Cris Carter was only eight when friends got a glimpse of his competitive fire. Playing in his first football game, in a peewee league in Middletown, Ohio, he got mad when teammates halfheartedly tried to tackle an oversized opponent. Cris started in on his teammates, ready to fight anybody who wasn't willing to play as hard as he could. The afternoon ended with Cris's older brother Butch dragging him off the field, lecturing Cris that this wasn't the way team sports were played.
But Cris couldn't help himself. He was born with talent and a mean streak, and to this day few would say that the Minnesota Vikings' seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver has lost any of his passion for the game. As Butch, former coach of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, says, "When Cris competes, he's going to hurt you."
Even though he turns 35 in November, Carter in many ways remains the kid who demands so much of himself—and expects the same kind of effort from those around him. After 13 seasons in the pros he is still one of the NFL's best receivers, a player with great hands who has made a living running routes across the middle. In the 1990s, Carter's 835 receptions and 95 touchdown catches ranked second only to the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice, and since '94 nobody has caught as many passes (597) and touchdowns (72) as Carter has. Says Baltimore Ravens coach and former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick, "On Sundays, I'll take Cris over any player at any position."
Last season, after Minnesota stumbled to a 2-4 start and Jeff George replaced Randall Cunningham at quarterback, George and Carter hooked up 44 times for 621 yards and nine touchdowns—including nine catches for 141 yards and three TDs against the Bears on Nov. 14—during a five-game winning streak that put the Vikings back on track. He finished the year with 90 catches for 1,241 yards and 13 scores; Minnesota went 10-6 but lost in the divisional playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl-champion St. Louis Rams.
Now, however, Carter is at a crossroads. The core of a Minnesota team that went 15-1 in 1998 and came within one victory of reaching the Super Bowl is undergoing a major renovation before his eyes. Personnel decisions the Vikings made in the off-season have Carter facing the strong possibility that his career may end without a championship. "We're going through the same things every other [playoff] team goes through," says Carter. "It's just that in places like San Francisco, Dallas and Green Bay, they've won Super Bowls before the team gets torn apart."
Carter wanted the Vikings to re-sign George, a free agent and the league's third-rated passer last season, but coach and vice president of football operations Dennis Green wouldn't offer the passer a multi-year contract because second-year man Daunte Culpepper is waiting in the wings. After George signed with the Washington Redskins and Green couldn't persuade Dan Marino to delay his retirement and play one season in Minnesota, the starting job fell to Culpepper, who has yet to throw a pass in the NFL. The 11th pick in the '99 draft, Culpepper will be the club's fifth quarterback in as many seasons.
What's more, the Vikings shed a couple of high salaries by releasing 11-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel and by not even trying to re-sign free agent Jeff Christy, the NFC's Pro Bowl starting center the past two seasons. Both were scooped up by the Vikings' NFC Central rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the division last year. While Carter hopes Minnesota can still contend for a championship, he also looks at the situation realistically.
"We're relying on some younger guys who haven't been playing," Carter says of Culpepper, left guard Corbin Lacina and center Matt Birk. "I've seen Randall McDaniel not be able to walk during the week and then go out and play. I've seen Jeff Christy do that. You know how certain guys will respond. There are certain situations with Daunte that I don't know what he'll do. You can hope and wish, but I've seen some of the craziest things happen when those lights go on."
Carter keeps himself in tremendous shape, but he knows the clock is ticking. Fellow wideout Randy Moss, who burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1998, figures to play an increasingly prominent role in the offense, and even though Carter has played in 112 straight games, he was hobbled by a sprained right ankle late last season and underwent arthroscopic surgery last month to remove bone spurs in that ankle. "I'm looking to play at a level at which I know I'm doing all I can," says Carter, who is signed through 2002. "If I can do that this year, regardless of circumstances—who's at quarterback, who's blocking, the schedule—I'll retire, even if I don't have a championship."
Carter realizes his best chance to reach the Super Bowl might have eluded him when the Vikings were stunned by the Atlanta Falcons in overtime in the 1998 NFC Championship Game. As he wept at his locker, several people tried to console him. When they told him that the team would be back, Carter thought, You don't understand. We may never be back here. Still, there's a lot of fight left in him.