April coaches his very different safeties very differently. Colter needs the occasional kick start; Carrier is his own harshest critic. One absorbed too much criticism growing up; the other could have used more. As a child in Long Beach, Calif., Carrier couldn't do anything right for his father, Will. "Even if I thought I'd played the game of my life, he'd tell me what I did wrong," he says.
Carrier's mother, Marie, separated from her husband when Mark was 10 years old; soon after, Will was paralyzed below the waist in an automobile accident. Says Mark, "I didn't understand why they were getting divorced, and here was something else I didn't know how to deal with." Football and fistfights became the outlets for his anger. "If somebody rubbed me the wrong way, I'd fight," he says.
On the ball field Carrier, a safety since ninth grade, tended to injure his Pop Warner opponents. "He broke one boy's kneecap." says Marie. "Another one they took off on a stretcher because they were afraid Mark had broken his neck."
The Trojans recruited Carrier out of Long Beach Poly High. With Carrier, says April, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts: "He was not that fast, not that strong. He was not as talented as he plays." April told Carrier that he had the chance to be one of the greatest players in USC history, if only he would work harder, which was like telling Jack Nicholson to emote more. So Carrier did. After being redshirted with a fractured bone in his left foot his first season. Carrier has started every game since and has six career interceptions and 229 tackles.
These days, not even his father can find fault with Carrier. Will attends USC home games, where he cheers lustily for his son. "We're buddies now," says Mark. "Before, it was him talking to me as his little son. Now it's man to man."
Will's role in his son's upbringing faded gradually after the divorce. Cleveland Colter Sr. disappeared suddenly from his son's life. One day when Cleveland Jr. was eight, his father went to the dentist for minor surgery. While under anesthesia, he had a heart attack and died. It fell to Kathy Colter to raise her three sons, Cleveland and his two younger brothers, by herself.
Kathy moved the family from Phoenix to Tempe, Ariz., where the boys might benefit from the male influence of their grandfather. Still, there was a scarcity of discipline. Colter recalls driving around Tempe in the family car while his mother was at work, when he was 14 years old. " Cleveland likes things at an easy pace, that's for sure," says Kathy. "He'll do his workout, but he'll pick the time to do it."
Colter says that his attitude toward off-season conditioning has improved, but the coaches at USC were steamed in mid-June when Colter announced that he would go home for the rest of the summer, rather than work on his knee under their watchful eyes. Carrier took it upon himself to call Colter several times to grill his friend: What are you doing to work out? How often? For how long?
Colter says he does what is necessary. "They think I'm going to lie around doing nothing," he says. "They think I don't know what's at stake."
At stake for USC is the national championship. At stake for Colter are bushels of draft dollars. "The Cadillac will be ready," he decrees. As will the Aircraft. Should the Thorpe award come down to a battle between these two friends, PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT, as is inscribed at the base of the statue of Tommy Trojan on USC's campus. Let him who deserves it bear away the palm.