Cris Carter had no problem toeing the rubber on the pitcher’s mound at Great American Ball Park Monday night for the ceremonial first pitch. He took a big wind up, complete with leg kick, and threw a strike with some breaking action to older brother Butch behind the plate.
“I didn’t practice. Dusty Baker and (players) told me to throw some underneath but I didn’t practice at all,” said Cris Carter. “It don’t require that much to throw a baseball down to home plate.”
Watching some attempts at the pre-game ritual – ahem, Honorable Mayor Mark Mallory – and those of us not headed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August realize that’s not always the case.
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Performing on the athletic field was never an issue for Cris Carter. Not when he was at Middletown High School. Not when he was at Ohio State. Not when he was in the NFL. His personal demons – including drug and alcohol addictions that forced the Philadelphia Eagles to release him after the 1989 season – have not always been so easy.
That makes today and every day more special for Cris Carter.
Carter, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas and Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, all Middletown natives, will be honored at the Pigskin Roundball Spectacular Tuesday night. It’s an annual gathering that began in 1990 as a way to bring motivational speakers from the world of football and basketball to Middletown and support Middie athletics. It’s grown into so much more.
For Carter, it isn’t about the ceremony. It isn’t about having the field at Barnitz Stadium, near the apartment complex he grew up in, being named after him or his hometown having a “Cris Carter Appreciation Day” that’s important. What all of these things represent is what matters to Carter.
“I think it’s more important that young people that come from a community that I come from that you encourage them to follow their dreams, regardless of what people say,” said Carter. “Most of the people from Middletown, most of the people, told me I would never make it. You know what I’m saying?
“Follow your dreams and believe in yourself and, no matter what, never never give up on your dreams. That’s what I think is more significant.”
As part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Hometown Hall of Famers program, Carter visited his old schools of Rosa Parks Elementary, Middletown Middle School and then Middletown High School on Tuesday. The program is a salute to the roots of the hall of fame players.
“The most significant thing to me is going to my high school,” said Carter. “Because those students right there, it gives them a living example of something they can attain in their lives. You can grow up in this community just like him and the sky is the limit for you.”
Lucas and Harrison represent the same message.
Lucas was the star of Middletown basketball teams that won consecutive state titles in 1956 and ’57 and won a state-record 76 straight games. He went on to be an All-American at Ohio State, helping the Buckeyes win the NCAA title in 1960 and appear in championship games the next two seasons. He won a gold medal as part of the 1960 Olympic team. He was voted into Basketball’s Hall of Fame in 1980 after an 11-season career in which he averaged 17 points and 15.6 rebounds.
Middletown High School named the court at Wade E. Smith Gym after Lucas in February.
Harrison grew up in Middletown before moving to Boston at the age of 16 to work with world class judo experts Jimmy Pedro, himself a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, and his father, Big Jim. Her story of survival from sexual abuse was well told before last summer’s Olympic Games in London.
The sexual abuse, by a former coach, was part of her story but it didn’t define her. Harrison became the first American, male or female, to win an Olympic gold medal in judo. Her message to Tuesday’s audience is “Triumph over Tragedy.”
“It’s going to be difficult to talk to everyone about my story, with my family in the audience and Middletown is my home,” said Harrison. “It’s going to be hard but I’m very happy where I am right now and the place I am in my life. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Middletown, with a population of less than 50,000, has plenty of reasons to be proud and celebrate tonight.
“I’m just really thankful for my life and I’m thankful for the way my life has turned out,” said Carter, “and I’m thankful that I was able to make a lot of the sacrifices along the way that inevitably would change the fate of my life. I think that’s what is so cool.”