With four of the five NFC Central teams in a weekly dogfight for first place, there were plenty of clutch performers who week after week provided drama to the 1994 season. Quarterback Warren Moon pulled the Vikings out of several tight jams. And Lion running back Barry Sanders, on an unspoken mission to separate himself from Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas, cruised toward that magical 2,000-yard mark, which has been broken only two times before in the NFL.
Still, no player meant as much to his team as Minnesota's Cris Carter, who gets our nod as the division's best story in '94. On Sunday he broke Sterling Sharpe's year-old NFL record for most catches in a season with eight grabs to give him 119 for the year.
But more than that, Carter came up with big catches week after week. When the Bears visited the Metrodome on Dec. 1, riding a four-game winning streak and poised to climb over the Vikings and into the driver's seat for the division title, Carter made two spectacular touchdown catches. With 4:12 remaining and the Bears ahead, Carter soared high in the end zone in double coverage and snared a bullet from Moon with his fingertips. Then, 5:46 into overtime, Carter faked out Bear linebacker Joe Cain, hauled in another Moon pass and raced 65 yards down the sideline for a score, giving the Vikings a 33-27 win. With the victory, the Vikings snapped a three-game losing streak and swept the Bears for the season. If the two teams finish the regular season tied for first, the Vikings will win the division on the basis of that sweep.
It's hard to pinpoint what makes the 6'3", 202-pound Carter special. He doesn't have blazing speed. He has great hands and an above-average vertical leap, but so do most Pro Bowl receivers. According to Viking offensive coordinator Brian Billick, Carter's ability to catch the ball in traffic makes him unique. "Not many can make the full-speed cuts Cris can in such small space," Billick says. "He has tremendous body control."
Although he was a 1983 Parade All-America as a split end at Middletown ( Ohio) High School, Carter also was the star of the basketball team, scoring 1,600 points in his high school career. He was an All-America receiver at Ohio State, but before signing to play football with the Buckeyes, Carter had longed for a basketball scholarship to Indiana, where his older brother Butch had played.
Cris grew up tagging along everywhere that Butch, his father figure and mentor, went. While Butch was at Indiana, Cris would sit in on Bobby Knight's practices and shoot hoops with Isiah Thomas. Later, when Butch played for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA, Cris got to know Magic Johnson and watched Larry Bird score 53 points one night at the Boston Garden.
"After that game, I asked Cris what he'd learned, and he said, 'Bird got 40 of those points with his left hand,' " recalls Butch, who also played for the Pacers and the Knicks in his six-year NBA career and is now a coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. By being around Butch, Cris learned the finer points of being a pro athlete: the importance of analyzing the game, keeping notebooks of practices, poring over films and being in top condition. He also learned never to be awestruck by the players he was rubbing elbows with.
Says Cris, "Butch was tough on me. He always pushed me, and he never told me that I was good. Now, I meet people who say, 'Your brother used to tell me how great you were going to be.' Butch always believed in me. He made me better."