Wherever you go in football, fans stick up their fingers and yell, “We’re No. 1.” They wave at TV cameras, at passing cars, at each other. Over and over. Their favorite digit, high in the air. “We’re No. 1!”
In this part of the world, only one man is actually No. 1. His name is Anthony Carter. He wore that number during his brilliant career at Michigan and he wore it again for two years with the Michigan Panthers, a team that won the USFL cham- pionship. When he jumped to the National Football League, he would have worn that same number again — except the league had a rule. All receivers must wear uniforms in the 80s.
So Anthony Carter became — ta da! — No. 81.
He was always quiet. Not rude. Just quiet. One time, after helping Bo Schembechler win his first Rose Bowl, Carter snuck into the coaches’ locker room while the media waited outside.
“Anthony, what are you doing in here?” Schembechler said. “All those people outside want to talk to you.”
Carter sat down. “Coach, they talk to me enough. If I’m not out there, they’ll have to give some of my teammates credit.”
That was Carter. A team player. Despite enough speed and hand magic to rate a pedestal all his own, he simply wanted to blend in.
So it comes as no surprise that Thursday morning, the day Anthony Carter decided to quit football, after 13 years as a pro, he barely told anyone. He called his Lions coaches, because he had to, but he didn’t want to bother his teammates. Several of them called his house when he didn’t show for practice. They thought he might have overslept.
The truth was, Carter had spent the night in agony, both physical and emotional, knowing that the sharp pain in his 35- year-old shoulder was not getting better, it was only getting worse. He had broken the collarbone last year, reinjured the shoulder a week ago Monday night, and he would wake up at 2 a.m. and have to reach behind his head and grab the headboard just to get the thing to loosen. “If I can’t deal with it sleeping, I can’t deal with it playing,” he would say.
By morning light, he was ready to say good-bye.
Quietly, as usual. His final decision
But pro football is a public game, and so the good people in the Lions’ PR office persuaded Carter to speak to the press, if just for a few minutes. He arrived shortly after the players’ lunch. He did not want to make a fuss.
“I have decided to retire from the NFL,” Carter mumbled into the microphone. “I know it was quick to you, but it wasn’t quick to me. . . .
“When I couldn’t move my arm, I knew I couldn’t take a hit. The next hit could paralyze me. That’s how it feels. . . .
“It’s tough to leave the team when it’s 1-3, but I know they’re gonna win, and when they’re winning, I’ll be winning. . . .”
He stopped. He began to cry. Light tears, soft and barely unnoticeable, much the way he ran his routes all these years, a cat running on clouds. How many times did he slant over the middle and catch a ball without seeming to flinch? He would glide across the field, outracing everyone to the end zone. He was Jerry Rice without the quarterback.
None of that mattered now. His playing time had been sliced. He was hurt and ineffective. And he had too much pride to show up if he couldn’t contribute.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” he said, even as he did, “when you care about something . . . like I do about football. . . .”
He stepped back. Enough, he figured. Without mentioning his Pro Bowl appearances, or the receiving records he still holds in Minnesota, or the famous freshman touchdown that beat Indiana in a call that has been played a million times over Michigan radio, or the fact that Schembechler still calls him “the best player I ever coached,” Anthony Carter simply whispered, once again, “I’m retiring.”
At that moment, the door opened, and in walked the rest of the Lions receivers, in uniform. Herman Moore, Brett Perriman, Aubrey Matthews, all of them. They stepped up, one more time, and hugged him.
He’s No. 1. His first retirement
There’s a story about Carter. When he first showed up at Michigan, the coaches ran him in practice, and the quarterbacks could not outthrow him, no matter how hard they tried. He was so fast, he had to come back for the ball.
“Can you believe this?” Schembechler squealed.
The next day, Carter was gone. He got homesick for Florida, so he packed his bag and headed home. One of the coaches caught him at the airport and called Bo. He put Carter on the phone.
“Anthony, you weren’t going to quit without talking to me, were you?” Schembechler said.
“No, no, I’ll come talk to you,” Carter said.
“Good, you come talk to me.”
They hung up. And Carter ran onto the plane anyhow! He went home. And only after his mother told him to did he finally come back.
His mother won’t intervene this time. As Carter left the Silverdome, he looked up and saw a familiar face, John Wangler, his old college quarterback. He had heard the news and had rushed over from work. The two men shook hands and promised to call each other.
“He was the best,” Wangler said.
And as everyone nodded, Carter disappeared, up the hill, toward his car, no fingers, no waving, no noise.
Then again, the guys who are really No. 1 don’t need to tell you, do they?