The thing that truly counts, however, is whether or not you have the stamina and drive to fight your way back up, and to climb back into the light.
And then there are those who say that such clichés are better left to bedtime stories and movie scripts, because once you’re down, you’re down, and because to make the game-changing play you’ve always dreamed about, you actually have to be on the field.
With the Navy defense clinging to a six point fourth quarter lead against Air Force in 2008, junior cornerback Blake Carter was not out on the field. Instead, he was sitting on the bench watching his fellow defenders attempt to stave off a furious Air Force comeback attempt, silently wishing he was back at his old cornerback position.
Not just the Navy starting cornerback position, but his starting cornerback position. The position he had earned through three years of hard work, weight-room training, and film study. The job he had always envisioned himself having after graduating from Stillwater High School in 2005. The role that he had held the year before for nine games; nine games in which he went from virtual unknown to the team’s fourth leading tackler, in the process vaulting himself to a position of leadership on Navy’s still maturing defense.
Yet none of it seemed to matter as Carter’s replacement, senior Ketric Buffin, jogged off of the field after a pitched defensive stand. With ten minutes and two seconds left in the latest installment of the Air Force-Navy showdown, a million things could have been going through Carter’s mind as he trotted onto the field as a member of the punt return team. But only one thing did.
Get the punter.
“We went over the punt block play a few times the week before,” recalls Carter. “Coach O’Rourke was in charge of our punt block team and we watched film on the ways Air Force schemed their punts…We went over those formations so many times that I just knew that it was coming. I took the right angle and took the right position and went for it. That’s when I blocked it.”
And block it he did. Even before Air Force’s Ryan Harrison could recover from the force of Carter’s hurling body, Navy slotback Bobby Doyle pounced on the freewheeling ball, recovering it in the endzone for a touchdown. In a moment the game had been changed. Not only had the momentum swung back in Navy’s favor, but the lead increased to 13. Combined with Carter’s earlier 25-yard return of a punt block for a touchdown, the reserve cornerback had literally produced two scores for the Midshipmen that afternoon, a distinction made all the more important given Navy’s offensive inconsistency late in the game. Not only had his two special teams plays given his team a decisive 33-20 edge, but Carter’s punt block turned out to be just the insurance the Midshipmen needed, as a subsequent Air Force touchdown would prove to be too little, too late for the Falcons. Amazingly, a player who hadn’t even started the game had turned out to be the difference in one of college football’s most heated rivalries, all but ensuring that Navy would retain the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for a sixth straight season.
Watching on television, former Navy center Terrence Anderson couldn’t help but smile.
“Blake was trying to figure out what he could do to get more playing time or to make a greater contribution,” explains Anderson, who recalls speaking to a frustrated Carter prior to the game. An Academic All-American and former team captain at Navy, Anderson has known Carter “virtually since Blake was born” thanks to a long-term friendship fashioned between the two men’s fathers. “[Blake] didn’t come to me because I think he was trying to work through it himself, but I did call him a couple of times because I knew that he had been down about it.”
‘It’ is a subject that Carter doesn’t like to talk about, even to this day. A consummate team player with a respectful and focused demeanor, even the usually reserved Carter admits that the decision by the coaching staff to replace him in favor of Buffin stung, especially given the kind of season Carter had had during his sophomore campaign.
“It was especially hard given the season I had in 2007,” says a reflective Carter, who would later return to the starting lineup in the 2008 Army-Navy game when Buffin suffered an injury. “I don’t think anybody wants to sit on the sideline, but at the same time I try to look back on it now and I realize that it was best for the team. Obviously it hurt, and it was not something I enjoyed – I will admit that - but at this point in my career I can’t really look back on it as a negative. I took it with a grain of salt and kept working, and I take pride in knowing I contributed in different areas of the game.”
That he has developed such an attitude, says Carter, is a testament to both his father, Craig, and his longtime friend and mentor, Dr. Terrance Anderson. While neither Anderson nor Carter can remember exactly how they met each other, they both say that the relationship between their fathers likely contributed to their families becoming close friends. If their paths to Annapolis appear remarkably similar, it is because they were. While Anderson is several years older than Carter, they both went through the same “pipeline” of Stillwater High School in Stillwater, Oklahoma, with the more senior Anderson graduating in 1996 before heading to the Naval Academy. A former linebacker who at 5-foot-11 jokes that he was “too slow” to play on defense at the Division I-A level, Anderson was later moved to a position on the Navy offensive line, where he started at center in both 1998 and 1999. The rest, as they say, is history.
In spite of his size, Anderson become one of the most effective offensive linemen in school history, and was later called one of the best centers in the country by former coach and ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried. Anderson’s success wasn’t limited to just on-field accomplishments either, and following his Navy football career he won the prestigious National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award en route to attending medical school. Now a doctor in the United States Navy, Anderson recalls being contacted by Blake’s father, Craig, during Blake’s senior year in high school. The Naval Academy had been showing interest in the defensive back from Stillwater high school during the fall of 2004, and Craig Carter wanted his son to be well informed about the choice he was making before deciding on whether or not to attend the Naval Academy. It was an option that Blake was seriously considering, says Anderson, but one which the all-district cornerback knew was not to be taken lightly.
“I think the main thing was the military commitment, because we were a country at war at the time in which he signed up,” explains Anderson, who also notes that he and Blake’s father had stayed in regular contact during his career at Navy. “Blake just wanted to understand what the options were once you were finished at the Academy. But more so - and I think on the positive side - was that I explained to him the possibilities of what the Naval Academy can do for you and how the commitment sets you up for a lot of good things in your life. And obviously Blake is the kind of person who is receptive to that.”
The advice turned out to be a deciding factor in Carter’s decision to attend Navy, where the Stillwater native would arrive after a brief stop at the Naval Academy Prep School during the 2005-2006 academic year. For Carter, who had partially lost contact with Anderson during the latter’s time in Annapolis, the advice also turned out to be the spur in a new and maturing friendship with his former babysitter, as the two began speaking again on a regular basis. And while Carter would often call the former Navy center for advice on matters of academics or life as a Midshipman, it wasn’t until Blake’s trying first half of 2008 that Anderson reached out to help his young friend with a new and never-before encountered problem; benching.
“Obviously I could not help him specifically because I had played offensive line and he played defensive back,” Anderson says, who laughs when recalling a “tag along” Blake Carter from their days of growing up in Stillwater. “But I could advise him on some attitude things like how to be a good teammate and how to prepare and how to let the coaches know that you were prepared. I told him that everyone has the same opportunity to get on the field, so you work hard and do your best and let the chips fall where they may.”
Anderson says that while Carter remained upbeat about contributing during the first month of the 2008 season, by the time that October 4th had rolled around the 5-foot-11 junior was starting to lose confidence in his ability to see the field in a meaningful capacity. It’s at that time, says Anderson, that Blake finally got the results he was looking for, and finally came to learn that hard work and determination really do pay off for those who keep plugging along.
“I think the time when he was really starting to feel down on himself was the time of the Air Force game. And it was good because it allowed him to contribute – maybe not as a cornerback – but to make some significant plays to impact the game. I think that [the two special teams plays] sort of vaulted him into the rest of the year on a personal level…Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that Blake ever quit or stopped trying, but I think that the game gave him some confidence to continue to work and to do the little things right so that he could contribute to the team.”
In spite of his ups and downs over the past two seasons, Carter is looking forward to capping off his career at Navy with another winning season in 2009. No longer in a pitched battle for a starting position, Carter is nevertheless reflective on his role with the team, saying that the lessons of last year will help him to embrace whatever role he is called upon to take up this fall.
“What happened last year - I took it for what it was worth and I don’t try to dwell on it,” says Carter, who figures to man one of two Navy corner spots along with junior Kevin Edwards in 2009. “We have a new season coming up. I just take it one game at a time and whenever coach Green calls on me I’ll be out there ready to play.”
Anderson, too, says he thinks that Carter is better from the experiences of last season, and says that the senior cornerback has more than earned his place in Navy’s starting lineup. Once more, says Anderson, Blake has matured into one of the preeminent leaders on Navy’s defense, and has grown into the man that both Anderson and Carter’s family always knew he would become.
“We’re real proud of Blake - everyone [in Stillwater] is - and we are looking forward to him having a good senior year. He deservers it, and I think he’ll continue to improve his play because he has put the time in. That is obvious from talking to him and his coaches - that he has put the time in. I really think it will be a special year for him.”
Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be reached at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.