Shortly before midnight on Monday, the three players decided to baptize Centers in the Pacific. They walked him past the poolside bar, where a handful of other Pro Bowl players were sharing drinks and laughs. "They looked at us like they couldn't believe what was going on," Carter says. Wearing shorts and T-shirts, the foursome waded into the ocean, and Centers was baptized in a five-minute ceremony. It remains one of the few things Centers remembers from his ordeal, possibly because the experience was chilling. Recalls Williams, "It was so cold in there that my teeth were chattering. I remember saying, 'We baptize you in the name of J-J-J-Jesus.' Looking back, it was pretty funny."
But Centers remained on edge for the next two days. When Philadelphia Eagles running back Ricky Watters got up for a drink during an offensive players' meeting on Tuesday morning, Centers screamed, "Sit down, motherf——-." Normally one of the league's more volatile personalities, Watters sat down without responding. Centers later referred to recently fired Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan as "the devil." During the team photo session, he stood with his back to the camera and refused to turn around. The photo was taken with him facing the wrong direction.
Mike Holmgren of the Packers, the coach of the NFC team, was inclined to send Centers home. But White recalls pleading with Holmgren: "We're dealing with a serious situation. Can you give us some time?" Holmgren granted White's request, and Centers remained in Hawaii, though he didn't play in the game.
In addition to reading Bible verses, Carter, White and Williams encouraged Centers to talk to them about his problems and assured him they would stand by him. They spoke of God's unconditional love, and Vanessa also expressed her love for her husband.
On Wednesday night an exhausted Centers finally slept. "The next morning when he woke up, he was a different person," says White, a 6'5", 300-pounder who had curled up in the Centerses' room on a love seat about half his size. When he asked Larry what had happened, White remembers him replying, "It was like I was dreaming."
The experience was some wake-up call, and it helped Centers attain the perspective and inner peace he had lacked. He had another outstanding season in 1996, catching 99 passes and earning recognition as Arizona's MVP for the second consecutive year. And even though the Cardinals went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the 14th straight season, Centers learned to cope with defeat. "I realized it wasn't my show—I'm just a player in the game," he says. "I'm so much more laid-back now. I'm taking time to smell the roses, baby."
A change of scenery is likely for Centers, who with a $800,000 salary in 1996 was a bargain for the Cardinals. Frustrated by the lack of a substantial offer from Arizona, Centers and his agent, Jeff Irwin, plan to shop around when the free-agency period begins on Feb. 14. Centers says his priority is to play for a winner, but he admits he'd like to get a bit more recognition, the kind he receives from his peers. "Larry makes a statement on film," says Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Keenan McCardell. "He's always playing balls-to-the-wall."
Another Pro Bowl performer, Dallas Cowboys strong safety Darren Woodson, still marvels at the move Centers put on then Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown during the 1995 regular-season finale. When Brown dipped his shoulder to attempt an open-field tackle, Centers jumped over him—about six feet in the air—and continued on for a 29-yard gain. "It's rare that a player does something that amazes himself," Centers says, "but when I saw the highlight I thought, Wow, is that me?" Says Woodson, "He's the hardest player for me to play against, because he's just so competitive and he comes at you every play."
Centers continues to fight for perspective on life, a battle he acknowledges he has not yet won. He says he never felt the need to consult a psychologist or a mental-health counselor regarding the episode. He adds he hasn't felt overly stressed since the experience, but if he ever does, he knows he has a support group in Carter, White and Williams. Centers is uncomfortable comparing his faith with theirs or quoting Bible verses, saying, "I'm not as strong in my religion as some guys. I want to find balance in my spirituality. I don't know if you would call me religious, but I do love God."
His family life gives Centers his greatest joy. "It's better, but it's still not perfect," he says. "I'm just trying to live the right way. I'm happier and wiser, and I've learned a lot of lessons in life. I feel good about the way things are going."