The Lion King - Sports Illustrated Vault |
Publish date:

The Lion King

Ki-Jana Carter reigns, whether he's carrying Penn State's national title hopes or carrying on with friends and family

Noise and roses, everywhere. In the full black of a Saturday night, two days past Thanksgiving, Penn State answers a communal call to Pasadena with a 59-31 season-ending home victory over Michigan State. Ninety-six thousand are in full throat inside Beaver Stadium, breath steaming from open mouths. The clock dwindles, and starters grab long-stemmed roses offered by the faithful. Quarterback Kerry Collins clenches one between his teeth like a flamenco dancer. In front of the bench Ki-Jana Carter, the junior running back who has rushed for 227 yards and five touchdowns, drops to one knee and bows his head. "Just saying thanks to God," he says later. "Just saying thanks for what he's done for me."

His story begins on a tract of red clay and scrub pines along State Road 94—paved now, dirt back then—in Ramer, Ala., 30 miles southeast of Montgomery. Nathan Carter brought Emma Jean Gamble there not long after they were married, in 1927, and Nathan tilled that unyielding patch of land as a sharecropper before he turned to pulpwood cutting, sawing and stacking logs, hard work that toughens a man overnight. Emma Jean gave birth 11 times, and one autumn Nathan moved them all north to Montgomery, where he caught on as an orderly at St. Margaret's Hospital. As the children grew up in a small apartment, Nathan threw himself into the roiling infancy of the civil rights movement. He was a friend of Dr. King himself, 89-year-old Emma Jean Carter will tell you now. During the Montgomery bus boycott, which began in December 1955, Nathan would walk to work through wooded back lots, fearing for his life on the streets. The next summer he loaded his family into a Chevy and a U-Haul truck and left the South forever.

It was the seminal voyage of the Carter family—Nathan, Emma Jean, their children, most now grown, and three small grandchildren, the children of their son Sam. On the floor of the Chevy, at Emma Jean's feet, was her three-year-old granddaughter, Kathy, the youngest of all. When the family passed through towns along the way, Emma Jean would shove Kathy down even farther, fearing what was outside. When they stopped to eat, the family would walk far from the highway and form a tight circle in the trees, hoping to escape the notice of white passersby. "My dad told us it was dangerous just to be on the highway," remembers Jerry Carter, Kathy's uncle. "He told us to keep our heads down."

Their destination was New York City, but the family ran out of money in Columbus, Ohio—where one daughter was already living—so that is where the Carters settled. All except Sam, then 28, who kept going to New York, where he made a living as a trucker, hauling produce to the five boroughs. Kathy, whose mother had been gone since she was an infant, was left with her grandparents and grew into a young woman who would be voted Black Homecoming Queen of West High in 1970. One night not long after that she met a man at a party, a handsome athlete named Kenny Turner. They lived together as man and wife for three years: "Common law," says Kathy, "but it was real. Kenny treated me like I was his wife."

Kathy became pregnant, and she and Kenny decided that if they had a boy they would name him Kenneth. But one summer night in 1973 Kathy sat in a movie theater watching Shaft in Africa, the second of two sequels to Shaft, the 1971 action film. The movie featured a little boy, and his name was Ki-Jana. "I said, 'I like that name,' " says Kathy. The next morning she called the Black Student Union at Ohio State and found that kijana means "young man" in Swahili. On Sept. 12, 1973, Kenneth Leonard Carter was born, and on his birth certificate, in parentheses, was typed "Ki-Jana."

Kathy and Kenny didn't last long together after Ki-Jana was born, and Kathy, 20 years old, was left with a baby. She was torn between youth and responsibility, between long days behind a counter at the Gold Circle department store and long nights out with friends who didn't have any children. "I got wild, out there partying all night, seeing that old sun come up," she says.

Kathy was eating breakfast in the kitchen of her grandparents' home on Whitethorn Avenue in Columbus one morning in 1974 when Nathan Carter, who would soon be dead, in 1977 at age 72, spoke to her as little Ki-Jana sat in his high chair. "I've been watching that little boy play," the old man said. "You keep his behind clean, feed him well, raise him right. He's going to make you proud someday."

It was a vague, empty prophecy for a frightened young mother to hear. "But I listened," says Kathy. "And at that moment, it made sense. That was the turning point for me. My son is the reason I'm still here."

Another breakfast, many mornings later. A slice of the Carter family has convened at a restaurant in State College, Pa., on the morning after the Nittany Lion win over Michigan State. Kathy, 41, sits at the head of the table, offering forkfuls of her food all around. Once a provider, always a provider. Her younger son, 14-year-old Nathan, is there, along with her uncle Jerry and Andy Krebs, Ki-Jana's longtime pal from back home. All of them have driven 5½ hours for the weekend. Bobby Engram, Penn State's All-America receiver and Ki-Jana's four-year roommate, contorts his face in distaste as Ruby Carter Burton, Ki-Jana's great aunt, regales him with tales of chitlins and sweetbreads from her youth.

Two waitresses approach timidly with a stack of newspapers bearing Ki-Jana's picture. They ask Kathy if the young man to her left is indeed number 32 in blue, and she says, "Why, it sure is." Ki-Jana affixes his signature to each of the papers and then stares down his mom with loving annoyance. "Did you ever think I might like to eat first?" he asks.

"You never said anything before," says Kathy. She pauses and pats him on the leg. "I'm sorry. I'll respect your privacy."

Privacy is history at this point, left in the vapor trail of Ki-Jana's autumn. This fall he rushed for 1,539 yards (the second-highest total in Penn State history, behind Lydell Mitchell's 1,567 in 1971), scored 23 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry, the highest by nearly a full yard of any Division I-A back who gained at least 1,000 yards. He was the most reliable element in Penn State's open-throttle, 48 points a game offense, which the 11-0 Nittany Lions will take into the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

Numbers, however, are cold and lifeless. Carter is animation. A compact 5'10½" and 220 pounds, with stout legs and astonishing speed, Carter demands to be watched. Says Collins, "The coaches are always telling me to carry out my fakes after handoffs. But with Ki-Jana's explosiveness, I find myself just watching him. Then I get yelled at on Monday in meetings."

An 80-yard, sudden-cutback touchdown against Indiana in Bloomington on Nov. 5 is among Carter's most memorable runs. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who had recruited him hard, watched the play on television. "You run not just with your feet but with your eyes," says Holtz. "And you can never tell about the eyes until a young man plays in college. I saw that run, and, well, you can see that Ki-Jana just has tremendous peripheral vision."

Back in State College after that game, Carter watched the same play on tape with Engram and another teammate, Mike Archie. On the long run Archie jumped from his seat. "You cut in midair," Archie shouted at Carter. "How did you do that?"

"I don't know," Carter said.

Archie, a classmate and fellow running back, laughs in wonder. "When we all came in here as freshmen," says Archie, "they nicknamed Ki-Jana 'Flash,' Stephen Pitts 'Slash' and me 'Cutback.' Ki-Jana wanted me to teach him how to move his feet. Now look at him."

Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who had never seen game tape of Carter, walked out of his office one day in the fall of 1990 and was summoned to the film room by Ron Dickerson, a Nittany Lion assistant at the time and now the Temple coach. "Joe usually leaves the recruiting decisions up to the assistants," recalls Dickerson. "This one time we told him, 'You've got to see this one.' "

It was a tape of Carter during his junior year at Westerville South High, just outside Columbus. (Carter missed all but five games of his senior year with knee and hand injuries.) "I stuck my head in the door and saw this kid take the ball and, whoosh, he just ran away." says Paterno. "I said, 'Just go get him.' "

Paterno smiles at the memory. "Ki-Jana is a fantastic athlete," he says. "He's probably the best punter we've got on the team [though he isn't risked in that endeavor]. He's fast; you could always see that. But he's gotten tougher since he got here, so now he's real hard to tackle. He came here good, and he's worked to get better, like every great one we've had."

The son and the mother grew together to the greatness Paterno speaks of, the child tapping into his physical gifts and enhancing them through effort, the parent helping him at every step. "They were like brother and sister," says Holtz. "That's what I remember."

Eight months after Kenny Turner left her, Kathy and Ki-Jana moved out of Columbus to Westerville, to an apartment complex with dozens of other little kids running loose in relative safety. She worked as a store clerk and in a bank, and in 1979, while pregnant with Nathan, she enrolled in cosmetology school. Seven years after that, with $2,000 in savings, she leased a storefront in a strip mall in Columbus and opened a hair salon. She's still there, in a shop called S.W.A. (Styling With Attitude). Paterno sat in one of her styling chairs on his recruiting visit.

Kathy has long worked 15-hour days. As a result, she missed far more of Ki-Jana's high school games than she attended. There was a time when her absence hurt him. "I used to go to parents' night at school with my coaches," says Ki-Jana. "I really wanted my mom to come to my games and things like that. She was always like, 'Baby, I can't, I've got to work.' "

Slowly, Ki-Jana came to understand and to appreciate that. "She'd go to work at nine o'clock in the morning and come home at midnight," he says. "Me and Nathan would cook her dinner—cereal, hamburgers, TV dinners, anything little kids could make. She'd flop in a chair and ask me to take off her boots and rub her feet. Then she'd fall asleep."

Others also helped Ki-Jana. The coach at Westerville South, Tony Pusateri, often brought Ki-Jana home to dinner and let him tag along on midnight weightlifting sessions in the summer. Scott Gordon, the coach at a neighboring high school and Ki-Jana's Big Brother from the time Ki-Jana was 12, took him out for pizza and burgers. Both men were drawn to his smile, to his energy, to whatever it was that his great-grandfather once saw sitting in the high chair. Now, as then, the person Ki-Jana cares most about is his mother. "I ask the Lord all the time, 'Just let me repay her,' " says Ki-Jana, who has gone to church with his mother for as long as he can remember. "She gave up her life for her kids."

Later in the day after the Michigan State game, Carter is lounging in a battered recliner in the campus apartment he shares with Engram, backup quarterback Wally Richardson and wideout Eric Gallman. Carter must soon make a major decision: whether to leave the cocoon of college for the money of the NFL or stay for his senior season. He has a 2.7 GPA in business marketing and is 20 credits shy of his degree. Few of Carter's friends expect him back at Penn State next fall. "I think he'll go [to the NFL], and he should go," says Engram. "He'd be crazy not to."

This is not Carter's first tough decision. Four years ago all of Columbus seemed to be imploring him to stay at home and play for Ohio State. "If he'd stayed in the Columbus area, he could have done the same types of things that [Columbus native and Buckeye star] Archie Griffin did," says Bowling Green coach Gary Blackney, who was an assistant at Ohio State and recruited Carter for the Buckeyes.

When Carter visited Notre Dame as a high school senior, he was so taken with the place that he wanted to commit on the spot—but he waited. "He has good instincts," Paterno says.

Like his mother, who is good cheer on the outside and courage underneath, Ki-Jana is always smiling but always thinking. "A lot of people pat you on the back for staying in school," he says. "But they don't give you $2 million. I'm sure people want me to stay for their reasons. If the money's right, if I'm going to be picked real high, I don't think I should pass that up."

Some members of his huge family he'd never met or heard of...until very recently. And he's prepared for that, too. "I know who stuck with me when I was nobody," he says. It's a short list.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is cold and forbidding in State College, with steel-gray clouds promising snow. Kathy snaps a picture of her son outside his apartment. Ki-Jana holds a rose in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, celebrating one season and two lives. They embrace and kiss each other, and Kathy heads west into the weather, back to Columbus. Their future beckons, a reward for odds beaten.

And the old pulpwood cutter, he would have been proud of them both.




Chez Ki-Jana has more roomies than room (clockwise from top): Richardson, Gallman, Carter and Engram.



Carter can change direction in midstep, which he did frequently as he piled up 1,539 yards rushing.



Hope springs eternal, but Carter may shortly go pro.



Holtz remembers Ki-Jana and his mother this way: "They were like brother and sister."