When Cris Carter arrived to the Minnesota Vikings in 1990, few could have imagined that, almost a quarter-century later, he would be in the Hall of Fame Class of 2013. Next month, his bust will join the pantheon of the legends in Canton, Ohio.
On Friday, he took part in a conference call and said the wait to get his name called for induction has been a long time in coming and the whirlwind leading up to his induction ceremony has already begun.
"It's been a long journey," Carter said. "These last five months (since the announcement) have been a tremendous adventure. I'm so excited – not only induction weekend, but last couple of weeks leading up to it. There are a lot of events that are planned. I'm really excited about the Hall and the great Class of 2013. I can't wait to get to Canton and be involved in the festivities."
When Carter arrived in Minnesota, it was on the heels of being unceremoniously released by Philadelphia head coach Buddy Ryan, who defended his decision by making the infamous quote, "All he does is score touchdowns." While his career hit a brick wall at that point, Carter said his history of substance abuse was worse than his release.
"That experience wasn't my lowest point because, at the time, I was clean and wasn't using any substances back then," Carter said. "There were times when I was trying to stay clean and couldn't stay clean. Those were the lowest moments. Those moments were a lot worse than Buddy (cutting me). At least I had some indication that there would be teams interested in me. That was a tremendous learning experience. It was not a great day for me, but there were other days that were lower than that."
Carter's rebirth in Minnesota helped establish him as not only one of the best players of his era, but of all time. Among those accomplishments was his ability to will his body to play even when he was in excruciating pain. His mindset was that he needed to be a teammate in practice and on game day and prided himself on being an every-day contributor.
"As a football player, especially when Denny Green was my head coach, he had an emphasis on being available every day – practice and then the games," Carter said. "I tried to be one of the best-conditioned athletes. To be consistent and be a great player over a long period of time, I believe that sets you apart from a lot of different people. It's a rugged game. I think it's underrated (to have) availability. When you can give a team years of availability, that's just insurance on the amount of money they're paying you."
While much of the focus during his induction will likely be centered on his homecoming – he grew up in Middletown, Ohio – there will be a strong Minnesota presence at the ceremony as well. Carter was unsure how the Vikings fans were going to perceive him when the Vikings claimed him and cut a check for $100 to the Eagles as compensation.
At the time, the word was coming out of Philadelphia that Carter was not only a drug user, but was a Pied Piper of sorts that other young players naturally flocked to. In the days following his release, several named and unnamed sources said that Ryan was looking to take back control of the team and by cutting Carter he hoped to get the Eagles' others players in line by sending a strong statement that no player was above the team. He came from a team that had one of the most rabid fan bases in the NFL and he was being savaged in the local media once he got his pink slip. There weren't a lot of good things being said about Carter at that time. He had no idea how the conservative Midwestern Vikings fan base was going view him. To say he was pleasantly surprised would be understating the case.
"I had the kind of job you dream about – not only as a wide receiver, but as a football player," Carter said. "We had a fan base (in Minnesota) that was going cheer for us no matter what. Every Sunday or Monday when I came to work, it was in front of a packed house. I had people wearing my jersey. I had people going out of their way to make me feel comfortable. I didn't come to Minnesota under great circumstances. My philosophy on the fans was that they didn't have to cheer for me. They didn't have to like me. They didn't have a reason to. There wasn't a lot of great stories out there about me. But from the beginning, they loved me – from the north end zone when they came up with the "C.C." chant and the people were cheering for the first downs."
Just as the fans fed off of Carter's frenetic energy, it was quid pro quo for him. He felt a debt to the fans, especially those in the end zone seats that embraced him the most and wore their love and appreciation on their purple sleeves. Those were "his people" – not those in the luxury boxes or the 50-yard line. These were the people who were giving up other things in order to buy Vikings tickets and he felt an obligation to those people who had to make sacrifices in order to cheer on their favorite players.
"Every minute that I stepped on that field, from the time that I warmed up, I wanted to put on a show for those people so that they would be proud," Carter said. "I come from some humble beginnings and just believed that when people pay their money – hard-earned money – that they deserve a certain level of performance in professional sports. I was always thinking of that. It's tough for people to bring their kids to a game. I didn't want people to think I cheated them out of the money they spent. I grew up in a family where that wasn't even an option – trying to go to a pro sporting event and do extra things like that. When parents bring their kids and people expend their hard-earned money and paint their faces, the Vikings fans didn't have to embrace me the way they did and I enjoyed every moment of it."
As Carter takes his place among the immortals at Canton, the focus will be on his homecoming to Ohio. However, he will always have his place in his second home in Minnesota, where the fans still have the love for him today that they had when he would score a touchdown, point skyward and thank God for the opportunity to provide thrills for so many people he would never meet.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.