EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Cris Carter traces his long journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame back to one life-changing week in September 1990.
Carter had been cut by the Philadelphia Eagles following his fourth NFL preseason and he was snatched up by the Minnesota Vikings with a simple $100 waiver claim. That’s when he received the stiff challenge from the Vikings, their ownership group including Wheelock Whitney, and alcoholism counselor Betty Triliegi.
“I would say that the Vikings were somewhat aware of my situation but not fully aware,” Carter recalled Thursday, fighting back tears as he addressed Twin Cities media for the first time since he learned he’ll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Once they opened that file, they became fully aware of it and realized that I had an issue and they put certain steps in place that day. At that time, I wasn’t using. My biggest problem was a struggle with cocaine, and at that time I wasn’t using, but I was still using alcohol.
“Betty issued me a challenge that 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.”
Carter credits those first few days in Minnesota for where he is now, soon to be a member of the Hall in his native Ohio. The wait was excruciating for Carter, as he was a five-time finalist before earning the honor this year, but none of it compared to those days that set him on a new path back in 1990.
“Personally, what they did for my life, that changed my life, Carter said. “Besides my mother, there’s a lot of people that helped me out, but there’s not a lot of people that can say that I wouldn’t have made the Hall without their involvement.
“But I can stand here today, as a man, to tell you, if you wouldn’t have helped me that day when I came here, that second week in September, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Getting cut after an 11-touchdown season set Carter on a course that made him one of the best wide receivers in NFL history. Carter, known for his soft hands and nose for the end zone, finished his career in 2002 with 130 touchdown catches, the fourth-highest total in NFL history. He is also fourth with 1,101 receptions and ninth with 13,899 receiving yards.
A changed man, Carter even went on to win the Walter Payton Man of the Year honor and the Byron “Whizzer” White award for his efforts in the community.
After “surviving” his first week in Minnesota, Carter said he could feel a change physically and mentally. He started working out harder, conditioned his body and lost weight. His trademark catching ability eventually formed through relentless work and spending time after practice catching pass after pass from teammates, coaches and even a machine.
He ended up with every major career receiving record in Vikings history.
“I believe that as a wide receiver, every ball you catch, your brain takes a picture,” Carter said. “So for me, I tried to take millions of pictures in my mind, so once I was on the field, there was no ball that I had never seen in my mind. Every time I would drop a ball, I would close my eyes or I would not remember it. I would forget it because I didn’t want it to creep into my psyche. So I caught thousands of balls; one-handed from the Juggs machine, left hand, right hand … it was part of my routine.
“I believe in catching the football, and I don’t believe in dropping it.”
No one, aside from Jerry Rice, caught the ball better in the 1990s. Carter set a then-record with 122 receptions in 1994. He equaled the number the following season. His eight Pro Bowl appearances are tied for the second most in history among receivers, and he was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team.
But for all his accolades, Carter had to wait to hear his name called for induction to the Hall of Fame. He says he blacked out when he first heard the news while watching the announcement on TV, but he’ll never have to think about the waiting game again.
“When you’re watching for the last five years, and the first year I think I was a finalist, so to me it’s gut-wrenching,” Carter said. “There’s no feeling like it. You feel like you’re getting sick to your stomach. I’m so glad I’m off that list, I tell you.”
When he stands at the podium later this year at the induction ceremony, with his son presenting him, it will be the end of the journey that took its first steps in Ohio, where he grew up in a Middletown housing project.
“It’s 241 miles from the housing project I grew up in,” Carter said of the Hall of Fame in Canton. “So, from that doorstep to George Halas Hall, it felt like 10 million miles. Because the journey I had to get there, 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.”
A challenge and a change along the way helped make it all possible.