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Playing in a Bigger Game

FELIX AND OSCAR, meet Carl and Kierstan, roommates in a small apartment near the University of Oklahoma campus, where Carl plays defensive tackle for the Sooners and Kierstan plays video games while scarfing down Carl's groceries. Carl is a clean freak, "anal about neatness—my friends say I'm OCD." Kierstan squeezes the toothpaste from the top of the tube, bathes with reluctance and walks around the living room half-naked. "Put some clothes on, man," sighs Carl.

Carl is reserved, Kierstan outgoing. "It's easy to make friends," says Kierstan, who transferred to Norman this fall and instantly became a campus chick magnet. "You just go up to someone and say, 'Hi, do you want to be my friend?'" Carl, too, is a kind of people person—a person who likes to hit people. "The opportunity to nail a quarterback is priceless," he says. "It's almost scary when you make that sack and 85,000 people erupt."

Funny thing: Carl and Kierstan are opposites, like Felix and Oscar, but they're also inseparable, like Chang and Eng. "Kierstan has given me a lot of wisdom and taught me a lot of patience," says Carl. And then he excuses himself for 30 minutes to draw Kierstan a bath, check his homework and tuck him into bed. Carl Pendleton, 22, is father, mother and brother to Kierstan Pendleton, his 10-year-old biological cousin.

Father: Carl wakes Kierstan every morning at 6:15—singing—at which time they recite a morning devotional. "I'm tough on him, because I want him to be great," says Carl, who has started 20 games in three years for the Sooners. "He's a smart kid, and it's best to get the laziness out of him at an early age."

Mother: Carl cooks Kierstan's dinner, washes Kierstan's clothes and buys Kierstan sneakers whenever he runs a hole through a sole. "I just bought him those shoes," says the 6'5", 269-pound everymom. "But how do you tell a kid not to play?"

Brother: Carl and Kierstan are brothers. Carl's parents, Carl and Nechia, adopted Kierstan when he was nine months old and a so-called crack baby—an epithet presumed to doom him to a life of despair. "A lot of times in life, people tell you what your circumstances are," says Carl. "But God gave him these amazing abilities."

Kierstan weighs only 72 pounds, but it's all brains, energy and exuberance. He begs Carl to let him play tackle football, but his brother—sounding more like his mother—has refused, partly to protect his body and partly to protect his grades.

Kierstan and Carl became roommates this past summer, when their parents—going through a shattering divorce—decided it was the best arrangement for everyone.

Soon after, Carl was asked to speak to a church group, which offered him an honorarium. "That's not necessary," he demurred. "We don't need it."

"But we're broke!" shouted Kierstan.

When Carl stopped laughing, he told Kierstan, "Don't worry about it. God will always take care of us."

Two Thursdays ago, Carl and Kierstan came home from the Switzer Center to find a FedEx envelope at their door. It was from the National Football Foundation, to which Carl—who has another year of eligibility remaining at Oklahoma—had applied for a postgraduate academic scholarship. More nervous than he expected to be, Carl unzipped the envelope.

"Congratulations," began the letter, which granted Carl $18,000 toward future tuition and named him a finalist for the Draddy Award, the "academic Heisman," given to college football's top scholar-athlete. The two brothers were jumping and screaming in their living room when Kierstan shouted, "You were right!"

"About what?" said Carl.

"God does provide for us."

That's when Carl made the decision that had been weighing on him for months: After this season, he'll give up the game he loves to concentrate on Kierstan and studying education in graduate school at OU. "Kierstan is watching and registering everything I do," says Carl. "He challenges me to do what's right."

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, a father of three, applauds Carl's choice, as does university president David Boren, who says, "I can think of no student-athlete who serves as a better role model for young people than Carl."

Soon, that post-hyphenate—"athlete"—will wither away forever. "Football isn't like tennis," says Carl. "When you take the helmet off, it's off for good. You can't strap on pads and knock someone over in the street. So that season of my life is about to end. And there will never be another one." On campus, he'll no longer know how it feels to be treated as the Man. But he'll be showing Kierstan what it means to be a man.

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Carl will give up football so he can raise his brother and study education. OU's president says, "I can think of no student-athlete who serves as a better role model."