makes me feel good.

"He wakes up in the morning, and he's got an attitude. I do that. You wake up mad. What are you mad at? I don't know. I'm mad at something.

"He's always smiling; I'm always smiling, whether something bad happens to me or something good happens to me. And the legs, no question about that. "

In his 7 years, Anthony Jr. has undergone eight major surgeries. He had two hospital stays this year that each lasted almost a month.

One medication gave him liver problems, so he took something to protect his liver. The medication attacked his pancreas instead. He was 35 pounds at the time, but "his stomach blew up," Kim said, to the point that he had a 60-inch waist. He was on life support for two weeks.

"We almost lost him," Kim said.

The Carters are in the process of starting the Anthony Carter Jr. Cerebral Palsy Foundation to help children with the condition. They want to raise money to help families deal with costs that insurance won't cover.

Those costs can be exorbitant. Many children require in-home nurses, and insurance companies usually cap the number of nurse-hours that are covered.

For families who want 11 hours of daily nurse care, as Anthony Jr. has, it can cost $100,000 out-of-pocket every year. Then there are physical therapy, equipment and nutrition costs.

Without a nurse, parents become de facto nurses, spending entire days at home caring for their children,

At night, Anthony and Kim share their king-size bed with Anthony Jr. Somebody must be with Anthony Jr. because he is hooked up to a humidifier at night, and when he rolls over in his sleep the tubes restrict his breathing. And then he coughs, waking up Anthony or Kim, who help him get comfortable and try to go back to sleep. So they don't sleep much.

Anthony Jr. also requires trachea treatment at 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m., 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

He takes medication or food (through his stomach) at 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Anthony Jr. was recently diagnosed with methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, a bacterial infection that attacks the body. It makes it difficult for the immune system to respond to certain medications.

That's a major problem because he takes stomach medicine, sinus medicine, a mixture of liquids to improve his breathing, Valium, iron pills, antibiotics for an ear infection, another sinus medicine and seizure medicine.

"He gets a lot," Kim said. "You wonder if his insides are all right."

If not, you would never know it, because this is the most amazing part: Anthony Carter Jr. might look like he should be pitied, and he goes to the hospital more than some doctors, but he does not pity himself.

One nurse, who entered the profession for the challenges, worked with Anthony Jr. for a week before quitting.

"She said she wanted to help somebody else," Kim said. "She said Anthony Jr. was 'too happy.' "

It's true. He has an excited look on his face most of the time. You get the sense he would probably giggle if only he could.

Carter said he was prepared to deal with Anthony Jr.'s maladies because of his trips to hospitals as an NFL player.

Preparing for the emotional trauma was much harder, but unfortunately he had ample training.

Carter's younger sister, Corrine, died of AIDS in 1997. His first wife, Ortancis, died of cancer two years before that. Anthony helps raise Ortancis's daughter, Sierra. (He also has a 21-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Kim has a son, Keith, from her first marriage; Keith lived with Anthony and Kim before moving back to Michigan this year.)

Carter's agent, Bob Woolf, died in the middle of his career. Carter never replaced him.

"It's tough, it's definitely tough," Carter said. "I've been to a lot of funerals."

In the autumn of 1979, as a freshman at Michigan, Carter was an instant success -- on the field, with fans, with his teammates.

"You never read about him doing anything out of the ordinary," said his former coach, Bo Schembechler. "He was not a big social guy. He was never late for meetings. A very reliable guy."

He wasn't always that way.

"I've had my bad time in my past, in junior high," Carter said. "I was always in trouble, got suspended from school, repeated eighth grade. I was always suspended, and when you're suspended, you're not in school and can't get grades.

"I wasn't like some football players who gets all the negative headlines. But at the same time, to myself, those were headlines. Everybody knew me, everybody knew how bad I was, everybody knew I repeated eighth grade. Everybody in my hometown."

To the outside, he was seen only as a football player, but that was largely his choice. He could have said, "Hey, I'm not just a guy who scores touchdowns," but what he really wanted to do was disappear.

This is the kid who sat in his living room while the coach from Texas tried to pressure him into going to his school. Fed up, Anthony excused himself, walked into another room, climbed out the window and walked down the street to a convenience store. He dialed home from a pay phone.

"Mom, I'm at the store," he said, "and I'm not coming back."

Communication, Anthony Carter-style.

"He was so quiet and so mysterious," Wangler said. "He never really opened up that much. People saw him on the football field, and then he was gone."

They thought they knew him. Even if they knew he was a recluse, they thought they knew him. Hey, there's Anthony Carter, No. 1, I love that guy, let's go say hi . . . excuse me, are you Anthony Carter?

No. People tell me I look like him, though. And then a smile and an admission of the truth.

"I think I did a wonderful job of handling a lot of stuff basically on my own," Carter said. "I didn't let anybody get close to me. I'll be that way until I die. I keep a lot of stuff inside. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I'm 42, and so far, so good."

When Carter left Michigan in 1982, the NFL was in the middle of a bidding war with the upstart United States Football League. Carter benefited from the squabble; he signed a four-year, $2.1-million contract with the USFL's Michigan Panthers.

It was nothing compared to the huge signing bonuses tossed around today, but it was far more than he ever thought he would see in his lifetime.

Carter had it all: irrepressible talent, youth, fame, wealth. He moved his mother, Manita, out of the little ranch house in which she had raised eight children. According to the sports-as-the-American-dream theory, he had finally made it.

Not so simple. Carter found out what many athletes discover: You don't change from a poor kid to a rich kid.

Rich kids are surrounded by other rich kids. Carter was a poor kid who suddenly had money, and everybody knew it. Even some people who had never been his friends.

"You would just see them always hanging around, wanting to know: Where's he at? What's he doing?" Manita Carter recalled. "People who didn't never come around before."

Carter was never inclined to tell anyone where he would be or what he was doing, let alone strangers. And if he kept to himself as a high school star, nobody thought much of it. But now all sorts of people stepped into his life, uninvited.

"True, true," Anthony Sr. said. "And a lot of them aren't around today. But that's fine, too."

Carter did not totally buy into his own celebrity. In his mind, he was still the kid who got left back in eighth grade.

"I just played to stay out of trouble," he said. "I didn't mean for all this stuff to happen. I could have done without it."

To others, Carter was defined by his athletic abilities as much as his son one day would be defined by his physical limitations.

He left Michigan after the fall semester of his senior year for the USFL, which played a spring season. But he was determined to earn the 30 credits he needed to finish his degree. He enrolled in classes in Ann Arbor, ready to be a student again.

"I went back and I'm sitting in class and everyone's like, what the heck's he doing?" Carter recalled. "You're making all this money. What are you doing here? You go to school to make money, and you're already making it.

"So I left. That was dumb. I wish I hadn't done that."

Two decades later, Carter still needs those 30 credits -- really needs them. Neither he nor Kim is working at the moment, but with the high costs of raising a child with cerebral palsy, it's easy to wonder how long that can last.

Carter said he will earn the credits, but it's unclear if he will do it in Florida, where he lives now, or Michigan.

"I'd like to see him up here," Schembechler said from Ann Arbor. "He left a full semester early when he signed with the Panthers. So he doesn't have his degree yet, and I'd like to see him get that. But we can't do it unless we can take care of his young son."

Carter's future has not been this uncertain since before he picked up a football for the first time. Football transformed him from a poor, unknown kid to a wealthy, famous man. It took him away from Riviera Beach.

Now he spends his nights 15 minutes away from the house where he grew up, holding 7-year-old Anthony Jr. He has gone from a blur on the field to alone on his couch.

Carter said he is worried about a 15-year-old Anthony Jr., a 25-year-old Anthony Jr. What happens then?

"He's not going to complain to you," Schembechler said. "He's not that kind. But when I call him, a lot of times it's on his cell phone and he is in the hospital. . . . I still am concerned about what is going to happen because I would like to get him set doing something that he likes to do.

"He has this burden, and he's done a good job with it and handled it well. But sooner or later we're going to have to get him something permanent. That's my concern."

If that's Carter's concern, he won't let on. He said he doesn't share his emotions with anybody, not even his wife. In that sense, he is a lot like Anthony Jr. -- a kid who, like his dad, attracts a crowd because of his physical ability.

They look at his face, off-center and wide-eyed. They look at those skinny legs, dangling from the wheelchair.

And they ask: That's Anthony Carter's son?

Yes. Nobody says he looks like him, though.

When Carter was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this summer, he began his induction speech by thanking the doubters. At 5-feet-11, 160 pounds, Carter had his share of nonbelievers when he left Florida for Michigan. He thanked the doubters for giving him the motivation to succeed.

That's how he began. This is how he ended:

"In college, you were taught to set goals: to beat Michigan State, to beat Notre Dame, to beat Ohio State. You want to go to the Rose Bowl; you want to win the Rose Bowl; you want to be all-conference.

"You want to be this, you want to be that.

"I have set another goal for myself. That goal is to be able to see my son walk, to be able to play catch with him. That is the highest goal that I could ever set in my life. . . . (When) that day happens, my life will definitely be complete. . . .

"I've been blessed with the athletic ability to play at the highest level, and I can see him in me. He has the willpower to fight this thing, and I'll be right there with him."

It's not the speech he expected to give 20 years ago, but it was the only speech he could give now. You never know when you will be forced to run through life sideways.

Contact MICHAEL ROSENBERG at 313-222-6052 or rosenberg@freepress.com.
 

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