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BACK IN HAND
Michael Silver
February 10, 1997
Larry Centers returned to the Pro Bowl, site of a scary episode last year, with his life in order and ready to test the free-agent waters
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February 10, 1997

Back In Hand

Larry Centers returned to the Pro Bowl, site of a scary episode last year, with his life in order and ready to test the free-agent waters

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He had been wowing his partners all afternoon, and now Larry Centers, with the Pacific Ocean at his back and a pond in front of him, was about to make a golf ball walk on water. Standing in the 18th fairway of the Ko Olina Golf Club on the western shore of Oahu last Friday, Centers, a Pro Bowl running back competing in a celebrity golf tournament held in conjunction with the game, hit a low slice into the water hazard. The scramble format minimizes the consequences of such blunders, but pride was at stake, and Centers grimaced. Then suddenly he was smiling like a kid with a Tickle Me Elmo doll. After disappearing below the surface of the pond for an instant, the ball popped back out, skipped across the water and rolled up an embankment toward the green. "It's a miracle," yelled Jack Reader, the NFL's supervisor of officials and one of Centers's five teammates. "I don't know what it is," Centers responded, "but I'll take it."

If Centers doesn't toss around words like miracle indiscriminately, he has his reasons. One year ago, in a hotel room a few hundred yards from the 18th fairway at Ko Olina, he underwent a startling transformation that changed his life for the better. With the help of three fellow Pro Bowl players who are devout Christians—Minnesota Vikings wideout Cris Carter, Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White and cornerback Aeneas Williams, one of Centers's teammates for the past six seasons with the Arizona Cardinals—Centers emerged from a sleepless stretch during which he exhibited irrational behavior and was feared to be suicidal. After that scary, three-day period, Centers slept soundly through the night, awoke refreshed and pronounced himself a saved soul.

Was it an act of God, as Carter, White and Williams believe? Had Centers survived a temporary demonic possession, as did Linda Blair in The Exorcist, as some witnesses speculated? Had he overcome some sort of psychological episode? There are no concrete answers, for no one is exactly sure what took place in Centers's head during that surreal period—least of all Centers, who remembers only bits and pieces. All he and those who helped him can be sure of is that he's much better off in 1997 than he was a year ago, and not just because he is a free-agent-in-waiting who is expected to command a multiyear contract for more than $2 million per season.

"I don't know if words can describe the difference, as far as his state of mind," Carter said last Thursday, three days before Centers carried nine times for 38 yards and caught one pass for 12 yards in the NFC's 26-23 overtime loss to the AFC at Aloha Stadium. Carter was sitting in the lobby of the Ihilani Resort & Spa, the hotel in which most of Centers's three-day siege took place. "I'm an ordained minister," Carter continued, "and we see a lot of people who are 'crazy,' who have lost their mind—but I'd never seen anything like that. What it showed me is that it's amazing how thin the human psyche is. It showed me that life is so precious and sanity is so precious, we can't take anything for granted."

Centers, 28, has never been one to take things for granted. While growing up with three brothers in Tatum, Texas, a one-stoplight town in the northeast corner of the state, Centers dreamed of a career in professional football but was repeatedly told by naysayers he was too short, too slow, too ordinary to pull it off. To placate his mother, Margie, he eschewed football until his senior year of high school. He began his collegiate career at Division I-AA Stephen F. Austin State in nearby Nacogdoches as a wide receiver but was switched to running back after breaking his left pinkie during his freshman year. After running for a school-record 1,440 yards as a senior, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Cardinals in 1990. The 5'10", 203-pound Centers made the team as a kick returner. He developed into a productive pass catcher, first as a third-down back and H-back and then, by '94, as an undersized starting fullback. In '95 he had his breakthrough season, catching 101 passes—an NFL record for a running back—and earning his first Pro Bowl berth.

Everything seemed so peachy, and Centers appeared to be enjoying his role as toast of the town. Super Bowl XXX was held on his home turf, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, and the week preceding the game was a blur. "I was going to parties and autograph sessions and running around like crazy," Centers recalls. "I had friends in town, and everything was hectic. I slept about two hours a night."

His lifestyle masked the misery festering inside him. Centers is a perfectionist who takes defeat hard, and the Cardinals had lost twice as many games as they had won since he entered the NFL. After a loss Centers would typically go home, pull the blinds, unplug the phone and sit alone in the darkness for hours. He would wrack his brain for solutions, but the answer was always the same. "I'd tell my wife, 'I know what we need: I have to play better,' " he says. "Then I'd show up early at the facility to watch film. I was trying to carry the load by myself."

When Larry began having problems at home, the load became too heavy to bear. He and his wife, Vanessa, who have two children, son Larry Jr. (now five) and daughter Sydni (who turns two later this month), found their marriage plagued by discord. "It was a buildup of a lot of things," says Larry. "Basically, I didn't like the person I was becoming. I was allowing the things going on on the outside—with the team and at home—to seep into the quality of person that I am."

By the time the Centerses boarded a flight for Honolulu the Monday after Super Bowl XXX, the pressure had overwhelmed Larry. On the plane he began behaving erratically, which prompted Williams, who teaches Bible classes to Arizona players, to pull out a book of scriptures he uses for counseling. "I gave the book to Larry, and he just kept on reading it and wouldn't let it go," Williams says. By the time the plane landed, Centers was blurting out, "Jesus is God" and other religious proclamations. Shortly after he arrived at the airport, word spread among players that Centers might be hospitalized for a psychological evaluation.

The Centerses checked into their room at the Ihilani, a resort on a cove about 30 miles northwest of Waikiki. It's a wonderful place to stay—unless you are someone who is unstable and has a room several floors up with a balcony. After witnessing his teammate's behavior, Williams felt Centers needed as much companionship as possible. He enlisted Carter's help, and Carter turned to White, another ordained minister, who had baptized Carter in White's Jacuzzi eight years earlier. Taking shifts, the trio made sure at least one of them was with Centers at all times. When Vanessa wasn't trying to comfort Larry, she was receiving moral support from the other players' wives—Melanie Carter, Sara White and Tracy Williams.

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