When standout TCU safety Sam Carter was an eighth-grader he toured the gym at Houston’s Sharpstown High School and saw the banners of football glories past. The distant past.
It had been more than two decades since the Apollos had done anything of note on the football field. In fact, in the previous three seasons before Carter’s freshman year, Sharpstown went 1-29.
As Carter eyed the dusty banners hanging from the rafters, the man who would be one of his coaches at Sharpstown, Dallas Blacklock, told him that hopefully he’d help the Apollos add more when he arrived on campus the following year.
“Coach, it’s not hopefully,” Carter told him. “It’s when we put those banners up there.”
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It was that kind of confidence, along with obvious athletic skill, that had Sharpstown coaches excited about the gifted middle school receiver who was new to the area.
Carter had arrived with his parents and four siblings in August 2005 after fleeing Jefferson Parish, La., two days before Hurricane Katrina struck the area.
The devastation in the rearview mirror hit 13-year-old Sam when he awoke two days later at his aunt’s house in Houston. His parents and aunts and uncles were in tears as the horrific images from back home haunted the television screen.
“It was horrible,” said Sam’s mother, Dildred Taylor. “We cried, we prayed. We lost friends, family. A lot of people got sick after the storm and died afterward. All kinds of stuff. It was crazy.”
Sam expected, like the times before when they’d fled from a coming storm, that his family would quickly return home. Not this time.
His parents decided they would stay in Houston. Sam and his three younger siblings were enrolled in schools.
“I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “When you’re at school with all these new people and there are none of my friends. That was a shocker to me.”
He quickly leaned on the football team and excelled at receiver and running back. Soon, Carter drew the attention of the high school coaches scouting the talent of their feeder schools.
Gary Gutierrez was hired to turn Sharpstown football around after more than two decades of futility. When he saw left-handed Sam Carter whizzing a volleyball at another kid during a game of dodgeball, inspiration struck.
“Our idea was we were going to build our program around this kid when he gets here,” Gutierrez said. “I knew if we could get this kid and develop him we could build something here.”
Carter was reluctant about moving to quarterback as a freshman at Sharpstown.
“Do you want to touch the ball seven to 10 times a game or do you want to touch the ball 40 times a game?” Blacklock asked Carter. “And he kind of gave that little laugh and said, ‘All right, Coach, I’m ready to do it.’”
Carter took over at quarterback after halftime of the third game his freshman season. The Apollos finished 4-6, their best record in four seasons. As a sophomore, Carter led Sharpstown to the playoffs for the first time since 1984.
The following year the Apollos made the playoffs again, giving Sharpstown its first consecutive playoff berths. Before his senior year, Carter transferred to Alief Hastings after Gutierrez and some of his assistants left for Levelland High School.
“To put a freshman in at quarterback is a pretty tough deal on a kid,” said Gutierrez, who is now the head coach San Antonio Jay. “We knew he had it in him, but we wanted to give him some time to acclimate to the speed of the game.
“He never looked back. He progressed every week. And the next year he just exploded, in terms of his commitment to the game and his leadership abilities. He became committed to getting everything he could out of himself.”
College coaches started focusing on Carter and offers from Miami, Oklahoma State and Houston’s Kevin Sumlin started coming in. Sumlin, now the coach at Texas A&M, was the first to offer him a scholarship before his sophomore season. OSU and Miami wanted him as a defensive back, but Houston and TCU were fine with him at quarterback.
He chose TCU because he “fell in love with the coaches,” including TCU’s former linebackers coach, Tony Tademy, who initially recruited him. For most of his redshirt freshman season in 2010, he watched and learned behind Andy Dalton, who led the Horned Frogs on their magical 13-0 Rose Bowl-winning season.
He was deep on the depth chart behind Casey Pachall and Yogi Gallegos. During the month of practices before the Rose Bowl, TCU coach Gary Patterson asked Carter if he’d rather play receiver or safety. Patterson gave Carter some time to think it over.
Carter was thinking, “Heck, no! I always wanted to play quarterback.”
He called Blacklock for advice.
“I kind of gave him the same story as a few years back,” said Blacklock, who is now Houston’s director of high school relations. “I know you and you’re the kind of guy who wants to make an impact on the game. You’re going to have a better opportunity with your size and speed and knowledge of the game playing in the secondary.”
Carter worked out at strong safety during the Rose Bowl practices. He was no longer a quarterback and was on the defensive, literally and figuratively, for the first time in his life.
The other side
Carter had only started playing football in the seventh grade, the year before he left New Orleans. He’d always been on offense, but Patterson and his assistants, as they’ve done numerous times in the past decade, saw Carter’s size and athleticism as a perfect fit for strong safety.
“I’d never thought about defense,” said Carter, whose favorite sport as a kid was baseball, which he played until he was a sophomore at Sharpstown and realized football was his ticket to a scholarship. He picked up the defense relatively quickly, knowing where to be and where to go in the Frogs’ 4-2-5 scheme. Hitting people, however, was something he struggled with at first.
In one of his first practices on defense in the spring of 2011, a blow from running back Matthew Tucker during middle drill had Carter wondering if he was up to the challenge.
“It was bad,” he said. “I was like, it’s serious over here. Because as a quarterback, you don’t really get hit in practice. I was just waiting and he just kept going. That’s when it clicked. You have to get your pads low. You have to be the hammer. You have to bring it to them.”
That spring and 2011 season was a struggle for Carter, who, along with the rest of the defense, was scorched by Robert Griffin III and Baylor in the season opener. Carter started that game but was benched the rest of the season. He wondered about his future during Christmas break, whether he was ready to step up and start as sophomore.
“You have to adjust to new things,” his mother said, referring to Carter’s football adjustment, as well as uprooting her family to Houston years earlier. “You have to adjust, you don’t have a choice. Nobody can live in the past. Whatever the Lord brought for you that’s what you have to do.”
Along with his roommate at the time, Jason Verrett, he hit the weight room with a renewed vigor. He was determined to give himself the best shot to excel at safety.
“That’s what got him to where he is,” Gutierrez said. “His desire to achieve. He’s a kid who works and plays hungry.”
Safety at heart
As always, Carter’s dedication paid off. He has nine interceptions over the last two seasons in which he earned consecutive second-team All-Big 12 honors. He’s become one of the team’s top leaders and is one of the few players Patterson has entrusted with dealing with postgame media on a frequent basis.
When TCU athletes joined others from the Big 12 last summer for a visit to Cook Children’s Medical Center, Carter was there, offering hope and a smile to ailing kids.
“My parents always said respect is important and to make sure you’re carrying yourself in the right way,” he said. “I really believe being around Andy that one year, just seeing how he looked at things and took them in. Just watching him I got to see a lot of stuff and how he handled things.”
He also saw the adversity Verrett overcame with an inimitable desire to prove himself. Verrett is likely to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft in May. Carter, of course, hopes to follow both Dalton and Verrett to the NFL.
He’s close to a degree in sociology and hopes to create a foundation called SAM, for Save A Man, which pays tribute to a group Blacklock created called BAM (Be A Man) when they were both at Sharpstown. If professional football doesn’t work out, Carter will no doubt succeed in other endeavors.
“No one is going to outwork him. He led by example in terms of working hard, giving 110 percent every time,” Blacklock said. “I believe Sam’s growth and maturity in football came with his growth and maturity spiritually. I think it’s going to pay off for him. He’s going to do great things.”