The tragic tale behind a Heisman underdog

ByMike Philbrick Via <a Href="http://espn.go.com/" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
December 06, 2016, 3:21 PM

&#151; -- All set? You bet! Ready 'o? Let's go! Whaddya say? OK!

That's the chant.

That's how practice started every day for Gordie Lockbaum in his four years playing football at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

It was a daily reminder of the passion, the camaraderie, the structure and the discipline that was to follow.

It was the way his coach, Mark Duffner, started practice during Lockbaum's heralded junior and senior seasons, when the team went 21-1 and Lockbaum became a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.

In their corner of the college football universe, much has been said and written about those teams, but not about the genesis of them. And almost none about the man who built it all from nothing.

While the two seasons Lockbaum and Duffner spent together were remarkable, the tragic path they took to get there is one neither would have taken if given the choice.

In 1980, 37-year-old Dayton coach Rick Carter was a budding star. He had just coached the Flyers to the Division III national championship, punctuating the season with a 63-0 victory over Ithaca in the title game, and he was named national coach of the year in D-III.

That's when other colleges started calling, none more determined than Holy Cross. So committed were the Crusaders to hiring Carter that they called in the biggest weapon in their arsenal: superlawyer Edward Bennett Williams, owner of the Orioles, Redskins and the chairman of Holy Cross' board of trustees.

"It was a pivotal time at Holy Cross," said Lockbaum. "The college talked about going to bowl games. They wanted to be recognized, and Coach Carter was going to be the one to make that happen."

Gregg Burke, Carter's sports information director at Holy Cross and the current golf coach at Rhode Island, remembers the school being aggressive in its pursuit.

"Williams sent his plane to Ohio to get Coach Carter," Burke said. "You didn't hear about that kind of recruiting around here before."

Carter assembled a staff that included future Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman, future NFL coach Kevin Coyle and future Holy Cross head coach Mark Duffner, who also went on to coach in the NFL.

Carter also helped recruit Burke, who himself had only recently graduated from Holy Cross.

"I was at the University of Michigan," Burke said. "I just kind of got my feet wet there for 12 or 13 months. I was working with the basketball team, and my responsibility for football was shadowing Bo Schembechler. There's a job that's every boy's dream if they win and every man's nightmare when they lose.

"I had 10 minutes with Coach Carter, and I was sold. I was about to become the youngest Division I SID in the country, and was leaving Michigan to do it. That sounds crazy, but Coach Carter was so inspirational that I wanted to do it and do a good job for him."

In Carter's first season, in 1981, Holy Cross finished 6-5 -- just the school's fourth winning season since 1963. The '82 campaign saw even more improvement, with an 8-3 record. But in 1983, Holy Cross went 9-2-1 and qualified for the I-AA playoffs for the first time in school history. Holy Cross captured the Lambert Cup as the best I-AA team in the East and the ECAC Team of the Year award. Carter, meanwhile, was named Division I-AA Coach of the Year, his second such national honor in just four seasons.

Holy Cross was on the map -- so much so that it became a home for players such as Gill Fenerty, who left LSU for Worcester and quickly rewrote the school's record books before being drafted by his hometown New Orleans Saints and playing in the NFL and Canadian Football League.

"Fenerty was a superstar," Burke said. "He was one of LSU's top recruits, but his father wanted him to go to a Catholic school. Coach Carter changed the culture to make Holy Cross a destination. He made that transfer happen."

Carter was on the national map, too. NC State came calling, and the job was Carter's if he wanted it. It would have been a meteoric rise from Dayton to Holy Cross to a major college job in the ACC. But the Rev. John E. Brooks, the president of Holy Cross, and Williams --?Carter's recruiter and trustee chairman -- would not let him out of his original five-year contract.

"This was devastating for him," Burke recalled. "His red-hot trajectory had come to a halt. When other schools knew the president wouldn't let him out of the contract? Forget it. Why even bother calling?"

It was the beginning of a rift between Carter and the school. His next contract would include an escape clause, but there was a much bigger challenge looming: The impending creation of the Colonial League (later renamed the Patriot League), led by Father Brooks himself, de-emphasized football.

Not only would Carter not be coaching at the highest level, but his own school was taking a step back from its commitment to football.

While he hoped to appeal to save his program, Carter learned its fate 10 minutes before a news conference after a 24-0 victory over nationally ranked Delaware. Carter was simply handed a news release announcing that Holy Cross was dropping athletic scholarships, shaking an already shaken man.

"Rick was ashen," Burke said. "He couldn't speak. He wanted to keep on winning to go to the next level."

Despite the disappointment, the 1984 team started out 7-0 and featured a promising freshman defensive back named Gordie Lockbaum.

"Carter had a huge role in me choosing Holy Cross," Lockbaum said. "He had built that place as a destination, to a level you could just see it was going up. When he came to my living room, he made such a huge impression on my family. He was a major league closer with this VCR he would bring to show highlights. He was young, energetic, enthusiastic and had this innovative staff that just bubbled with excitement."

The team ended the season at 8-3, and as Holy Cross prepared for 1985, Carter took an interest in another project -- unheralded quarterback recruit Jeff Wiley, from Celina, Ohio.

"Signing day was over, and he came out to the town I grew up in a driving snowstorm," Wiley recalled. "I mean, he didn't even have a scholarship to offer me. And it wasn't like I was 10 minutes from any airport. This was a drive from wherever he was. That has stayed with me to this day.

"[I was] the quarterback that no one else seemed to want. But I was undersized, and I grew up in Ohio. You could describe coach the same way. Perhaps, and I don't know because he never said it to me, but I think he saw himself in me a little."

If you were with Carter, you were family. And family was everything to him. Family can bring out the best and worst in us, and in Rick Carter, you could argue it did both.

Carter was uniquely close with his father, Cloyd.

"As close to his father as any father-son relationship I have ever seen," Burke said. "His father would not only go to every game, but every practice. The two of them talking together all the time. They were inseparable. Coach also would bring his younger son, Andrew, along. To have both of them there? And to have his older son, Nick, at Holy Cross as a student? He was the happiest guy in the world."

In August, that all changed. Cloyd was diagnosed with cancer, and he died just a week later. Carter then learned that his mother, Henrietta, had terminal cancer as well. The tree, the foundation that sprung forth every part of Carter's success, was crumbling.

"Coach Carter changed dramatically when his dad passed that summer," said Burke.

"His father was his mentor," Lockbaum said. "When he passed, it shook him to the core."

Carter was not one to let anyone know he was hurting, or worse, slipping into a deep depression. This was 1984. Depression, like chemical dependency, was not considered a disease by people outside the medical community. It was seen as a weakness, a social failing. So how could a college head football coach step away to get help?

"Coach wasn't about to talk about how he was feeling," said Lockbaum. "One time I got hurt, and I'm on the table getting my knee drained. I'm in so much pain, and I have tears running down my face. I open my eyes, and here's Coach Carter holding my hand while it's happening. If there's any way he could take pain from you, he would have done it."

It didn't work both ways.

"I wish he knew that the type of people he surrounded himself with would have supported him and jumped over walls or canyons to get him what he needed," Lockbaum said.

Things on the field didn't help either. The previous spring, Holy Cross' all-league quarterback, Peter Muldoon, had graduated, leaving a huge hole in the offense. The Crusaders played three quarterbacks due to injuries, and Holy Cross finished the season at 4-6-1, the first losing season in Carter's tenure.

With the season behind him, Carter retreated to Ohio to visit his ailing mother. Tragedy struck again when his sister-in-law died from cancer.

His wife, Deanna, noticed that Carter couldn't seem to remember or focus. He also wasn't eating or sleeping -- textbook signs of clinical depression. She made him privately seek treatment in Massachusetts.

"The man just wasn`t himself," Deanna would tell the Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan in 1986. "He was not acting the way my husband would have acted."

In January 1986, Carter was recruiting and preparing for a season while also making frequent trips back to Ohio to visit his mother, who was slipping in and out of consciousness. On one trip to Dayton, Deanna had seen enough.

"The minute I talked to him, I knew he was sick," she told MacMullan. "He thought everyone knew. He thought they all could tell. He was torn between going to his mother and attending to his job at school, but he was in such an upset state, he wasn`t thinking clearly."

Carter listened, and on Jan. 24, a Friday, he admitted himself to Kettering (Ohio) Memorial for treatment of depression. He stayed until Monday, appearing to return to a more recognizable state.

"The medication seemed to work right away," Deanna said. "He was sleeping better. His complexion was coming back. He laughed for the first time in weeks."

A week later, on a Friday, Carter returned to Holy Cross with a promise to his doctor in Ohio to seek further treatment. The banquet was on Sunday, and there were recruits in town. On Saturday, he was at the Holy Cross fieldhouse going over details for next season and the banquet when he ran into his quarterback.

"It was the day before our banquet. ... We were talking about what was going to come up with next season, film he wanted me to watch and how he wanted me to be the best QB I could be," Wiley said. "Last thing he said was he couldn't wait to get to work on that."

Carter headed to his home in West Boylston, a nine-mile drive from campus.

"It was early Sunday morning and my roommate handed me the phone," Burke recalled. "He said, 'Nick Carter is on the phone.' Why was Nick on the phone? I had no idea.

"'Gregg, my dad died.' I made him repeat that more than once. I was in shock. I kept asking, 'What happened?' again and again. All Nick said was, 'My mom told me I had to call you.'

Deanna didn't want anyone to know that it was a suicide. She didn't want anyone to remember her husband that way.

"As the day unfolds, it became really hard," Burke said. "The story that Rick took his own life is getting out, and kids are coming by the football office and my office all night and were weeping. We never went home."

Duffner, the assistant coach, called for a team meeting to let everyone know.

"When we were called in that Sunday morning, our thought was maybe Coach Carter's mom passed away," Lockbaum said. "His life circumstances were a lot worse than anyone knew. He shouldered everything -- that's Rick Carter."

Still, people wanted answers. How could a 42-year-old coach with a resume most were envious of make this decision? Some people thought a coach who had always won, who had a career record of 137-58-7, just couldn't handle a losing season.

"Rick wasn't a winner. He was a competitor," Burke said. "That record would only inspire him to work harder, not to give up. Some folks want to think that way, so it makes sense to them. If that's what they think, then they don't understand the full picture."

The legacy of Coach Carter can probably be best seen in the 30 for 30 short "The Throwback." Players and coaches didn't drift apart after the tragedy -- they came together under Duffner, who was named head coach soon after Carter's passing.

"I didn't think I was ever going to leave there when I was with Rick," Duffner said. "If he was still at Holy Cross, I know I would be there. We thought we had it all there with Rick."

Over the next six seasons, Duffner led the Crusaders to a 60-5-1 record. In Duffner's first two years, Lockbaum was twice a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, finishing third in 1987, ahead of Thurman Thomas and Emmitt Smith.

"You knew everything was initiated by Coach Carter," Lockbaum said. "The two seasons I played without Coach were just an extension of this. You can't fake something that. Yes, it was pretty amazing for us to bounce back, but it was Coach Carter. He led the charge to build all that."

Mike Philbrick is an editor for ESPN and an alumnus of The College of the Holy Cross.

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