Though not at fault, Kerry Carter of Stanford agonized over a crippled opponent
In his mind Stanford tailback Kerry Carter knows that he's not responsible for the fact that Curtis Williams is a quadriplegic. In his heart he hasn't always been so sure. Last Oct. 28, on a cold, rainy Saturday at Stanford Stadium, the 6'2", 235-pound Carter carried the ball through the line late in the third quarter against Washington. He dipped his right shoulder in anticipation of a collision with the onrushing Williams, the Huskies' 5'10", 200-pound strong safety, who lowered his head slightly before impact. The two players hit helmet-to-helmet. Williams flew backward, and the ligament connecting his C-1 and C-2 vertebrae snapped. He spent four weeks in a hospital and 12 more in a rehab center, and is paralyzed from the neck down.
Carter was a factor in Williams's injury, but he didn't cause it. Still, he had a hard time making that distinction in the weeks that followed the incident. "Someone's life was in danger because of something I was involved in," he says. "That in it-self scared me."
Carter wasn't the first player last season to find himself in such a situation. Five weeks earlier Ohio State senior tailback Jerry Westbrooks's knee had struck the helmet of Penn State freshman defensive back Adam Taliaferro. Westbrooks got up; Taliaferro sustained a shattered neck bone and bruised spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the neck down for three weeks, but is walking again and began summer school at Penn State last week, though his football career is over. West-brooks, who signed as a free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars, never blamed himself for Taliaferro's injury. "It didn't affect me, being that it was football," he says. "I didn't do it on purpose. If I had intentionally tried to hurt somebody, something would be wrong with me."
Carter, who's taking premed courses, had as much reason to be guilt-free. "Kerry is a self-contained kid, very mature, organized," Stanford athletic director Ted Leland says. "Kerry's first idea is to let everybody know he is O.K., even if he isn't."
That's how Carter reacted after Williams's injury. He played well for the remainder of the game against Washington, recovering two onside kicks in a fourth-quarter rally before the Cardinal lost 31-28. On the ensuing Monday, as Williams lay sedated at Stanford Hospital, Cardinal running backs coach Buzz Preston called Carter to his office. "I knew he was going to struggle with it," Preston says. "He's a sensitive and caring person."
Carter, who will be a junior next fall, is also tough to tackle. Though he didn't start a game last season, he led Stanford in rushing with 729 yards and scored six touchdowns. "He's a load running through there," says Preston. "He gets his momentum going.... I told Kerry, 'You can't worry about it. That's not your fault.' But it did affect his aggressiveness. He started trying to avoid tacklers rather than hit them. His production was off and on the remainder of the season."
When Preston reminded Carter to run north-south during spring practice, they both knew the subtext. "Inches decide stuff like that," Carter says of Williams's injury. "That's what helped me come to terms with it. Things could have been the other way around. It was a freak accident. Look at the number of times when players collide and nothing happens."
While in high school Carter worked in a hospital, where he learned that doctors must remain detached from the suffering they see. After his collision with Williams, he understood why.
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