BIRMINGHAM FOOTBALL | A SEASON UNDER THE LIGHTS
For the Carter family, character counts
Patriots linebacker close with his coach father and adopted sister.
By Ramona Shelburne
It took about three days for Brandy Rainey to size up her new brother.
Having lived in 14 foster homes in her 13 years, she had gotten pretty good at getting a quick read on people.
She already loved and trusted her new foster mom, Diane Carter, who had offered her the first real home and family she had ever known.
Her new brother, Donovan Carter, looked a bit intimidating though. He was a year younger than her, but he was already big and thick in that football player way.
If he never opened his mouth, he could have ruled the schoolyard. But as soon as he did, Rainey could tell they were going to get along just fine.
“He found out that I liked to write poetry, so he said, `I’m going to write a poem for you,” ‘ Rainey said, already starting to laugh. “His poem was something like, `The sky is blue, the grass is green and sunflowers grow in the sunlight.’ It was kind of stupid. But he was so sweet. He came into my room, stood up on my bed, read that poem and I just fell in love with him.
“I know some people might think he’s intimidating, but he’s definitely not.”
Tell that to anyone the UCLA-bound senior linebacker has tackled on the football field.
Birmingham of Lake Balboa teammate De’ Von Flournoy got a little taste of Carter’s ferocity in practice once.
“I was supposed to block him this one time,” the Patriots junior wide receiver said. “But when I came across the middle and saw him running at me, I just ducked out of the way. I didn’t realize how big he was until then. It was scary.”
It’s hard to blame Flournoy. Carter is a chiseled 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds.
He tackles like he’s trying to knock your teeth out and would not feel all that bad if he actually did.
Sometimes, when a player has this kind of reputation on the field, they cultivate that persona off the field, too. Not Carter.
If anything, he seems to make every effort to diffuse his fearsome reputation. He dresses unpretentiously in shorts and a T-shirts, gives teammates rides home from and seems born for
the role of class clown.
“He’s like two different people, on the field and off the field,” Birmingham senior safety Okechukwu Meke said. “On the field, he’s real serious, he never says a word. Off it, he’s such a clown.
Said Carter, “I’m never serious. You have to make me really mad to get me to be serious. It’s just how I am.
” If he has a weakness, Birmingham coach Ed Croson said, it is that sometimes he takes a little too much time to switch off the silly part of his personality.
“In a lot of ways, he’s still a kid,” Croson said. “It’s always a game to him. It’s always fun. Some guys are like that. That is how they play. But when he blends that with becoming a man, he is really going to take a huge jump. UCLA really got a steal when they got him, and he is not even close to as good as he is going to be yet.
“The thing is, when you get the final analysis (in recruiting), great athletes are a dime a dozen. So it becomes about character and Donovan has that from deep inside.”
Croson has seen enough players like Carter pass through his doors to know you can’t push them too hard, too fast. If you make football too serious, they will start to hate it. Or worse, they will lose that fearless edge that makes them so good in the first place.
His father, Donovan Sr., came to the same conclusion a few years earlier.
He coached his son until high school. He pushed him hard, he disciplined him. If Donovan goofed around too much at practice or in the classroom, his father would make him wake up at 5 a.m. and run laps at the park before school.
“I’d tell him, `You’re going to do up- downs until you’re too tired to talk so much in class.’ I’d be all Sergeant Carter with him,” his father said. “But I kind of quit getting on him a few years ago. You can only say the same things to him for so long. He needed to hear it from someone else.”
He knew his son had the talent to be as good as he wanted to be, and he was going to make sure he had every opportunity to fulfill that potential.
Donovan Carter Sr. was an All-City fullback at Westchester High in the mid-1980s but finished his senior year with a naive belief that the college recruiters would somehow find him. When the phone never rang, he served in the Navy for six years, then went to work. Pretty soon afterwards, he started coaching Pop Warner.
When young Donovan got old enough to play, it was obvious he could be a star. He played every position on the field and mastered each one.
The football gene runs strong in the Carter family. His cousin is Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis. His uncle is Allen Carter, a running back who played for USC and the New England Patriots.
The Carters’ Northridge Knights teams of the mid-1990s became legendary, with future stars like Dayne Crist (Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks), Chris Potter (Oaks Christian of Westlake Village) and Milton Knox (Birmingham).
But when his son went to high school, Donovan Sr. stayed behind with the Knights. He still coaches them three nights a week, though he’s never earned a paycheck for it.
“My dad and I are really close,” Carter said. “He’s always been there for me, with school, sports, everything. I don’t think he’s ever even missed a game. He’s hard on me sometimes, but I know it’s just because he wants me to have what he didn’t have. … and when it comes down to it, whatever I do, in the back of my mind, I want to make my parents proud.
” Because of their Pop Warner ties, the Carters are close with a number of players and families around the Valley. Donovan is generally regarded as a nice kid who never stops joking around.
His sensitive side, the side his sister fell in love with the day he read his childish poem, only comes out in drops.
“I don’t want people to know I’m too nice,” Carter jokes.
But for Rainey, now 19, that’s the only way she’s ever seen him.
“Before I came to live with (the Carters), I’d never had a family or a home. But they just made me feel like part of the family right away,” she said. “Donovan was the best little brother I could ever have. I don’t even know how to put it into words.
“He seems a little intimidating, just looking at him. But he’s not. Looks are definitely deceiving with him. He’s always helping people, giving them rides, making sure no one’s feelings get hurt. He just wants to keep everyone happy all the time.”