BAKERSFIELD -- Derek Carr was born to play quarterback, equipped with a perfect combination of nature and nurture to hone a difficult craft. He was athletically predisposed with size, speed, smarts and a cannon right arm accented with the right amount of touch.
He had guidance worthy of a crown prince, with a father to mentor him early on and an older brother who had already been king. Rodger Carr taught his son about fundamentals and work ethic. David Carr, an excellent quarterback in his own right, bestowed football knowledge and life lessons he experienced as a Fresno State star and an NFL signal-caller to a brother 12 years younger.
Thanks to David’s labor of love, little Derek had a blueprint for success. Work hard, stay focused, maximize talent and follow a pre-travelled path to the pros. Do that Derek, and you’ll get there. Stumble along the way? Pops and big brother will pick you back up.
Support certainly helped Derek Carr become a Fresno State legend and a Raider with the No. 36 overall pick in last year’s NFL draft.
Assuming that made everything easy is oversimplification. Hard times made Derek Carr the man he is today, someone able to weather adversity without crumbling under its weight. That’s a trait only discovered by doing.
There was no instruction manual detailing how to handle 10 straight losses to start a pro career or stay above water in tidal waves of change, with three head coaches and two offensive schemes in 12 months. Yet here he stands, on the verge of a second season as Raiders quarterback, confident as ever that this is the start of something great.
There was no instruction manual for how to act with a son at death’s door just days after taking his first breath. Yet there he stood at 22 years old, a pillar of strength while baby Dallas spent his first 23 days clinging to life.
While he’s learned from his mentors, individual experiences like these make Derek unique and properly equipped to handle the pressure of his current position. He’s a person with fixed priorities and overflowing optimism in difficult situations, even when frustration might play better to the crowd.
“People wonder if bad times impact me because I have a smile on my face,” Carr said last month in an extended interview with CSNBayArea.com at one of his family’s Carr Elite football camps. “Of course they do. They rip my heart out, but I’m going to fight harder than anyone because I lean on my faith in tough times. That’s where I find my strength. When a doctor says, ‘Dallas might not make it,’ all I can do is lean on my faith to keep from crumbling. That’s all I know how to do. And I trust it’s right because I’ve seen it come through time and time again.”
The Carr family mantra is a priority list: Faith. Family. Football. In that order.
You’ve certainly heard that cadence before. It was a common refrain during Derek’s rookie press conferences, often combating questions about the wear and tear of a Raiders season quickly circling the drain. The point: Losses ruin Derek’s evening, not his entire week.
Football isn’t life. It’s a game, a job he loves dearly. He’s grateful for every moment in a jersey, but it doesn’t compare to the time spent with his wife and son.
Derek the quarterback is an incredibly early riser, someone who arrives at the Raiders’ Alameda facility with the sun and returns to his Dublin home after it sets behind him.
Carr has the unique ability to leave No. 4 in the car, turning himself over to his wife Heather and son Dallas upon walking through the door.
“It’s good to be able to get away from it all,” Heather Carr said. “Derek will tell you that football is his job, it’s not who he is. That’s so true. When he comes home, he isn’t NFL quarterback. He’s dad. He’s husband. We don’t really talk about football at home unless he wants to. He doesn’t let bad days bleed into his home life. We just get to be family.”
Those times are never, ever taken for granted. Whether it’s an extra 90 seconds engaged with Dallas or a friendly game of Nerf basketball between husband and wife (please, watch this video), the Carrs try to maximize each minute together.
Through simple pleasantries and grand gestures, Derek and Heather walk an extra mile to honor this dynamic and the three weeks when it was nearly ripped apart.
“I always think about those times,” Heather said. “You can still see the scar on Dallas’ belly and when you do, you just thank God that he’s alive. It could have all been taken from us. That’s why we cherish every moment we have as a family. We know that, no matter what happens, family will always be our top priority.”
Dallas’ scar symbolizes a young life saved. The boy was born on Aug. 5, 2013, just before Derek started his senior season at Fresno State. Derek was a Heisman hopeful and the San Joaquin Valley’s favorite son, with an NFL gig ahead on a career path paved in gold.
Early, frequent vomiting was the first sign of trouble. It led to panic and eventually a life-threatening diagnosis. Dallas Mason Carr had intestinal malrotation, meaning his intestines weren’t properly aligned and cutting off the flow of his digestive tract. Dallas needed surgery, and was taken by ambulance from a Clovis hospital to Valley Children's Hospital in Madera.
He underwent one procedure, then another during a touch-and-go 23-day period that coincided with Bulldogs training camp. Derek rarely missed a practice, and spent most every other minute at the hospital with his wife and son.
The schedule was emotionally and physically draining. It wore on Derek, who broke down several times over the phone with his parents and coaches.
In front of his wife, Derek held strong. He would read Bible verses aloud well into the night, and remained a source of positivity as the couple prayed for a happy ending that was not guaranteed.
“I always had my faith, but that was a real test of it,” Derek Carr said. “Everyone knew who we were in Fresno. It was my senior year and everything was going great. Life was good, and we didn’t worry about much. Then Dallas’ ordeal comes up and it ripped my heart out. At that point, I thought, ‘am I still going to be the man I say that I am? Am I going to be strong and be there for my wife and child?’ Saying those things is easy. Living and doing can be extremely difficult.”
This was, and always will be, Derek’s defining moment.
“There was no way to tell him how to get through it,” said Rodger Carr, Derek’s father. “Derek had to be the man of the house, and he stepped up in a big way. He had things under control and believed God would help him and his family through it. You won’t find anyone in the family who didn’t have faith Dallas was going to make it.
“That’s how we looked at it. We knew Derek and Heather would do their part and that God would do the rest.”
Dallas underwent a third procedure in September 2013, but was eventually given a clean bill of health. He recently celebrated his second birthday and carries on with the exuberance of a young child unaware of a scary period that put life in proper perspective.
Faith. Family. Football. In that order. That was something Rodger Carr often told his three young sons.
Before Heather, before Dallas, that mantra didn’t belong to Derek. It was something he heard, not advice he heeded. He was a teenager interested in teenager things, especially after enrolling at Fresno State in the footsteps of his famous older brother. He was a rock star before throwing a college pass, especially as a big fish in a small pond.
After Heather, after Dallas, Derek’s priorities came into focus. They all stem from faith. He has faith his family will offer unconditional support. He has faith in his own character and work ethic. Dallas’ ordeal taught Derek that his faith in God is a sturdy crutch, one that won’t let him buckle under stresses he can’t control.
“I knew faith, family and football was my foundation, but I wasn’t living by it until I grew up and figured it out on my own,” Derek Carr said. “It wasn’t people saying things to me. I found the path through experience. I’ve lived both ways, and I like the path I’m on a whole lot more.”
Derek Carr is mature beyond his 24 years, overqualified to survive 0-10 and eventually 3-13 without permanent damage.
Talented quarterbacks have been beaten down by losses, but Derek weathered a trying rookie season with aplomb because he knows that football isn’t life. It’s just a game, one with problems he can work through.
His optimism and determination never waned, even late in a chaotic season where the Raiders hit rock bottom.
“I am human, and I feel each loss as much as anyone,” Carr said. “I hate to lose. There were moments where I took time to be disappointed and admit just how hard winning is at this level. There were times when I’d talk to my brother or my wife about just how difficult all the losing was, but they never lasted long. It does me no good to feel sorry for myself or wallow in disappointment. I didn’t worry or stress out because I knew I would keep working and I had faith there were better days ahead.”
David Carr experienced his youngest brother’s trying rookie season from the couch. He didn’t travel to road games and stayed away from Raiders home dates on purpose, to avoid the inevitable comparisons between them. David didn’t want cameras searching for a reaction every time Derek did something on the field, so he chose to babysit nephew Dallas while momma and family watched games in person.
It wasn’t just games experienced from afar. David Carr has stayed away from Raiders training camps and in-season practices. He was loathe to go on the record last season, while Derek was getting used to life in the league.
“The comparisons between us always come, from his rookie year through each stage of his progress,” David Carr said. “I just want him to have his own career and let him do his own thing. I can take a step back, but he knows I’ll always be there for him no matter what.”
The two still have an open dialogue, and Derek would be crazy not to use David’s intelligent football mind. David knows a phone call is coming after road games, when brothers freely discuss what went right and wrong. David typically stays in Dublin after home games, ready to break down tape after baby brother returns from a long, hard Sunday.
They used to do something similar a decade ago, when David quarterbacked the expansion Houston Texans and young Derek was an aspiring signal-caller obsessed with football scheme and strategy. Derek became proficient at X’s and O’s working with David – Derek even called his own plays in high school -- who also helped him refine form, technique and his life around the game.
David “put extra tools in the toolbox,” but Derek now has to build his own house.
“My hands are off,” David Carr said. “If he specifically asks me a question or something comes up in conversation about a coverage or a play, we’ll discuss. He’s pretty savvy chalkboard-wise, but there’s no equal to experience. I’m trying to let his NFL development happen naturally over time … Hopefully I give him enough information to help him grow, but Derek has to take ownership of himself. He’s done a great job of that since getting drafted.”
Derek Carr’s better for the 16 games played his rookie year, and many believe he’s on the path to stardom with an upgraded supporting cast heading into the 2015 season.
He was far from perfect as a rookie, with plenty to work on as his career advances. Unlike last year at this time, Carr is not the quarterback of the future. He’s the quarterback right now, someone counted on to produce each week.
Teammates and coaches believe in his brand of leadership and have faith he can make strides necessary to spark a Raiders renaissance.
A resurgence won’t happen without quality quarterbacking, but that doesn’t add pressure to this fall’s proceedings.
Outside expectations will never match his own benchmarks, which are sky high because Carr has been to the puppet show and seen the strings. There are no illusions about NFL life and what it takes to succeed.
“It was such a blessing to be able to play all 16 games and gain that experience because now, coming into it, I don’t just have a film point of view,” Carr said. “I have a ‘from where I stood’ point of view. I know what works. I know what I can and can’t get away with. The experience is just a huge factor.”
No matter what he experiences this year, Carr knows he can handle it. He is supremely comfortable in his own skin and the knowledge that faith, family and football will carry him through.