Upon hearing the news, Ki-Jana Carter experienced a frightening biological episode. "Suddenly," he says, "I had no heart. There was no pulse, no beat, no nothing."
He had just learned he had ripped up his left knee in the worst way possible and that—best case—he was out for the 1995 season. He hadn't played a down in the NFL, not in a real game, and his rookie year—best case—was over. He had torn an anterior cruciate ligament, in a preseason game. His circulation stopped, his electrical circuits shut down: He was, as of that moment, plunged into the cryogenic freeze of rehabilitation, one of the NFL's sleeping-dead men. Best case.
Not even a year has passed since then, and Carter is much more than just up and around, warm to the touch, pretty good pulse. And as he makes razor-sharp cuts out of the Cincinnati Bengals' backfield in a mid-June minicamp, it seems that an entire franchise's health, not just Carter's, has been restored. He wears no bulky brace, has no swelling, asks for no aspirin. Everybody, from team president Mike Brown to trainer Paul Sparling, has bought into this remarkable recovery. That's risky, considering Carter has yet to participate in a full-contact drill. But the rehab has been so successful—and Bengals prospects so grim otherwise—that it's impossible to be anything but optimistic. "The knee thing," Carter said after a minicamp session last week, carefully dipping his french fries into a chocolate shake, "is history."
That news is highly agreeable to Cincinnatians, whose team has floundered without a winning season in five years. Carter, who gained 1,539 yards during Penn State's perfect season two years ago, was heralded as a savior when the Bengals traded up to make him the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NFL draft, not just because of his talent at hitting holes but also because Cincinnati, in the last several years, had become increasingly one-dimensional. With Ickey Woods selling meat door-to-door and Harold Green's numbers in serious decline, the Bengals had become a predictable passing team. Carter, who averaged seven yards a carry in college, his squat form amazingly mobile as he flew around end, would correct the growing imbalance. "We see him as our bell cow," Brown said upon drafting Carter, and he opened the vault to give him a seven-year, $19.2 million contract.
The high hopes engendered by the signing collapsed when, the day following an exhibition game in Detroit last Aug. 17 in which Carter seemed to have only twisted his knee, Sparling entered a screening room at the Bengals' practice facility to give Brown and coach Dave Shula and his staff the diagnosis. "I heard a few gasps, some things may have dropped to the floor, and Dave just dropped his head," says Sparling. "But Mike was very stoic. He was silent for a minute, and then he said, 'Well, we were counting on him in a big way. Let's get him ready for next year.' "
The Bengals had been known as a tightwad outfit, a kind of mom-and-pop operation run out of the Brown family's hip pocket. Whether that had actually been the case in recent years was arguable. But with Carter's full and speedy recovery on the line, Cincinnati pulled out all the stops. Historically, athletes have needed two seasons to recover from such knee injuries, the second year being a kind of orthopedic wake-up call. With Cartel's consider contract, however, the meter in his case was running at a high rate. "We, uh, had made a little investment there," says Brown. Suddenly there was a new assistant trainer whose duties principally involved Carter's rehab. The trainer's room became crowded with all sorts of exotic equipment. There was a $50,000 Orthotron, a medieval-looking contraption that, given how few other Bengals used it, might just as well have been called the Ki-Janatron. There were new bikes, steppers, minitrampolines. It was as if Brown had gone nuts watching the Home Shopping Channel.
Carter, meanwhile, was doing his part. Just five weeks after reconstructive surgery he was jogging. There was no economic imperative for him: He had pocketed a $7,125 million signing bonus and was guaranteed salaries of $726,000 and $150,000 in his first two seasons, whether he played a down or not. But he felt a sense of duty to the Bengals. "I know it sounds dumb," he says, "but one of the first things I did after the injury was apologize to Mike Brown. I felt bad." Not because of Cincinnati's investment in him, but because of its hopes for a decent season. "He was embarrassed," says Shula, as if in disbelief. "Here's a kid who was handed a $7 million check, never had to play football again. I don't think he spent $7 million, and here he is. It could be a neat story."
Aside from that, there was Carter's pleasure in the game: "Oh, I'd be ticked if I couldn't play football." And there was the motivation provided by all the conventional thinking, the notion that Carter would come back a step slower. Besides, he was trying to return a year too soon. "Two seasons to get it back?" Carter says. "Don't tell me that. I don't go for that wishy-washy stuff: 'Oh, there's always next year.' I'm going in with the idea of being in the Pro Bowl."
So every day in the off-season, Carter visited the Cincinnati practice facility to work on the machinery or do some drill one of the trainers invented. It must have been an odd sight to peek into the locker room and see him running obstacle courses, weaving between traffic cones, doing figure eights around structural columns.
The Bengals believe they see a payoff. "Watching him run, I can't find any evidence of an injury," says Shula. Sparling says nobody should kid himself; injuries of this kind are always career-altering. On the other hand, he says, "What if he only comes back 90 percent? He's still special."