Much-maligned ASU QB Carpenter knows this year will define him
The blood dripping down Rudy Carpenter's right shin is still fresh as he pulls his sock down to inspect the wound after getting clipped by a defensive lineman's cleats toward the end of practice. As he limps towards the sideline, slightly grimacing with every stride, coaches tell him to get treated. A trainer makes plans to see him back on campus. Soon his teammates walk past him off the practice fields to board maroon and gold trams that will transport the Arizona State football team back to Sun Devil Stadium less than a mile away, but Carpenter stops and makes a detour.
He never gets on the tram. Never makes it to the training room -- at least not until his cut became a scab under the blistering desert sun. He has more important wounds to mend as he plops his helmet on the scorching aluminum benches resting near the exit and sits down besides a reporter.
"I can't really blame people who have the perception that they do about me," he said. "I know I rub some people the wrong way, but it still hurts sometimes."
Carpenter is the most fascinating enigma in all of college football. A record-setting quarterback that has started 31 consecutive games, including three bowl games and three wins against archrival Arizona, yet is loathed by many at his own school. There is still a vocal contingent of Sun Devil fans that haven't gotten over the quarterback controversy of two years ago which saw then-coach Dirk Koetter name senior Sam Keller the starting quarterback only to reverse his decision in favor of Carpenter, then a sophomore, about 48 hours later.
While Keller, who immediately transferred to Nebraska, has since graduated and signed with the Los Angeles Avengers (an arena league team), Carpenter is still dealing with the aftermath, rumors and innuendo of the controversy that has come to shape his unparalleled career at Arizona State.
"Google my name," said Carpenter when asked to relay some of the things he's heard said about him by his fellow students. "You'll see. I try to ignore it."
Ignoring his critics, however, isn't always as easy as simply ignoring a search engine. There was the time he had a drink thrown on him as a sophomore by a middle-aged man while he was finishing dinner at a Boston Market near campus following a loss to Oregon. The time he got heckled by Arizona State fans in San Diego after the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas last year; students began clamoring for back-up Danny Sullivan to take his job despite Carpenter leading the team to a share of the Pac-10 title and the school's best season in over a decade. And most recently the time he had a water bottle thrown at him and was called derogatory names for wearing a fluorescent pink shirt to an Arizona State men's basketball home game against Washington State this year.
"That hurt the most because someone on the Internet accused me of making homosexual slurs," said Carpenter, who graduated last semester with a degree in interdisciplinary studies but will take a class in bowling or golf to qualify as a student-athlete in the fall. "They said I was using gay slurs towards people because they were trying to fight me at the end of the game. That's not true. One of the students yelled at me and said, 'Here at ASU we wear maroon and gold' and threw a water bottle at me and it hit my friend in the face. It was so crowded that I couldn't do anything even if I wanted to."
For being one of the largest universities in the nation, nestled near one of the largest metropolitan cities in the country, Arizona State is very much a small town when it comes to its athletes, especially its football players. Everyone has a friend who allegedly has had class with, roomed with, partied with, slept with and done any number of other things with so-and-so and those rumors soon turn into gospel. A few years ago those stories may have lived and died along Mill Ave. Now they are posted on the Internet for all to see and most to believe.
"With people on message boards they don't have to put their name on it; they can just hide behind a fake name and say whatever they want and people believe that stuff," Carpenter said. "I don't really read that stuff, but I saw that one article [about the incident at the basketball game] because it was sent to my mom and she was upset about it. I've had to explain the situation to my mom and it's really unfair. I believe in freedom of speech, but I think it's unfair that people can do stuff like that."
The oddest part of Carpenter's tumultuous relationship with the fans is the player he supposedly ran out of town (Keller) wasn't a national champion, a Heisman winner or even a particularly hard worker according to some former teammates. Outside of a comeback win in the Sun Bowl, where he started his first game in relief of injured quarterback Andrew Walter, Keller was 3-4 as a starter in 2005 before suffering a season-ending hand injury, and 4-6 at Nebraska before suffering a season ending collarbone injury.
"That always kind of boggles my mind because at the time I had won more games, but I think Sam was the type of player that the ASU fans liked," said Carpenter, who boosted his weight from 199 last season to 220 this season by spending much of the off-season in the team's weight room. "He was a fiery type of guy that took chances and was a gun-slinger type and at the time our fans didn't think I was that kind of player. But Sam was the one who left and they couldn't really get on Sam because he was in Nebraska. I was the only one they could get on."
Carpenter had an amazing relationship with fans before the Koetter's quarterback flip-flop. After taking over for the injured Keller and leading the Sun Devils to a 4-1 record down the stretch in 2005, including a 45-40 win over Rutgers in the Insight Bowl, he was a fan favorite. He led the nation in passer efficiency rating (175.1), interception percentage (.008) and yards per passing attempt (10.0). The problem is, he may have been too good, too soon for the Sun Devil faithful, who were still enamored with Keller's potential, knowing that they would have Carpenter for at least two more years. It was an embarrassment of riches that would simply turn into an embarrassing situation for Koetter.