Ki-Jana Carter arrived in New York City a day before the 1995 NFL Draft. He was exhausted. Coming off a storied, Rose Bowl season at Penn State, he had spent the past few months flying around the country visiting teams. He was also taking 21 credits to complete his marketing degree. Experts pegged the star running back as the No. 1 overall pick, but no one had told him explicitly they were drafting him.
On the morning of the draft, Carter heard the good news: The Cincinnati Bengals had traded for the first overall pick to get him. A few hours later, he was holding a Bengals No. 1 jersey and standing next to his family and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Neither he nor anyone else knew this would be the high point of his professional career.
Carter tore his ACL on his third preseason carry. He missed the rest of the 1995 season. Over seven injury-plagued seasons, he gained 1,144 yards, fewer than he had during his final year at Penn State.
“You always see all this stuff on TV around this time like the biggest busts of the draft classes,” Carter told Big Lead Sports. “But, hey, you know what? This is something that I’m proud to say I made it to the NFL. Of course, I wish things would have happened differently for me in the pros, but there’s really nothing you can do about that.”
No running back has been selected first overall since Ki-Jana Carter. In this year’s draft, Alabama’s Eddie Lacy may be the only running back with a shot at being drafted in the first round.
Plenty of theories exist for the league’s shift away from running backs. They have short careers, with their bodies getting pounded on each play. The NFL has evolved into a passing league. Unheralded backs, such as Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins and Arian Foster of the Houston Texans, have excelled. Decision-makers don’t believe they need to waste an early pick and millions of dollars on someone playing a position prone to fluky injuries and unfulfilled promise. Someone like Carter.
“I’m sure I didn’t help out,” he said.
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Growing up in Westerville, Ohio, 15 minutes from Ohio State’s campus, Carter rejected a Buckeyes’ scholarship offer to sign with Penn State. He left as one of the Nittany Lions’ most celebrated and popular players.
He was the star of Penn State’s 1994 team, which featured one of the most prolific offenses in college football history, averaging 47 points and 520 yards per game. Carter and quarterback Kerry Collins became just the third pair of teammates since 1955 to finish in the top four of the Heisman Trophy balloting. Both would be top ten picks in 1995, along with tight end Kyle Brady. That unit would produce two more first-round picks in 1996. Second-round wide receiver Bobby Engram played 14 years in the NFL. Sixth-round offensive lineman Marco Rivera went to three Pro Bowls.
The Nittany Lions went 11-0 in the regular season, winning the Big Ten title and advancing to the Rose Bowl to face Oregon. Before the game, Penn State coach Joe Paterno had the team stay and practice in Orange County, away from the hoopla in Los Angeles.
“We came there for a reason,” Carter said. “We came there to win a game.”
On its first offensive play, Penn State set up in the familiar I-formation with Carter behind fullback Brian Milne. Collins took the snap and tossed the ball to Carter, who followed Milne’s block, ran to the right, broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage and sprinted for an 83-yard touchdown.
“It’s just amazing now,” Carter said. “When I go back to school or if I’m out and about, [people] are like, ‘Oh, yeah, man, that run. I just remember you and that run from the Rose Bowl.’ That’s what’s more flattering. You really don’t think about how people still remember that play like they do. I guess it’s memorable, but I was just doing my job. I was trying to score every time I touched the ball.”
From there, Penn State cruised to a 38-20 victory. Carter finished with 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries. It was Paterno’s 16th bowl game victory, breaking the record set by former Alabama coach Bear Bryant, and the fifth and final time Paterno led the Nittany Lions to an undefeated season.
“Hey, we’re number one,” Carter told the ABC cameras late in the fourth quarter. “You’ve got to give us at least one of ‘em. You’ve got to give us at least one of the polls. We’re number one.”
They weren’t number one, at least not officially. Penn State had gone 12-0. But, a night earlier, Nebraska had defeated Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl to complete its undefeated season. Both the AP and Coaches’ polls placed Nebraska first and Penn State second, a controversial decision that still doesn’t sit well with Carter.
“Damn right, I’m pissed,” he said. “That one was tough. But at the same time, I can’t knock what happened with [Nebraska]. They went undefeated also. The only thing I said was, ‘It’s like telling me I got a 100 on my test but you’re telling me I got a B.’ That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t happen. If you’re going to give [the national title] to them, split it. I don’t care. I’m not going to say we deserve it more than they do. They can’t say they deserve it more than us.”
Although Carter had a season of eligibility remaining, he entered the NFL draft with Paterno’s blessing. It was Paterno who encouraged Carter to take extra classes so he could finish his degree. Despite the Jerry Sandusky scandal and ensuing drama at Penn State, which Carter called “unfortunate” and a “total shock,” Carter’s passions for his alma mater and his former coach have not changed.
Raised by a single mother, Carter credits Paterno for molding him into the man he has become. At 8:30 each morning during the season, Paterno made the players check in for breakfast, even if they didn’t have class that day. Freshmen had mandatory study hall, as did upperclassmen who were struggling in school. Paterno would also sometimes send people out on campus to make sure players were attending classes.
“Those are the important years where you’ve got to have a good male role model,” Carter said. “Coach was definitely older than your average coach, so he was almost like a father figure slash grandfather figure. There were a lot of things that we had to do. Sometimes you question and wonder why he was doing certain things, but it makes sense when you get older of why he made you do those things.”
How good might Carter have been with better injury luck? Dave Shula, Cincinnati’s coach during his first two seasons, compared him favorably with Emmitt Smith. Shula, a Cowboys assistant when Smith was a rookie, said Carter and Smith had similar body types. Carter was faster but not as “shifty.”
“We had a conviction on [Carter] as being a real quality player that could really make a difference for us,” Shula said.
After missing Cincinnati’s first two preseason games with a strained right Achilles tendon, Carter made his debut on Aug. 17, 1995 against the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome. On his third carry, Carter planted his left leg and cut back to the right before Lions defensive lineman Robert Porcher tackled him. As he fell to the artificial turf field, Carter knew something was wrong. It was not the hit that led to the injury. The surface was unforgiving.
“The good old turf monster,” Carter said.
When he returned for the 1996 season, Carter regained his starting position, but backup Garrison Hearst took over early that fall. Carter set career-highs in yards rushing (464) and carries (128) in 1997, but he split time with rookie Corey Dillon, who gained 1,129 yards in 233 carries.
In the 1998 opener, Carter severely fractured his wrist, ending his season. A year later, he dislocated his right kneecap in the third game, his last for the Bengals. Cincinnati released Carter on June 1, 2000. He appeared in 24 more games for the Redskins and the Saints, but his role remained limited.
Carter made more than $15 million over his time with the Bengals, including a then NFL record $7.125 million signing bonus. Four years after his career ended, in 2008, he started a company ByoGlobe, headquartered in a nondescript office park in Davie, Fla., about five miles from the Miami Dolphins’ training facility.
He describes ByoGlobe as a “one-stop shop” offering green solutions such as energy savings and eco-friendly products for customers including healthcare companies, cruise liners and athletics facilities. It provides products such as medical disposables, cleaning chemicals and energy-efficient lighting.
“It’s a constant challenge, just like football,” he said. “I mean, every day is different. Nothing stays the same. It’s challenging because when you have one customer, you want to get two, when I have two, I want four. I’m just trying to be an entrepreneur and see how well I can do this and see if it’s something that is fulfilling to me.”
Carter still closely follows the NFL and college football and is interested in working in sports broadcasting, probably in the studio. Last April, he served as the Big Ten Network’s color analyst for Penn State’s spring game. Still, he said television executives have not made him any offers.
Carter is not sure about his viewing plans for this week’s NFL Draft. He usually watches the first few selections, but that’s about it. He also enjoys reading the post-draft analyses. He has reconciled with his own place in the event’s history.
“I’m not going to hold no regrets,” Carter said. “Do I wish my career would have happened better? Hell yeah, I do. I was expecting a lot more. I’m sure a lot of fans were, too. But at the same time, am I going to sit there and sulk and complain about what happened? No. I did all I could.”
Tim Casey is a freelance writer.