Family called out Derek Carr and helped turn around his life
Gaudy stats, a rocket arm and a pro football pedigree alone weren’t enough to get Derek Carr to stardom with the Oakland Raiders.
It would take faith and family, always important but lost in the shuffle during his early days as the heir apparent at Fresno State, to keep his life from careening off the rails.
Only an ultimatum from his future wife, a 1 1/2-page missive that both scolded and pleaded for change, pulled him back on track.
In all likelihood, no multimillion-dollar contract, no Pro Bowls, no NFL playoff runs. Maybe not even a record-setting three-year run with the Bulldogs that led the school to retire his No. 4 jersey in a ceremony at halftime of Saturday’s season-opener at Bulldog Stadium.
At the point he reached the precipice, maybe even a chance to compete for the starting job at Fresno State was in doubt. Carr certainly says so.
“I was throwing away everything,” he told The Bee in an interview this summer.
Faith and football, from an early age
Faith was part of Carr’s life from the moment he was born March 28, 1991, at Fresno’s Saint Agnes Medical Center. Church in the Carr family wasn’t a once-a-week thing. Along with older brothers David and Darren, they went every Wednesday and Sunday.
It was hard to get away with a sick day. Carr’s grandfather, David Joyner, was pastor at Liberty Christian Center in Bakersfield. That religious upbringing and a stable family life was a comfort to young Derek.
“Life was easy for us growing up,” he says. “If there was any kind of struggle, our parents wouldn’t even let us know about it. They just tried to make it easy on us.”
David Carr, of course, went on to star for the Bulldogs, finishing with 7,458 passing yards and 65 touchdowns. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.
Darren Carr played defensive tackle for University of Houston and is now the coach at Bakersfield Christian High.
With that kind of football success in the family, who wouldn’t have thought Derek Carr possibly could be the best of all the brothers?
The next step
When the family moved to Texas to be with David after he was drafted by the Texans, the apprenticeship truly began. Derek regularly got an up-close, often hands-on look at what it’s like to be an NFL quarterback.
Not yet a teenager, he got the chance to break down game film with his brother.
“Being that big age difference, he was sort of like a second father-figure type,” dad Rodger Carr says.
David understood his duties as a role model.
“I wanted to instill a work ethic that would carry him the rest of his life. Whether it was football or anything else he would pursue. It was always important to me that Derek would see me as an older brother that cared deeply for him, and that I set an example as a pro football player.”
Rodger says Derek’s football aptitude was clear from the beginning. “We would go over to (David’s) house to barbecue. David would be finishing up watching film and Derek was in there watching with him. At 12 years old he would be at David’s game and be telling me, ‘Dad, the safeties are coming down; the corners are doing this and he said Dave is going here,’ and he would.
“I’m like, OK, you little turkey, you’re 12 years old and you’re reading NFL defenses already. He loves that.”
Proving it on the field
Derek Carr’s on-field path to college and NFL stardom began in earnest at Clements High in Sugar Land, Texas, where he played for two seasons.
Carr passed for 2,868 yards and 28 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior seasons combined. He was one of 10 finalists for the Mr. Football Award as the state’s top player.
The Carrs moved back to the Valley for his senior year, and Derek played for Bakersfield Christian.
He helped the Eagles to a 12-1 record, throwing for 4,067 yards and 46 touchdowns while breaking numerous records en route to a Central Section Division V title.
Despite interest from UCLA and USC and actual offers from Utah and Southern Methodist, Derek Carr decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and commit to Fresno State.
But that’s where destiny almost was short-circuited.
Heather to the rescue
Publicly, all seemed fine after Carr arrived at Fresno State in 2009. He played in a handful of games as a freshman backup, then redshirted for a year ahead of what everybody figured would be his ascendancy to the starting job.
But behind the scenes, the restraint he was taught by his family and the church and the lessons David had tried to pass on began to slip away. There were late nights out with friends and plenty of parties.
It had caught up to Carr by the time 2011 arrived, but it took a new person in his life to deliver the wake-up call. Or in this case, a letter.
Heather Neel was a waitress for BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse on East Shaw Avenue. One of her customers one day was Derek Carr. He became almost immediately smitten and threw Heather a pick-up line.
“He was at one of my tables and he cracked a joke that I was missing an earring to make me reach for my ear,” recalls Heather, a Fresno Christian High graduate who also went on to Fresno State, “only to find he was just joking with me. He later said he did this to make me laugh and break the ice.”
Derek and Heather began dating but the relationship reached a crossroads. She was well aware of how he was brought up and wasn’t happy with the partier who seemed to be going against his family beliefs.
She was looking for him to change – or else. What proved to be the final warning came in the form of a 1 1/2-page letter to Carr.
“I believe he realized that he would regret his actions, and wanted to change … to win me over,” she says. “I ended up writing him a letter a few months after we started hanging out because I realized he wasn’t the person I thought he was. He wasn’t doing that great of things, and I knew from what he had told me he stood for that that person wasn’t him. He got himself right with God first and then he asked for my forgiveness and here we are.”
Derek Carr said he took it to heart, understanding where he had strayed. Forget the college career. He didn’t want to lose Heather, so the letter resonated with him.
“I lived one way partying and doing all that stuff,” Carr says. He had met the woman “who later became my wife and she said something to me that changed my life. She said, ‘You’re not the person I thought you were.’ ”
A thankful family
Derek’s family wasn’t happy with the path he was taking before Heather’s letter.
“All I can tell you, he was living the good life,” Rodger Carr says.
Carr’s mom, Sheryl, also had tried to get him back on the straight and narrow, even going to look for him one day to tell him to quit what he was doing.
“Had the last name, a quarterback and (figured), ‘I’m going to someday take the program over.’ ” Rodger says. “He was reaping everything he could. God had to straighten him out.”
David Carr says he, too, believed that “during Derek’s early years in college, (he) swayed from his faith.”
“But it was the best thing that could have happened to him,” he says. “He then met Heather, an unbelievable person, and a woman of faith. Once Derek met Heather, I believe she got Derek back on the right course and they have continued to grow together.
“No doubt, Derek is a better person because of Heather, and his unwavering faith.”
Derek and Heather exchanged wedding vows June 29, 2012. He went on to two of the biggest seasons ever enjoyed by a quarterback at Fresno State, a program known for producing stars at the position long before David’s arrival.
Kevin Sweeney, Trent Dilfer and Billy Volek are among those the Bulldogs sent to the pros.
Derek Carr had topped them all by the time he left in 2013, leaving as the career leader in passing yards (12,842) and touchdowns (113). As a senior, he led the nation in total offense (5,199), passing yards (5,082), passing yards per game (390.9), passing touchdowns (50) and completions per game (34.85).
In three years, he’s already been to two Pro Bowls and last season helped the Raiders to a 12-3 record and the team’s first playoff berth since 2002 before a broken leg ended his campaign. He’s since recovered and is a full-go in training camp.
“Faith, family and friends and football” are his priorities and sometimes they become intertwined.
During his rookie season, the family came to watch Derek play. Also there was another of Derek’s mentors, Mattie Montgomery, lead singer of the Christian metal group For Today.
Rodger Carr recalls a moment when Montgomery had a question for the patriarch during the game at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum: “ ‘Rodger, where’s the Black Hole?’ I said, ‘Right down there.’ He was like, ‘You know why your son is here?’ He said there’s a lot of lost souls out there. I said yeah and he goes, ‘When your son speaks, they’ll listen.’
“That’s what I’m proud about,” Rodger Carr says.
Derek Carr is happy to offer whatever comfort the example he now sets provides.
“When people are coming up to me balling their eyes out telling me the problems they had, God healed them on that day and they showed me … those tears were real,” Derek Carr says. “People are real and those lives are real. Nothing can take that away.”
Life after the NFL?
While Carr hopes to play professionally for a long time, he has thought about what he would like to do once he hangs up his cleats.
He said, “I’d just live it out every single day. I’m not ritualistic or anything like that. I just try to live it out; it’s just who I am.”
Preaching is an option; he even had a chance to speak recently at a service in Bakersfield.
“I’m going to keep preaching. I don’t know if I’ll have a church or preaching different places but it’s definitely what I’m going to be doing. Maybe I’ll coach, who knows? Maybe at Fresno one day. Who knows? I will never close a door on anything.”
Maybe he’ll just keeping helping people. He’s shown that through his work with Valley Children’s Hospital and with everyday people.
This past year, he helped a stranded motorist by taking him to a gasoline station. And he helped Oakland police find a missing girl. He’s helped those who have sought his prayers.
And, of course, he has sons Dallas, 4, and Deker, 1, to raise.
Will he let his sons play football, given what’s now known about the risks of repeated concussions not to mention other injuries?
“I’m going to let them do whatever they want” and support them, Carr says. “We grew up with that (support) and it was a huge blessing. I’m trying to give my kids that, and they’ll never know anything that’s wrong and I want them to go through it like we did.”
Carr says he is grateful to have met Heather at the restaurant. So what if the pick-up line wasn’t the greatest? He points back to that day as a turning point in his life.
“That’s what God used to grab my attention to live for him. God used her to say that to me, and it worked. I realized I was throwing away everything he had planned for me at the moment.
“I decided right then and there I’m going to live for him … everything. And I have. Ever since I did that, I’ve never turned back.”