Cris Carter: From Addiction to Superstardom in the NFL

When Ohio State football star Cris Carter left college to join the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1987, future success seemed all but guaranteed. With a rare combination of size, athleticism, and skilled hands, Carter possessed the perfect package to play the wide receiver position at a high level, and no one was surprised when he soon emerged as one of the Eagles’ more reliable playmakers.

But unbeknownst to the public, things were far from rosy behind the scenes. The underground illegal drug culture in professional sports was vast and out of control in the 1980s, and, like many players during that era, Carter got caught up in that milieu and saw things quickly spiral out of control. Carter was drinking heavily and using cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy on a regular basis at that time, and he failed three drug tests over a three-year period before his coach, Buddy Ryan, finally gave up on him and released him in the summer of 1990.

While the truth about Carter’s struggles with substance abuse had been kept from the public, privately NFL teams knew why the Eagles had suddenly chosen to let him go despite his successes on the field. Nevertheless, in the high-stakes high-pressure world of professional sports, talent always opens doors, and the Minnesota Vikings decided to give Carter another chance and claimed him before the start of the 1990 season.

Following the Path to Victory

Unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse have permanently and tragically derailed the careers of many promising athletes at every level from high school through college to the pros. But after his sudden and shocking forced departure from Philadelphia, Carter decided that he was not going to allow his life, on and off the field, to turn into a forgettable footnote. Carter had been dreaming about becoming a football star since he was a little boy, and getting cut by the Eagles shook his world to its foundation and made him wake up and realize he was on the verge of throwing it all away. Determined not to squander his new opportunity in Minnesota, Carter stopped drinking and drugging while dramatically upgrading the intensity of his fitness and workout regimes, using his professional ambitions as a motivating force to help him overcome his substance abuse problems.

His program of physical and psychological detoxification and his determination to transform his body to reach peak efficiency complemented each other beautifully, and the results of Carter’s personal and professional renewal were remarkable to say the least. Emerging as one of the very best wide receivers in the game, Carter was selected to play in the Pro Bowl eight consecutive seasons between 1993 and 2000, and, when he retired in 2002, he was only the second receiver in league history to finish with more than 1,000 career catches. In February, Carter was elected to Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, his sport’s most honored institution.

Carter told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about how the Vikings had reached out to him at a point in his life when chemical dependency had cost him his job with the Eagles and threatened to wreck his pro career after just three seasons.

“Man, [the Vikings] invested so much time in me,” said Carter, breaking down. “They got me to see the right people. Man, when I got there, I needed a lot of help. Oh my goodness.”

“It was a lot of hard work, but there were a lot of people helping me, not on the football field, but just getting my life together,” Carter told the Star-Tribune. “They really cared about me. I owe everything to the Vikings. What they invested in me was more than money. What they taught me was how to live the rest of my life. I didn’t have to be a prisoner to the things that held me back before. That I could finally, finally tap into my athletic ability. That was the first time that I really feel like the car was running 100 percent.”

While football helped give Carter something to live and fight for, there was much more driving his recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse than just his desire to succeed in sports. A deeply spiritual person, Carter became an ordained minister in 1996, and, in subsequent years, he devoted thousands of hours to speaking before youth groups, church assemblies, and athletic associations about his relationship with Christ and about how his spiritual beliefs helped him find the strength to escape from the iron grip of addiction. Extremely active in a variety of charitable activities, Carter has worked hard to help underprivileged children and young athletes improve their lives, spreading a message that emphasizes the importance of staying in school and away from drugs and alcohol.

In 1999, Carter was chosen as the NFL’s Man of the Year, an honor given each year to the player who is judged to have done more than any other to make a positive contribution to the lives of those in his community.

A Triumph of the Spirit

Like many young athletes, Cris Carter was drawn into the party and drug culture at an early age, and his dreams and his future were imperiled as a result of his struggles with chemical dependency. After almost losing it all, through his love for his sport and his relationship with God he was able to find his way back from the brink of disaster. His story of healing and redemption should inspire us all, and his unselfishness and willingness to share his experiences with young people in order to keep them from making the same mistakes he did is setting an example that other recovering substance abusers could certainly distinguish themselves by choosing to follow.

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