September 21, 2014
By: Richard Deitsch
For much of Cris Carter’s six-year tenure as an NFL analyst for ESPN, I found myself appreciating the energy and passion he brought to shows and respected the bona fides he carried as a Hall of Fame-caliber NFL player. But I always felt I was getting performance art with Carter. He was loud, preachy and far too often for me, he came off like an evangelist selling only one product: Cris Carter.
But over the past few years I found myself gravitating to Carter and (as always) Tom Jackson when I watched Sunday NFL Countdown. I dropped some of my viewer cynicism toward him and started hearing his content more than I had previously. Last week, as many noted, Carter’s emotional commentary on Adrian Peterson resonated through the clutter. He connected with the audience through the prism of his own experiences with corporal punishment. Carter said his mother “whooped” him as a kid and it was powerful, honest television. The segment is here.
“I thought last week was Cris’ finest hour,” said Seth Markman, the ESPN executive in charge of the NFL studio shows. “The passion he spoke with and the overall message will be something I remember for a very long time. We ask our analysts to be honest but there are times as producers where you know guys are holding back. With Cris, that’s never the case.”
“I called my mother before the show and told her she should be on alert,” Carter said in a phone interview with Sports Illustrated on Friday. “I also called my sister who had been raped and told her I might use her story on TV. I can’t say my Mom was really pleased with the overall comments but I had to do what I thought was right and it was the truth.
“This is the thing: I didn’t grow up with a father and I grew up somewhat like Adrian Peterson with six or seven siblings. I didn’t have no healthy relationships around me. I didn’t know how to be married or date or wear a suit or treat a lady. I didn’t know all these things and I see Adrian Peterson following in the same cycle his father went through. It breaks my heart and I’m upset, and I was upset at the Vikings because that used to be a team that cared about the players. And they used to be a team that provided recovery.”
Carter said he was ready to cut ties with the Vikings if they kept Peterson on the active roster. Said Carter: “If they did not do anything, I was prepared to call the Vikings and tell them: “You all can take my jersey down.”
The team ended up reversing course — the Vikings dropped Peterson from the active roster — which Carter said he felt was the best thing for Peterson and his career. Prior to Sunday NFL Countdown this week, Carter once again offered thoughtfulness and honesty, this time on the NFL’s history of lenience on domestic violence cases involving its employees.
“The only real positive [from Roger Goodell’s press conference] that I saw is now we are having discussions openly about domestic violence and how to treat it,” Carter said. “That’s all I saw. The National Hotline For Domestic Violence last week, calls were up 84 percent. If we have blundered this — which we have — even in the blunder, the amount of awareness and how we can be a leader moving forward is astronomical because we haven’t done well. People are starting to reach out and get more help. Imagine if we do get it right. That is the only thing I can really concentrate on because it is a trail of mess up after mess up after mess up.”
If you think you are seeing more of Carter on ESPN’s airwaves lately, it is intentional. He signed a four-year deal with ESPN in January after being courted by CBS to be a part of Showtime’s Inside The NFL and possibly The NFL Today. Along with Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown, Carter is now a regular on ESPN Radio throughout the NFL season. He appears most weeks on the Mike & Mike show on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Carter said he believes he has been a different broadcaster since being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. He said the Canton honor offered him the chance to take stock of where he was in his life and where he wanted to be professionally.
“As a broadcaster I want to be the best there is,” Carter said. “I want to be recognized as I was on the field. Every day I approach it as if I was playing. I like research, I love following the sport, I love telling stories about the game. The Hall of Fame experience changed something fundamentally inside of me and it changed what I thought my purpose should be for the rest of my days.”
“Cris has always been an outstanding broadcaster but we’ve seen growth in several areas,” Markman said. “First, Cris has become much more comfortable in his own skin — he knows he is not a perfect man and he has used his own life experiences to try to shed light on what today’s NFL players go through on and off the field. After Cris’ comments about his mother, you can sense that everyone in the studio knew that was a seminal moment in the history of the show.”
Carter spoke to this column 24 years to the day he took his final drink. It is a story Carter has told before. On Sept. 19, 1990, Betty Triliegi, a substance-abuse counselor who provided her services to Vikings players, looked him squarely in the eye and asked a question that felt more like a final chance.
“Cris, can you just not have a drink for one week?” Trilegi implored.
He was 24 years old and dangerously close to the end of his football career. His talent was unquestionable but Carter was a cocaine and alcohol abuser who forced the Eagles, the team that drafted him, to release him after three seasons and 89 catches.
“It is a really different feeling when you are an alcoholic and you know it,” Carter said. “Sometimes it’s not easy to accept but I have accepted it and that is where my life is every day. It’s not that I celebrate the date because I am still trying to get through today like I did the first week. I do know the days – it is over 8,760 — and the minutes, even the seconds. It does mean something but what is more important than today is tomorrow. It means something if I can add to it and try to learn something that might help me get another day or another minute.”
After more than a decade in broadcasting — he started at HBO Sports in 2002 — I was curious how Carter hoped viewers perceived his work.
“I hope you realize I am a real person,” he said. “I hope you realize I don’t have a hidden agenda. I hope you realize this game of football means the world to me and I hope ultimately you take from it that I don’t have all my stuff together and I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Nor do I expect anyone else to be.”