Upon hearing the news, Ki-Jana Carter experienced a frightening
biological episode. "Suddenly," he says, "I had no heart. There
was no pulse, no beat, no nothing."
He had just learned he had ripped up his left knee in the worst
way possible and that--best case--he was out for the 1995
season. He hadn't played a down in the NFL, not in a real game,
and his rookie year--best case--was over. He had torn an
anterior cruciate ligament, in a preseason game. His circulation
stopped, his electrical circuits shut down: He was, as of that
moment, plunged into the cryogenic freeze of rehabilitation, one
of the NFL's sleeping-dead men. Best case.
Not even a year has passed since then, and Carter is much more
than just up and around, warm to the touch, pretty good pulse.
And as he makes razor-sharp cuts out of the Cincinnati Bengals'
backfield in a mid-June minicamp, it seems that an entire
franchise's health, not just Carter's, has been restored. He
wears no bulky brace, has no swelling, asks for no aspirin.
Everybody, from team president Mike Brown to trainer Paul
Sparling, has bought into this remarkable recovery. That's
risky, considering Carter has yet to participate in a
full-contact drill. But the rehab has been so successful--and
Bengals prospects so grim otherwise--that it's impossible to be
anything but optimistic. "The knee thing," Carter said after a
minicamp session last week, carefully dipping his french fries
into a chocolate shake, "is history."
That news is highly agreeable to Cincinnatians, whose team has
floundered without a winning season in five years. Carter, who
gained 1,539 yards during Penn State's perfect season two years
ago, was heralded as a savior when the Bengals traded up to make
him the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NFL draft, not just because of
his talent at hitting holes but also because Cincinnati, in the
last several years, had become increasingly one-dimensional.
With Ickey Woods selling meat door-to-door and Harold Green's
numbers in serious decline, the Bengals had become a predictable
passing team. Carter, who averaged seven yards a carry in
college, his squat form amazingly mobile as he flew around end,
would correct the growing imbalance. "We see him as our bell
cow," Brown said upon drafting Carter, and he opened the vault
to give him a seven-year, $19.2 million contract.
The high hopes engendered by the signing collapsed when, the day
following an exhibition game in Detroit last Aug. 17 in which
Carter seemed to have only twisted his knee, Sparling entered a
screening room at the Bengals' practice facility to give Brown
and coach Dave Shula and his staff the diagnosis. "I heard a few
gasps, some things may have dropped to the floor, and Dave just
dropped his head," says Sparling. "But Mike was very stoic. He
was silent for a minute, and then he said, 'Well, we were
counting on him in a big way. Let's get him ready for next year.'"
The Bengals had been known as a tight-wad outfit, a kind of
mom-and-pop operation run out of the Brown family's hip pocket.
Whether that had actually been the case in recent years was
arguable. But with Carter's full and speedy recovery on the
line, Cincinnati pulled out all the stops. Historically,
athletes have needed two seasons to recover from such knee
injuries, the second year being a kind of orthopedic wake-up
call. With Carter's considerable contract, however, the meter in
his case was running at a high rate. "We, uh, had made a little
investment there," says Brown. Suddenly there was a new
assistant trainer whose duties principally involved Carter's
rehab. The trainer's room became crowded with all sorts of
exotic equipment. There was a $50,000 Orthotron, a
medieval-looking contraption that, given how few other Bengals
used it, might just as well have been called the Ki-Janatron.
There were new bikes, steppers, minitrampolines. It was as if
Brown had gone nuts watching the Home Shopping Channel.
Carter, meanwhile, was doing his part. Just five weeks after
reconstructive surgery he was jogging. There was no economic
imperative for him: He had pocketed a $7.125 million signing
bonus and was guaranteed salaries of $726,000 and $150,000 in
his first two seasons, whether he played a down or not. But he
felt a sense of duty to the Bengals. "I know it sounds dumb," he
says, "but one of the first things I did after the injury was
apologize to Mike Brown. I felt bad." Not because of
Cincinnati's investment in him, but because of its hopes for a
decent season. "He was embarrassed," says Shula, as if in
disbelief. "Here's a kid who was handed a $7 million check,
never had to play football again. I don't think he spent $7
million, and here he is. It could be a neat story."
Aside from that, there was Carter's pleasure in the game: "Oh,
I'd be ticked if I couldn't play football." And there was the
motivation provided by all the conventional thinking, the notion
that Carter would come back a step slower. Besides, he was
trying to return a year too soon. "Two seasons to get it back?"
Carter says. "Don't tell me that. I don't go for that
wishy-washy stuff: 'Oh, there's always next year.' I'm going in
with the idea of being in the Pro Bowl."
So every day in the off-season, Carter visited the Cincinnati
practice facility to work on the machinery or do some drill one
of the trainers invented. It must have been an odd sight to peek
into the locker room and see him running obstacle courses,
weaving between traffic cones, doing figure eights around
The Bengals believe they see a payoff. "Watching him run, I
can't find any evidence of an injury," says Shula. Sparling says
nobody should kid himself; injuries of this kind are always
career-altering. On the other hand, he says, "What if he only
comes back 90 percent? He's still special."
Cincinnati is so confident it hasn't made contingency plans. It
has installed Carter as a starter, and after him there's a real
drop-off. It has made no trades for backups. It used no picks in
the April draft on running backs. The Bengals have even gone
back to the Penn State playbook for plays suitable to Carter's
talents. Shula had looked at Carter's college films a year
earlier. He saw Carter beating defenders to the outside and
decided to revamp Cincinnati's slashing attack, what there was
of it, into something that stretched defenses. That offense is
back in the book for 1996.
Among others looking forward to this offense is quarterback Jeff
Blake, who last year provided excitement with his long passes
but found his job increasingly difficult as opponents realized
that was his only weapon. "Toward the end of the season," Blake
says, "every team was defending us two [safeties] deep. It
became, 'We'll let you run the football.' It got tough."
Still there's tension in the sticky air of the Ohio River Valley
as the Bengals await that first moment of contact. Shula won't
be comfortable until he sees Carter spring up after one of those
nine-car pileups and jog back to the huddle. Even now, nobody
knows what Carter's zigs and zags will look like when there's a
linebacker in his path. Those cuts, the kind you make to save
your life, are sharper than the ones you make in minicamp.
Carter, however, says he no longer thinks of his knee's betrayal
or worries about another one. That is not to say the injury
hasn't sobered him. Always religious, he now finds himself
saying a prayer, either as he comes off the practice field or
later at home, giving thanks for another day of football safety.
"It's funny," he says. "You come into this league at 21, you
think you're invincible." Didn't the seven-year contract tell
him as much? "Well, you do learn this," he says, seeming
childlike as he scoops the chocolate out with his fries but
sounding old too, "you learn to be grateful for what you've
got." Best case.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLECarter's left knee has passed the early tests, but the final exam will come in his first contact drills. [Ki-Jana Carter jumping with football]