The first time Derek Carr got under center at Fresno State, he wasn't quite ready. For any of what was about to come, starting with that first snap on the practice field.
"I said, 'set, go' and the center thought it was on that and it wasn't. He snapped it early and my hand wasn't ready … "
The ball came up quickly, unexpectedly, and smacked him on the ring finger on his left hand, fracturing it.
"Coach (Pat) Hill just looked at me and said, 'Get back in there.' "
He did, and five years later Carr will cap his Fresno State career with every school passing record in the books along with a slew of Mountain West Conference records.
This season, with the Bulldogs at 11-1, he is leading the nation in total offense with 4,983 yards and passing with 4,866 yards, passing touchdowns with 48 and completions per game with 35.3, touchdown responsibility with 50 and total points responsibility with 302.
And there is one game remaining, on Saturday, in the Las Vegas Bowl against USC.
Then there is the Senior Bowl and NFL combine and the draft, but walking off the field for the last time in a Bulldogs uniform, taking a seat in the locker room, will be different.
"I don't even know if I can describe it," Carr said. "It's weird. This last banquet we had was my 10th. I think I had everybody in that room on banquets. It was crazy, just sitting there, just thinking about everything that I've been through, everything since I got here, and it's crazy. It's been everything I could have ever dreamed of, and I wouldn't replace any of it for anything."
Carr discussed his career at Fresno State, the 2013 season, his growth as a quarterback and what Fresno means to him and his family in a Q&A with The Bee.
Question: What do you think it's going to be like, that last game?
Answer: I know I won't be nervous. I won't be anxious or anything for this game, how I have been for all the games in my entire career, I won't be, because this is the last one. There is no, 'OK, if we win this one now we have to do this … .' There's none of that; it's just go out there and have fun. My prayer and my hope is when I walk off that field, hopefully after celebrating with my teammates, that I had fun during that game, so I can promise you I'm going to have fun. No matter how I do it or how we do it, I'm going to have fun and I'm going to make sure my last memory no matter what is an enjoyable one.
Obviously, there's still football ahead of you, which isn't the case for most, but do you think that will be hard?
Well, hopefully, I'll be playing next year and for years and years after that. But this will be the last time I wear the uniform that I love. I grew up of course an NFL fan, but there is no team that I really loved. I just rooted for my brother. I love Fresno State. I wish I could be here for 20 years and play, but I have to make some money for my family and playing football at the next level is going to be it. But it will be emotional for me after the game to just sit there. I probably won't even want to take my pads off. I'll probably want to wear the jersey home, but I don't think (wife) Heather will let me.
That could be a smelly ride home …
No doubt. It would not be a good one.
Have you tried to prepare yourself for what that might be like, taking off that Fresno State uniform for the last time?
I haven't yet. I started thinking about it the past couple of days, but I haven't really thought about what's going to happen when I'm walking onto the field for the last time or I'm in the halftime adjustments for the last time. … Walking off the field for the last time, I haven't even prepared my mind for it and I don't know if I want to. I think I just want to see what happens and just enjoy the memories.
I remember on Senior Day, Dr. (Eric) Hanson, I was the last one out, he was standing behind me, he said, 'Whatever you do, I tell everybody who gets married this and all these things, take mental photos so you remember it.' If I wouldn't have, I would have run out there like it was just another time running out of the tunnel and it would have been a blur because I was nervous about the game and all that. But doing that, I have such vivid memories of Senior Day and running out for the last time and having everyone cheer and all those things so it's not just a vague memory.
I think that's one thing that I'll take in after the game — even during the game. (If) I get hurt hard one time, I'm going to love it, because I know it's the last time I'll ever play for the Bulldogs.
Does this game, the Las Vegas Bowl, or just USC, bring anything more to it for you?
They definitely have a lot of talent, I can tell you that. They loved their head coach in (former coach Ed Orgeron), I can tell you that. I know they have a new coach now, because Coach O left. But USC is USC, whether they win one game in a year or they win the national championship, their history speaks for itself. I'm going to tell you this, though, if I were scared I wouldn't show up on Saturday and I promise you I will be there on Saturday and so will this whole team. We are so looking forward to this game. I think last year helped us prepare for this one because being in Hawaii, surfing and doing those things, yeah, we're going to Vegas and yeah maybe some guys will go out, but it won't be anything crazy. We want to win this game more than we want to hang out and so we know the challenge that's at hand. It is USC — you turn on the film and the first thing that stands out is how talented they are. But one thing that I do believe is we can go 1-0 this week.
When you look back at the season, your senior season, what sticks out right now?
Oh, man … right now the loss sticks out and not because it was such a hard time. It was hard, but my faith never wavered and that's one thing, and why I say the loss, I remember it reminds me of what I dealt with earlier with (newborn son) Dallas. It was so hard to have the doctors tell us that he might not make it or we have to rush him to surgery and all these things. But never once did my faith waver. I get a lot more fired up for things off the field than on the field and so after the loss, I told my team, 'God is good,' and to be able to tell my team that and actually believe it and have them come back and say, 'You're right' and how we responded back, that means more to me than winning games. The fact that they believe that, the fact that they still prayed after the game, those things is what sticks out in my head. Yes, it sucks to lose, especially when you're trying to go undefeated and play in a BCS bowl, like we could have. It was hard. But the one thing I remember is just my faith never wavered and I was the same person when we won and when we lost — and that's something I can be happy about and I can tell Dallas, 'Be the same person when you win or lose.' I can say that to him knowing in the back of my head I did it, not saying when I lost I was a poor sport and I was throwing things, stuff like that. I can tell him I was the same. Of course I was upset, but me as a person, I didn't change.
There are a lot of wins for this team this year, a lot of records with your name next to them now. But that bounceback, is that what you're most proud of in this year?
Oh, yeah. It was perfect timing to bounce back — it was for a ring, it was for a championship. One thing that motivated me that whole week is, I'm not going to sit there and watch Utah State celebrating on our home field for my last game in Bulldog Stadium. That's one thing that motivated me. Of course there were mistakes — I made plenty of them. But football is such the ultimate team game, that's what fires me up, the way we bounced back and held each other accountable and how the defense bailed me out — they did, and I'll be the first one to tell you I can't do it without them. They bailed me out, and thank goodness because I didn't want to have to sit there and think about that all night, throwing a pick and them scoring and winning. The defense helped me out and now it's something we don't even talk about, we just talk about 400 yards and a win. It's fun to think about, but in the back of my head I still think about the picks.
Those were two curious throws …
I'm with you …
What was that like for you after that game — and I don't know if they're going to bill you for another game ball that you threw into the stands — but when I heard they were going to let everyone storm the field I thought, watch out, but it turned out to be a pretty neat scene, didn't it?
It did. And I heard them say it over the loudspeaker before the game and I thought the same thing: 'If we win this thing, it's going to be chaotic.' It wasn't really. It was cool. It was crazy at first when everyone was rushing the field. But just to be able to stand on that stage and to be able to see the whole Red Wave out there on the field and to celebrate with us, that's how I would want it.
I loved seeing the joy on people's faces. I would look out and look at people and just see how happy they were, how happy their kids were, how happy their sons were. I remember throwing my towel to some kid. I remember those things and how happy they were. That's one thing I wanted to bring to Bulldog football. Of course I wanted to bring home a championship and we were blessed to bring home two of them, but the thing I wanted to leave, 10 years from now, I want people to say the same things to one of my family members that they said to me about David — what a great person he was. I remember when he did this for my son, or I remember when he took a picture, I remember how happy he was. … Of course I want to be the best Bulldog to ever play. As a competitor, that will never change. But more importantly I want to be one of the best people that was ever to come to this program and a person of integrity, and I hope people can still say that years from now.
How important is that to you, that interaction? And, not just after that game, but we've walked off the practice field and there have been people waiting to get an autograph or talk to you, some of them all the way from Germany. … How crazy is that?
It's definitely crazy that, by playing the game of football, America looks up to football, not only America but people around the world, they love it, so I'm blessed to be in a position where I can play and try to play at a high level every week and for people to want to hear about my story or want to be a fan or sign an autograph or take a picture. It's crazy to me that people's lives can be touched from all over the world. I met the kid from Germany, I was like … 'Wow, why do you want to meet me?' But his life was touched by watching a football game. That's more important to me, those kinds of things, because, like I said, whether I throw too many picks or I'm too old, they're going to take my jersey away and I'm going to live more than half my life without football, so the things that people say about me off the field are more important. That's why losses and stuff like that, I take it hard, because I want to win, but it's not the end of the world. When the kid said he was from Germany, I was in shock. Like, wow. The coolest part was just to hear him talk about football. He said, 'Man, it hurts when they try and tackle you,' and I was like, 'Yeah it does. … '
I've never told anyone this, but I had someone write me from jail. I had an inmate write me — I won't put his name out there — but he wrote me this three- or four-page letter about how my faith has encouraged him. Of course, a little of it had to do with football. But 90% of it was about the kind of person I was off the field. He heard me talk on a radio show while he was in jail and he wrote me a letter and, man, when I got it I started tearing up. Of course, Dallas has made me emotional. But I've never felt like that. I never knew that I could touch people's lives in that way. … Someone in jail, going through the worst kind of time, and he's here telling me to stay encouraged, telling me to stay upbeat, don't worry about losses, God has a plan. I thought it was unbelievable. I started tearing up, I did, and I ended up writing him a letter back.
Obviously you had a big-time role model there with your brother, but that's something you have to learn for yourself as well. But you think about college and growing up and all that, where do you think that all developed?
I think his advice helped in the sense that, like I tell you guys all the time, he told me you're going to be praised and you're going to be criticized, ignore both, and just work hard and be a good person, make sure when people leave you they feel loved, that they know there's someone who cares about them.
His advice helped, but going through it yourself and putting it into action is hard. You have to go through some bumps. Of course I did in my first couple of years with the way I was acting. It's hard to take advice and use it, just like it's hard to take coaching and use it. I don't make every right decision on the football field, but I try, and that's one thing Coach (Dave) Schramm has taught me, no matter what just try my best. I told him one day, 'I don't even know how to be a dad.' And he said, 'Yes you do, just do the best that you can.' I take people's advice, criticism, whether it's good or bad, if it's going to help me I'm going to use it and try to be better. Like last year, dealing with the injury and hearing footwork and pocket and all that, yeah, it sucked to hear and I was playing hurt and all those things, but I needed to fix it. I knew that once I got healthy I could fix it. But at the time, it was hard. Dealing with that, it made me grow up. I was being criticized and it was good for me. Of course I didn't want to hear it, but it was good for me because I needed it. I know at the next level it gets worse.
I remember Robert Griffin throwing for 300-something yards, three touchdowns and a pick and he was the worst player ever the next day. If you don't win, it's crazy in that league. But it's all stuff that's helping me get ready for that — don't listen to that outside noise, just try to be the best person you can be.
Changing gears a bit, obviously, the national profile of Fresno State and this football program has grown the past two years. Did it get to where you wanted it to?
We as a team took it as far as we could, to the highest BCS ranking we've ever had, to however many sellouts, highest ticket sales, winning two championships. If you would have told me, hey, you're going to go 11-1, possibly 12-1, you'll win a conference title your senior year, you'll break all these records, I would have been, 'Sweet, sign me up. Let's do it.' Losses are going to happen. It's the irony of football — you try to be perfect knowing you'll never get there. I'm sure Tom Brady and Peyton Manning mess up a couple of times and they're Hall of Famers, they're the best to ever do it. I'm never going to put myself in their class, because they're on another level. I just know that I'm happy where I'm at.
Do I wish I could have brought a Heisman here? Yes. I wanted to so bad because I love this program and I love my teammates and I know it will help recruiting. Did I want to win a BCS bowl? Yes, I wanted to so bad. But am I going to pout about it? No. Am I going to be depressed? No. Everything happened for a reason. I gave absolutely every ounce of energy in that squat rack, running gassers in that stadium running stairs, that I could absolutely give and I can walk away knowing, no matter what happens in the bowl game, I did everything I that I could to help this program.
I tried my best to make it not about me, even when they were doing the Heisman campaign and those things. That's hard to go through for someone like me because I don't want it to be about me. I wish Davante (Adams), Isaiah (Burse) or (Josh Harper) could have won all the awards. I wish my offensive line could have had it. But they just like quarterbacks, I guess.
That's one thing that stands out for me. Going into the year with so many expectations not only for yourself but for this team, and don't take this the wrong way, but I thought you'd press more than you did, try to force things, and you never really did …
I can tell you, the Idaho game, I tried to. We threw for however yards we threw for, five touchdowns, all these things, but I probably played my worst game of my career from a fundamental standpoint, from where I should throw the ball and where I shouldn't. I was pressing. I wanted to throw for 1,000 yards. That's not a disrespectful thing. But our receivers were making some crazy plays, and I remember throwing a pick. I remember throwing it up to Davante, and that was me just trying to be greedy, when Burse is running wide open for a touchdown up the middle. If I just stayed to my reads, I throw it to him, I can toss it to him, and he's going to walk in.
I remember Coach Schramm sat me down, we watched the whole thing, and he said, 'How do you feel?' I said, 'Man, like crap.' That was the worst game I've ever played in my life. He just sat me down and said, 'Stick to what you're doing. Stick to what I try to teach you and coach you, and we're going to be just fine.' From that moment on, I just tried to be the most basic quarterback I could be and let the rest take care of itself, the stats and all those things. During that game, I was thinking about the Heisman. I was thinking about those things. 'Man, we could throw 10 touchdowns, maybe that'll help.' That was totally wrong — I was being selfish. But everybody goes through things and that was one thing I went through, during that game. We threw for all those yards, but that was my worst game all year.
Is that something you fought with, series to series or game to game?
In that game, it was because Davante was making one-handed catches and Burse is getting hit and holding onto it and Harp is running routes wide open because he made guys fall down. I just felt like, these guys are feeling it. I need to throw it out there to them. I was pressing. It was something I had to overcome last year, this past offseason, because that's something I did a lot. I want to make every play a top-10 play or a top-10 throw, all those things. But this year I had to learn to just relax and just throw it to the open guy and we'll move the offense. I've learned so much just to control the offense.
A game manager — I wish people would call me that. That's a compliment. I bet (Alabama quarterback) AJ McCarron loves it, because he manages the game. What else are you supposed to do as a quarterback? That's one thing I had to learn in the offseason, not so much this season, except for that one game.
Learning that, is that something you're proud of?
I would say I'm happy that I could change, because I needed to. It was something I was doing bad and I needed to get better at it. So I can say that I'm happy that I took the criticism that, hey, you need to stop doing this, and we fixed it. It was a group effort with me and Coach Schramm. He was on me all the time because I was too competitive. I'm trying so hard to do things — I think I can throw it into any window, I feel like I can throw this size football into that sized window. I always feel that way. … 'Oh, it will slip through (the defender's) hands and it'll get through.' I think that way. I had to stop doing that and we did it. We had a fun offensive year. Looking back on the season, I can say we accomplished that goal and it's pretty cool because me and Coach Schramm, we can say we did it together because we really did. He was on me about it all the time, especially at practice, especially when I have a freshman corner out there on Davante. My read is telling me not to go there, but, I'm like, 'Nah, I'll change the route and go there anyway,' instead of just work the drill. … That was one thing I had to learn.
That's a pretty big thing in this season, the way it went.
It's huge. I mean, on third-and-3 I was throwing go balls, I was throwing deep balls. I needed to learn to control that. He'd ask me, 'What are you doing?' I was like, 'Coach, I can make that throw.' And he'd go, 'But you threw it out of bounds.' And I'm, 'I'll hit it next time.' It was something we had to work on, but we did.
I have hurt us a lot of times — I can think of seven off the top of my head. But I'm glad it's not more than that. Hopefully, it will stay that way. When I throw a pick I feel like I let everybody down, this whole city. I feel like everything comes down on me, because I don't want to be the reason, I don't want to be the reason we lost a game.
Let's finish up with that, with Fresno. You go way back, back to when David was playing here. Can you express what this all means to you?
Everything. They have been so kind, so patient with me at times, especially when we were 4-9, so patient, those true fans out there, I love them to death. I was a young guy out there just throwing it around, throwing deep balls to Jalen (Saunders) even when I shouldn't. I was throwing picks. … I was a young, immature quarterback, and I just thank them so much for being patient with me because I can promise you, if it's bad, it's going to get better because I'm going to try everything I can do and so if it doesn't get better productionwise, they got every ounce of effort that I could give. I'm glad that they trusted in that — I didn't get booed too many times that year.
I'd just like to say, thank you, because they mean so much to my family. Not just me, but my parents, my brothers, my wife, especially Dallas. Every time we're out, it happened the other night probably three or four times, people ask, 'How is Dallas doing?' and you look at them, like, how do they know Dallas? But the community has loved my family so much that they come up and they know him and they do. I love it, because they care about my son, they care that he's doing better. It happens every single time we go out to get something to eat. Someone will come up and say, 'Oh, is that Dallas? How is he doing?' They don't have to ask those things, they could just go about their business. I would just say thank you, because they have been so kind to me and they really care about my family, and it's been really cool.
"I want to be one of the best people that was ever to come to this program and a person of integrity, and I hope people can still say that years from now."
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or @rkuwada on Twitter.