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ESPN The Magazine: Dream On
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David Carr does not drive an SUV or a convertible. No tinted windows or spoiler or spit-shine rims. No thumpin’ sound system. Carr drives a beat-up Ford pickup, old and creaky and the color of a worn penny. Carr calls his ride the Beast. It doesn’t even have AC. “It’s uglier than heck,” says David’s mother, Sheryl, “but it gets him where he needs to go.”

Four days before the letdown of his life, David Carr drives that pickup home from practice, meets his wife, Melody, at the door to his two-bedroom second-floor condo, and kisses his 18-month-old son, Austin, hello. “Whether we win or lose,” he says, wrapping his huge hands underneath his son’s arms and gnawing playfully on his shoulder, “he gives me that same smile.”

Spaghetti and cauliflowers wait on the table, and David wolfs it down as Melody cuts up food and feeds it to Austin. Then she whisks the baby away to another room. “Diaper change,” Carr says, grinning. He puts his plate aside and settles on the couch for Monday Night Football.

The Redskins and the Cowboys play a full quarter without a score, but David still enjoys the yawner. Dallas quarterback Anthony Wright scurries to his left and flings an option pitch for no gain. “That’s the worst play in NFL history!” Carr shouts at the TV. Cameras spot a sign in the crowd with an ABC acronym: “Aikman, Banks, Carter. Hey, Dan Fouts, will you be our quarterback?” Carr laughs. He knows there’s a strong chance Dallas or Washington could ask him to be its quarterback next year. “Am I ready for the NFL?” he asks, eyes wide. “I’m not even ready for Boise State!”

Carr didn’t know how right he was. He’d spent his entire life following his dream -- to become the quarterback of his beloved Fresno State, lead the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and win a New Year’s Day bowl. And as he sat in his living room, with his son wobbling around with a mini-football, he was living his dream. Fresno State was 6-0, Carr was a leading Heisman candidate and the schedule’s rockiest stretch was over. All that was left were some WAC also-rans and Utah State to wallop. Just a matter of time. No way could Carr foresee that with one play -- a last-minute fourth-down sack -- his Bulldogs would lose and his dream would die. Nobody -- least of all David Carr -- was ready for that.

***

From the time he could tie his own cleats, Carr knew where he’d go to college. When Carr was 6, his dad, Rodger, put a microphone under his nose and asked, “So, where you gonna play football?” And David said, “I’m gonna play at Fresno State.” Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, Carr would hang around Fresno State practices, waiting to get Trent Dilfer’s autograph before rushing home to emulate his idol in the backyard. Soon, Rodger was sneaking David into Bulldog Stadium late at night to throw fantasy touchdowns. Rodger ran the routes and David threw until he couldn’t lift his arm anymore. One day, he told his dad, those imaginary comeback victories would be real. He just knew.

Carr grew into a prolific prep passer at Stockdale (Calif.) High, and got offers from the likes of UCLA and Washington. But the kid had already made up his mind by the time Pat Hill showed up on the Carr doorstep with David’s dream in his hand. The new Fresno State coach had just finished up five years as the offensive line coach for the Baltimore Ravens. The Bulldogs were coming off three straight losing seasons, with no scholarship receivers and an undersized offensive line, but Hill still barked about rebuilding the program with Carr as the cornerstone. Hill got more and more animated, but David just quietly nodded. The coach even told his prized recruit he would play right away.

Finally Hill got up to leave. “You’re going to take us into the national spotlight,” he declared as he stood in the doorway. National spotlight? The Bulldogs had never had so much as a flashlight shined on them, even in the good years. But Carr nodded. He was a believer, a committed Bulldog without ever taking a recruiting visit. He just knew.

Carr told his dad before he left for school that he would work to start all four years. He spent the summer waking at 5:30 and throwing with Dad in the yard, just like old times. But when fall came, Hill’s promises faded and Carr wound up holding a clipboard and mopping up for soph Billy Volek (now with the Titans). The next year, Hill gave Carr spot duty in seven games. “Our hearts broke for David each week,” Melody says. Carr briefly thought of transferring, but instead cut out burgers and Coke in favor of tuna and Gatorade. “I always knew Coach Hill had a plan,” he says.

Hill decided to redshirt Carr the following year, to give him another year as a starter. More waiting. He spent his redshirt season up in the booth with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, learning the playbook by heart. The 6'3", 225-pounder ratcheted up his bench press to a lineman-like 405. He even tried to arrange a summer workout schedule with his receivers -- in November. “I was always looking to the future,” he says. Carr had molded himself a pro player’s mind and built himself a pro player’s body before he’d ever started a college game.

All that preparation did little good when FSU opened at Ohio State, with Carr starting in front of 96,563 fans. Carr got leveled -- and popped back up -- 34 times in a 43-10 whipping. “That’s when we knew,” says kicker Asen Asparuhov, “this guy’s tough.” Carr led FSU to seven wins after that debacle and to the Silicon Valley Bowl, in which he threw for 391 yards in a 37-34 loss to Air Force. Even Melody had noticed a change in her husband. The Ohio State game was the last time she saw him nervous. “He’s different this year,” she says.

***

David Carr had met Melody Tipton three years earlier, at a high school church retreat. All the other girls flocked to the local celebrity, but Melody paid David no mind. “She just sort of stood there in the back of the room,” Carr remembers, smiling. But he felt that same certainty again. “My dad thought I was crazy,” he says, “but I knew.”

So while all his new teammates at Fresno stayed out until dawn, Carr racked up an $800 phone bill in one month. When his mom disconnected his line, David called collect, to the tune of $600 in month two. Hill even tried to intervene. “David,” he told his quarterback, “there will be lots of other girls like this one.” But Carr wasn’t interested in other offers. Two games into his sophomore season, at age 19, Carr went to Melody’s parent’s house after church on Sunday morning and asked her to marry him.

So after two years as a backup, another in the coaches’ booth, a second-team all-WAC season as a starter, one wedding and one childbirth, Carr was finally ready for his dream season. Before the 2001 opener at Colorado, he sat at his locker, breathed deeply and prayed. Ludwig shuffled over. “Be patient,” the offensive coordinator instructed. “They won’t give you the deep ball. Take the underneath.” Carr nodded. Ludwig left and Hill tramped over for a word with his first recruit. “David, be patient,” Hill said. “Take the underneath.” Carr, impatient only with his coaches, sniffed and said, “Hey, I saw the same tape you did.” Carr took the short stuff, passing for just 198 yards (his season low) as the Bulldogs won 24-22.

Carr then calmly led his team to six straight wins, averaging 300 passing yards and tossing 14 TDs. He landed on front pages, on national TV and in every Heisman discussion. But he still returned home every night to hug Melody and change Austin’s diaper. Rather than carousing on campus with teammates, Carr invited them over to play video games. “He’s always so calm,” says center Rodney Michael. “I always have game-day butterflies, but if he does, you can never tell.”

During Fresno’s hot start, Carr kept cool in the huddle. He cracked jokes about a hated blocking drill when things got tense against Louisiana Tech. When his receivers got cocky against Tulsa, he was quick to warn: “One loss and it all goes down the drain!” And when Colorado State scored to go up three with 27 seconds left in Fort Collins, Carr leaned into the huddle and said, “Champions never quit.” He fired three straight completions, watched a tying field goal sail through and barged into the defensive huddle to tell teammates with premature tears of defeat still drying on their cheeks to “make something happen.” When the game-winner split the uprights in OT, Carr didn’t even watch. He knew.

But the next week, Boise State conjured up three unanswered second-half touchdowns. Down 35-30 and facing fourth down from the Boise State 5, the Bulldogs ran out of magic. Carr, who’d already passed for 345 yards, dropped back but the pocket collapsed immediately. He felt arms around him and then the ground underneath him. He thought, “It’s over. Our undefeated season is over.”

That Sunday, Carr responded in the only way he knew -- by bearing down. He spent extra time in the gym and met privately with teammates “to see if the hunger was back.” He spoke hopefully about the future. “We can still go 12-1,” he said quietly. “We can still go to a major bowl.” But that next Friday night at Hawaii, Fresno State forfeited an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, losing 38-34. The dream season had become a nightmare.

But in chasing his dream, Carr has made himself the best senior quarterback in the country. Asked why he traveled all the way to Colorado State, Daniel Snyder, the Washington Redskins owner, said, “I’m just here to watch the game.” But he hardly paid attention unless Fresno State was on offense. Next to him in the press box was Chris Palmer, the new offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, who own the top pick in next April’s draft. Palmer, who as Browns coach took Tim Couch as the first pick in the 1999 draft, has seen Carr play twice this season, and was so impressed he visited Fresno and met the wife and kid.

“He has all the measurables,” Palmer says. “He took the team and put it on his back. He’s their cornerstone. He reminds me of Brett Favre. He’s a very mature young man who worked very hard to be a part of something special. He’s a first-rounder. The question is how high.” Do the two losses hurt Carr’s prospects? Hardly. He passed for 745 yards and seven TDs in defeat. Among the first folks to call after the dream died? Rams coach Mike Martz.

Someone else was there to offer his support in Carr’s darkest hour. Waiting outside Bulldog Stadium after the Boise State game, a man and his wife greeted David’s parents with hugs and handshakes, and told them their son had played a fantastic game. The man grabbed Sheryl Carr’s hand and let her hold a heavy gold ring inscribed “2000 Super Bowl Champions.” His name was Trent Dilfer.

Trent, his wife Cassandra, Rodger, Sheryl, David, Melody and the Beast all made it over to the Piccadilly Inn for dinner. In an empty banquet room, Trent raised a glass to David and the great run for the Bulldogs. The group gabbed about golf and Fresno and family until after midnight, when the conversation finally returned to football. Pro football. “I can’t wait to get you up there and show you the ropes,” Dilfer said, smiling at Carr. “You’ve got a big career ahead of you.”

David nodded. He still knows how to dream.

This article appears in the November 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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