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He had been wowing his partners all afternoon, and now Larry
Centers, with the Pacific Ocean at his back and a pond in front
of him, was about to make a golf ball walk on water. Standing in
the 18th fairway of the Ko Olina Golf Club on the western shore
of Oahu last Friday, Centers, a Pro Bowl running back competing
in a celebrity golf tournament held in conjunction with the
game, hit a low slice into the water hazard. The scramble format
minimizes the consequences of such blunders, but pride was at
stake, and Centers grimaced. Then suddenly he was smiling like a
kid with a Tickle Me Elmo doll. After disappearing below the
surface of the pond for an instant, the ball popped back out,
skipped across the water and rolled up an embankment toward the
green. "It's a miracle," yelled Jack Reader, the NFL's
supervisor of officials and one of Centers's five teammates. "I
don't know what it is," Centers responded, "but I'll take it."

If Centers doesn't toss around words like miracle
indiscriminately, he has his reasons. One year ago, in a hotel
room a few hundred yards from the 18th fairway at Ko Olina, he
underwent a startling transformation that changed his life for
the better. With the help of three fellow Pro Bowl players who
are devout Christians--Minnesota Vikings wideout Cris Carter,
Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White and cornerback
Aeneas Williams, one of Centers's teammates for the past six
seasons with the Arizona Cardinals--Centers emerged from a
sleepless stretch during which he exhibited irrational behavior
and was feared to be suicidal. After that scary, three-day
period, Centers slept soundly through the night, awoke refreshed
and pronounced himself a saved soul.

Was it an act of God, as Carter, White and Williams believe? Had
Centers survived a temporary demonic possession, as did Linda
Blair in The Exorcist, as some witnesses speculated? Had he
overcome some sort of psychological episode? There are no
concrete answers, for no one is exactly sure what took place in
Centers's head during that surreal period--least of all Centers,
who remembers only bits and pieces. All he and those who helped
him can be sure of is that he's much better off in 1997 than he
was a year ago, and not just because he is a
free-agent-in-waiting who is expected to command a multiyear
contract for more than $2 million per season.

"I don't know if words can describe the difference, as far as
his state of mind," Carter said last Thursday, three days before
Centers carried nine times for 38 yards and caught one pass for
12 yards in the NFC's 26-23 overtime loss to the AFC at Aloha
Stadium. Carter was sitting in the lobby of the Ihilani Resort &
Spa, the hotel in which most of Centers's three-day siege took
place. "I'm an ordained minister," Carter continued, "and we see
a lot of people who are 'crazy,' who have lost their mind--but
I'd never seen anything like that. What it showed me is that
it's amazing how thin the human psyche is. It showed me that
life is so precious and sanity is so precious, we can't take
anything for granted."

Centers, 28, has never been one to take things for granted.
While growing up with three brothers in Tatum, Texas, a
one-stoplight town in the northeast corner of the state, Centers
dreamed of a career in professional football but was repeatedly
told by naysayers he was too short, too slow, too ordinary to
pull it off. To placate his mother, Margie, he eschewed football
until his senior year of high school. He began his collegiate
career at Division I-AA Stephen F. Austin State in nearby
Nacogdoches as a wide receiver but was switched to running back
after breaking his left pinkie during his freshman year. After
running for a school-record 1,440 yards as a senior, he was
drafted in the fifth round by the Cardinals in 1990. The 5'10",
203-pound Centers made the team as a kick returner. He developed
into a productive pass catcher, first as a third-down back and
H-back and then, by '94, as an undersized starting fullback. In
'95 he had his breakthrough season, catching 101 passes--an NFL
record for a running back--and earning his first Pro Bowl berth.

Everything seemed so peachy, and Centers appeared to be enjoying
his role as toast of the town. Super Bowl XXX was held on his
home turf, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, and the week preceding
the game was a blur. "I was going to parties and autograph
sessions and running around like crazy," Centers recalls. "I had
friends in town, and everything was hectic. I slept about two
hours a night."

His lifestyle masked the misery festering inside him. Centers is
a perfectionist who takes defeat hard, and the Cardinals had
lost twice as many games as they had won since he entered the
NFL. After a loss Centers would typically go home, pull the
blinds, unplug the phone and sit alone in the darkness for
hours. He would wrack his brain for solutions, but the answer
was always the same. "I'd tell my wife, 'I know what we need: I
have to play better,'" he says. "Then I'd show up early at the
facility to watch film. I was trying to carry the load by myself."

When Larry began having problems at home, the load became too
heavy to bear. He and his wife, Vanessa, who have two children,
son Larry Jr. (now five) and daughter Sydni (who turns two later
this month), found their marriage plagued by discord. "It was a
buildup of a lot of things," says Larry. "Basically, I didn't
like the person I was becoming. I was allowing the things going
on on the outside--with the team and at home--to seep into the
quality of person that I am."

By the time the Centerses boarded a flight for Honolulu the
Monday after Super Bowl XXX, the pressure had overwhelmed Larry.
On the plane he began behaving erratically, which prompted
Williams, who teaches Bible classes to Arizona players, to pull
out a book of scriptures he uses for counseling. "I gave the
book to Larry, and he just kept on reading it and wouldn't let
it go," Williams says. By the time the plane landed, Centers was
blurting out, "Jesus is God" and other religious proclamations.
Shortly after he arrived at the airport, word spread among
players that Centers might be hospitalized for a psychological

The Centerses checked into their room at the Ihilani, a resort
on a cove about 30 miles northwest of Waikiki. It's a wonderful
place to stay--unless you are someone who is unstable and has a
room several floors up with a balcony. After witnessing his
teammate's behavior, Williams felt Centers needed as much
companionship as possible. He enlisted Carter's help, and Carter
turned to White, another ordained minister, who had baptized
Carter in White's Jacuzzi eight years earlier. Taking shifts,
the trio made sure at least one of them was with Centers at all
times. When Vanessa wasn't trying to comfort Larry, she was
receiving moral support from the other players' wives--Melanie
Carter, Sara White and Tracy Williams.

Shortly before midnight on Monday, the three players decided to
baptize Centers in the Pacific. They walked him past the
poolside bar, where a handful of other Pro Bowl players were
sharing drinks and laughs. "They looked at us like they couldn't
believe what was going on," Carter says. Wearing shorts and
T-shirts, the foursome waded into the ocean, and Centers was
baptized in a five-minute ceremony. It remains one of the few
things Centers remembers from his ordeal, possibly because the
experience was chilling. Recalls Williams, "It was so cold in
there that my teeth were chattering. I remember saying, 'We
baptize you in the name of J-J-J-Jesus.' Looking back, it was
pretty funny."

But Centers remained on edge for the next two days. When
Philadelphia Eagles running back Ricky Watters got up for a
drink during an offensive players' meeting on Tuesday morning,
Centers screamed, "Sit down, motherf-----." Normally one of the
league's more volatile personalities, Watters sat down without
responding. Centers later referred to recently fired Cardinals
coach Buddy Ryan as "the devil." During the team photo session,
he stood with his back to the camera and refused to turn around.
The photo was taken with him facing the wrong direction.

Mike Holmgren of the Packers, the coach of the NFC team, was
inclined to send Centers home. But White recalls pleading with
Holmgren: "We're dealing with a serious situation. Can you give
us some time?" Holmgren granted White's request, and Centers
remained in Hawaii, though he didn't play in the game.

In addition to reading Bible verses, Carter, White and Williams
encouraged Centers to talk to them about his problems and
assured him they would stand by him. They spoke of God's
unconditional love, and Vanessa also expressed her love for her

On Wednesday night an exhausted Centers finally slept. "The next
morning when he woke up, he was a different person," says White,
a 6'5", 300-pounder who had curled up in the Centerses' room on
a love seat about half his size. When he asked Larry what had
happened, White remembers him replying, "It was like I was

The experience was some wake-up call, and it helped Centers
attain the perspective and inner peace he had lacked. He had
another outstanding season in 1996, catching 99 passes and
earning recognition as Arizona's MVP for the second consecutive
year. And even though the Cardinals went 7-9 and missed the
playoffs for the 14th straight season, Centers learned to cope
with defeat. "I realized it wasn't my show--I'm just a player in
the game," he says. "I'm so much more laid-back now. I'm taking
time to smell the roses, baby."

A change of scenery is likely for Centers, who with a $800,000
salary in 1996 was a bargain for the Cardinals. Frustrated by
the lack of a substantial offer from Arizona, Centers and his
agent, Jeff Irwin, plan to shop around when the free-agency
period begins on Feb. 14. Centers says his priority is to play
for a winner, but he admits he'd like to get a bit more
recognition, the kind he receives from his peers. "Larry makes a
statement on film," says Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Keenan
McCardell. "He's always playing balls-to-the-wall."

Another Pro Bowl performer, Dallas Cowboys strong safety Darren
Woodson, still marvels at the move Centers put on then Cowboys
cornerback Larry Brown during the 1995 regular-season finale.
When Brown dipped his shoulder to attempt an open-field tackle,
Centers jumped over him--about six feet in the air--and
continued on for a 29-yard gain. "It's rare that a player does
something that amazes himself," Centers says, "but when I saw
the highlight I thought, Wow, is that me?" Says Woodson, "He's
the hardest player for me to play against, because he's just so
competitive and he comes at you every play."

Centers continues to fight for perspective on life, a battle he
acknowledges he has not yet won. He says he never felt the need
to consult a psychologist or a mental-health counselor regarding
the episode. He adds he hasn't felt overly stressed since the
experience, but if he ever does, he knows he has a support group
in Carter, White and Williams. Centers is uncomfortable
comparing his faith with theirs or quoting Bible verses, saying,
"I'm not as strong in my religion as some guys. I want to find
balance in my spirituality. I don't know if you would call me
religious, but I do love God."

His family life gives Centers his greatest joy. "It's better,
but it's still not perfect," he says. "I'm just trying to live
the right way. I'm happier and wiser, and I've learned a lot of
lessons in life. I feel good about the way things are going."

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Centers was more at peace on his latest visit to the Pacific. [Larry Centers cupping water with his hands]

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Centers, small for an NFL fullback, has made his mark with his receiving and hard-driving style. [Larry Centers in game]