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The Lion King
Tim Layden
December 26, 1994
Ki-Jana Carter reigns, whether he's carrying Penn State's national title hopes or carrying on with friends and family
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December 26, 1994

The Lion King

Ki-Jana Carter reigns, whether he's carrying Penn State's national title hopes or carrying on with friends and family

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By the Numbers

Ki-Jana Carter's rushing total for the 1994 season is the second highest in Penn State history, trailing only Lydell Mitchell's 1,567 in 1971.

DATE

OPPONENT

CARRIES

YARDS

TDs

SEPT. 3

MINNESOTA

20

210

3

SEPT. 10

USC

17

119

1

SEPT. 17

IOWA

11

89

2

SEPT. 24

RUTGERS

15

122

3

OCT. 1

TEMPLE

9

61

0

OCT. 15

MICHIGAN

26

165

0

OCT. 29

OHIO STATE

19

137

4

NOV. 5

INDIANA

20

192

1

NOV. 12

ILLINOIS

22

110

1

NOV. 19

NORTHWESTERN

12

107

3

NOV. 26

MICHIGAN STATE

27

227

5

TOTALS

198

1539

23

Noise and roses, everywhere. In the full black of a Saturday night, two days past Thanksgiving, Penn State answers a communal call to Pasadena with a 59-31 season-ending home victory over Michigan State. Ninety-six thousand are in full throat inside Beaver Stadium, breath steaming from open mouths. The clock dwindles, and starters grab long-stemmed roses offered by the faithful. Quarterback Kerry Collins clenches one between his teeth like a flamenco dancer. In front of the bench Ki-Jana Carter, the junior running back who has rushed for 227 yards and five touchdowns, drops to one knee and bows his head. "Just saying thanks to God," he says later. "Just saying thanks for what he's done for me."

His story begins on a tract of red clay and scrub pines along State Road 94—paved now, dirt back then—in Ramer, Ala., 30 miles southeast of Montgomery. Nathan Carter brought Emma Jean Gamble there not long after they were married, in 1927, and Nathan tilled that unyielding patch of land as a sharecropper before he turned to pulpwood cutting, sawing and stacking logs, hard work that toughens a man overnight. Emma Jean gave birth 11 times, and one autumn Nathan moved them all north to Montgomery, where he caught on as an orderly at St. Margaret's Hospital. As the children grew up in a small apartment, Nathan threw himself into the roiling infancy of the civil rights movement. He was a friend of Dr. King himself, 89-year-old Emma Jean Carter will tell you now. During the Montgomery bus boycott, which began in December 1955, Nathan would walk to work through wooded back lots, fearing for his life on the streets. The next summer he loaded his family into a Chevy and a U-Haul truck and left the South forever.

It was the seminal voyage of the Carter family—Nathan, Emma Jean, their children, most now grown, and three small grandchildren, the children of their son Sam. On the floor of the Chevy, at Emma Jean's feet, was her three-year-old granddaughter, Kathy, the youngest of all. When the family passed through towns along the way, Emma Jean would shove Kathy down even farther, fearing what was outside. When they stopped to eat, the family would walk far from the highway and form a tight circle in the trees, hoping to escape the notice of white passersby. "My dad told us it was dangerous just to be on the highway," remembers Jerry Carter, Kathy's uncle. "He told us to keep our heads down."

Their destination was New York City, but the family ran out of money in Columbus, Ohio—where one daughter was already living—so that is where the Carters settled. All except Sam, then 28, who kept going to New York, where he made a living as a trucker, hauling produce to the five boroughs. Kathy, whose mother had been gone since she was an infant, was left with her grandparents and grew into a young woman who would be voted Black Homecoming Queen of West High in 1970. One night not long after that she met a man at a party, a handsome athlete named Kenny Turner. They lived together as man and wife for three years: "Common law," says Kathy, "but it was real. Kenny treated me like I was his wife."

Kathy became pregnant, and she and Kenny decided that if they had a boy they would name him Kenneth. But one summer night in 1973 Kathy sat in a movie theater watching Shaft in Africa, the second of two sequels to Shaft, the 1971 action film. The movie featured a little boy, and his name was Ki-Jana. "I said, 'I like that name,' " says Kathy. The next morning she called the Black Student Union at Ohio State and found that kijana means "young man" in Swahili. On Sept. 12, 1973, Kenneth Leonard Carter was born, and on his birth certificate, in parentheses, was typed "Ki-Jana."

Kathy and Kenny didn't last long together after Ki-Jana was born, and Kathy, 20 years old, was left with a baby. She was torn between youth and responsibility, between long days behind a counter at the Gold Circle department store and long nights out with friends who didn't have any children. "I got wild, out there partying all night, seeing that old sun come up," she says.

Kathy was eating breakfast in the kitchen of her grandparents' home on Whitethorn Avenue in Columbus one morning in 1974 when Nathan Carter, who would soon be dead, in 1977 at age 72, spoke to her as little Ki-Jana sat in his high chair. "I've been watching that little boy play," the old man said. "You keep his behind clean, feed him well, raise him right. He's going to make you proud someday."

It was a vague, empty prophecy for a frightened young mother to hear. "But I listened," says Kathy. "And at that moment, it made sense. That was the turning point for me. My son is the reason I'm still here."

Another breakfast, many mornings later. A slice of the Carter family has convened at a restaurant in State College, Pa., on the morning after the Nittany Lion win over Michigan State. Kathy, 41, sits at the head of the table, offering forkfuls of her food all around. Once a provider, always a provider. Her younger son, 14-year-old Nathan, is there, along with her uncle Jerry and Andy Krebs, Ki-Jana's longtime pal from back home. All of them have driven 5½ hours for the weekend. Bobby Engram, Penn State's All-America receiver and Ki-Jana's four-year roommate, contorts his face in distaste as Ruby Carter Burton, Ki-Jana's great aunt, regales him with tales of chitlins and sweetbreads from her youth.

Two waitresses approach timidly with a stack of newspapers bearing Ki-Jana's picture. They ask Kathy if the young man to her left is indeed number 32 in blue, and she says, "Why, it sure is." Ki-Jana affixes his signature to each of the papers and then stares down his mom with loving annoyance. "Did you ever think I might like to eat first?" he asks.

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