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Captain for Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker

Captain for Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker

by Harry Carson


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A unique and powerful personal tale about the great joy and devastating price of playing professional football, by a legendary former NFL linebacker

One of the greatest linebackers to ever play professional football, Harry Carson built a reputation during his 13 years in the NFL as a fearsome, physical and passionate player who would give everything he had to win. Whether violently tackling running backs, engaging blockers with reckless abandon or ferociously attacking the line of scrimmage, Carson will always be remembered as having played the game the way it's meant to be played—all out.

For the first time ever, this legendary athlete takes readers on an unlikely journey to the NFL that began in the small town of Florence, South Carolina to his days at little known South Carolina State University—and then the bright lights of professional football in New York, playing for the Giants. Carson's story of his life as a football player and after his retirement is more powerful and eye-opening than any that's come before.

Within these pages, Carson reveals the startling truth behind the sacrifices these great warriors make for our entertainment, the thrill of stepping onto a field with 80,000 fans screaming your name, and the debilitating physical and mental toll this violent and uncompromising game takes. With insight into some of the game's biggest stars, from Lawrence Taylor to Bill Parcells to Phil Simms this book is a must for any NFL fan.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312550622
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/30/2011
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

HARRY CARSON's 13 years with the New York Football Giants is one of the longest tenures in club history. The indestructible former linebacker served as Team Captain for 10 of his 13 seasons including the 1986 season, when the team won the Superbowl. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Captain for Life


Mama's Boy

Every journey has to start somewhere, and mine begins at 404 South John Street, Florence, South Carolina. It is my foundation. It's etched in my mind as my home, even though I was not born there. I was actually born up the street in the next block but was too young when I left there to have any real memories of that house. No hospital for me; I was born at home, which was probably the case for most black children during that time, on November 26, 1953. Midwife Ola Jones delivered me, and since I weighed ten and a half pounds, it was a good bet that I would be the last of six children for my mother. My mama, Gladys Carson, was my rock! Yes, I was a mama's boy, but then again I was everybody's baby boy.

One of my first memories was the joy I got when Mama changed the linen on the beds. Whenever she and one of my three sisters made the beds, they would wrap me up in the sheets and swing me around and from side to side. I can clearly remember my laughter and excitement as I begged them, "Do it again, do it again," as they played with me in the bedroom. My sister Loretta, whom we affectionately called Rhettie, was my interpreter and my "gofer." I'm not embarrassed to say that I was on the bottle and seldom talked until I reached age four. Whenever I wanted something, I would simply point and mumble with the bottle in my mouth, and Rhettie would decipher what I was trying to sayand get whatever I wanted. As I grew, I realized that she was the "family enforcer," and I thought she was fearless. She was the shortest and smallest in the family, but if anyone bothered me or my brother Ronnie, she had no problem with beating up that person for us.

While 404 South John Street was the first home I knew, it and other homes like it in my neighborhood made up what others would call our "village." Many people refer to the old African proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child." My home was my entire neighborhood, where I felt safe. It was nothing for a kid like me to stray away from home and walk next door or down the street because my hood was a safe haven where everybody knew one another. While we may not have all gotten along or seen eye to eye all of the time, the neighbors were like my extended family. As people walked by our house, they would stop and spend a few moments talking to my mama. "Hey, Gladys, how you doin' today?" Usually the conversation centered on their health or a program at the church, and then they'd say, "Girl, that boy of yours sho is gitten' big!" Or they would refer to the gray patch in my hair. I was born with a gray patch about the size of a silver dollar on the top right side of my head. Most people said that I was "born for good luck" because of that. It made me a little different from all the other kids. The point is, people stopped, talked, and took an interest in one another. We were poor, but like many people back then we didn't know we were poor. It simply was the way that it was!

Overall I was a happy kid, but I was devastated when I learned that my mother had to leave my family to help provide for us. At the time I didn't know what financial hardships we had, but eventually she left Florence, South Carolina, and relocated to Newark, New Jersey, where she began working as a domestic, cleaning and maintaining homes. Many black women worked as domestics during those days because their options were limited. My mama's leaving had nothing to do with her relationship with my father or with us. But with only an eighth-grade education and making little money as a cook at the Florence country club, she thought that she could do better, as many other blacks did during that time, by migrating to the North.

She told me many things that I've played back in my mind for years and years. I will always remember one of the simple things she shared with mebefore she left. I was with her in the kitchen as she listened to gospel music on the radio, to Mahalia Jackson, one of her favorite gospel singers. As she was cooking, I noticed she'd started to cry and I asked, "Mama, why are you crying?" She looked at me with those tears in her eyes and said, "Baby, learn how to take care of yourself." She didn't explain why she wanted me to do that, and as a five- or six-year-old kid I didn't understand why she was telling me, but over time it began to make sense. I was saddened to lose the everyday presence of my mother, and in retrospect, I realized leaving the family was probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do. Back then, where I lived, black women never left their children unless it was totally necessary.

Before she left, I remember she asked my oldest sister, Ruth, to take me to Holmes School for enrollment. I'll never forget that, as we were walking out of the house, Mama said, "Make sure you get Don Don into Mrs. Washington's class!" (Don Don was what everybody called me.) I didn't really want to go to school because I enjoyed playing by myself on those days when everybody else was either in school or working. But since I had to go to school, I wondered who this Mrs. Washington was. Apparently she was the first-grade teacher who'd taught all of my siblings. I thought if she was good enough for my brothers and sisters, then she was good enough for me. Once I was enrolled and started going to school, I realized that while she was small in stature, Mrs. Washington was a tough disciplinarian who wanted the very best not only for her students but for all of the students who attended Holmes School.

Mrs. Washington had a view of the world that at my young age I had never known. She was smart and patient with her students. She was tough, but she clearly loved all of her students as if we were her children. In those days, corporal punishment was a given. If you misbehaved, you were either going to get a whack with a strap from her or from Mr. Miller, the principal of Holmes School. At times she would leave the classroom and say, "I want everyone to stay quiet. If anyone is caught talking, then when I come back, the whole class will get a whipping." Wouldn't you know it, some smart-ass kid (sometimes me) would not keep his mouth shut, and when she returned, she would catch us making noise. So out would come the strap to dish out some Flora Washington discipline. The strap was either a skinny fan belt from a car engine or a straplike barbers used to sharpen razors. When it came to class punishment, nobody was exempt, and I mean nobody! The good kids and the bad kids, the boys and the girls, everybody shared in the misery, one lick to the hand. At that point I realized what being macho was all about! Who was going to cry and who was not? Many of the guys took the lick and put on a strong face as if to say, "I'm not going to cry." The girls ... well, the girls were another story. Some of them started to cry before they were even struck. I was one of those guys who refused to cry. I never liked getting a whipping whether it was at school or at home. Although I might have had tears in my eyes when I got whipped at school, I would not allow those tears to fall because I refused to let others see me cry. I was never a bad kid in the classroom, but I got caught up in stuff that other kids brought to the table. Unfortunately we all were in the same boat. Whether you were a good kid or one of those badass kids, if one person screwed up, we all paid the price. I never really thought about it, but this was probably the first semblance of being a part of a team; we were all in it together.

Mrs. Washington's students were known for their excellent penmanship, and to this day, others who were in Mrs. Washington's first-grade class with me write with the same distinct style. She, along with other teachers of her generation, loved teaching. They were strict but cared about our growth and development. Those teachers were sort of an extension of the family because if they had to discipline you for a really bad reason, they would make sure they told your parents, and once that was done, you got both barrels. You got a whipping at school and then another at home by your parents. It was, in a way, similar in the neighborhood. If you got caught messing up in the street, it was not unusual to get spanked by a neighbor, who would then take you home, where you'd get another from your parents.

Mrs. Washington was not alone in her quest to get the most out of her students. All of the teachers in that system knew their responsibility was to prepare these little black kids to meet head-on what the world was going to offer or throw at us. Beyond the first grade I had other committed teachers, such as Mrs. Smalls and Mrs. Harrell, who effectively got their points across. Throughout my elementary-school years I had most of the teachers my brothers and sisters had. All of the teachers at Holmes Elementary School were cutfrom the same cloth: they worked hard to educate us and prepare us with a solid foundation to build on.

From the very first day I stepped foot in Mrs. Washington's classroom, it was always stressed to all of us to take pride in ourselves and where we came from. I learned to read, write, and do my math in the classrooms, but the very basic and fundamental lesson of taking pride in ourselves was also learned at Holmes School. Those words of influence were indelibly etched in my brain and on my soul so long ago. Those teachers and the staff at Holmes School knew better than us that we would in time go in many directions, but wherever we went, we would eventually come back, and when we did, they could take pride in whatever we'd accomplished. I could always sense the pride the teachers felt when their former students who were now successful adults would come back to say hello and to thank them for teaching them and influencing their lives.

As I grew older, I started spending more time being active with friends. When playing sports with other kids in my neighborhood, I was often overlooked because I was too small or because I just wasn't good enough. I remember the hurt and disappointment I felt at being left out of the games, at being only a spectator. In most cases the guys chosen were bigger and better. In those days I was not the most agile guy when it came to sports. Okay, to be completely honest, I was clumsy! When it came to God's giving out talent, I was probably at the end of that line. But as time went by and I grew bigger, I became a bit more athletic and progressed from being a player who might not have been chosen at all to one who would usually be one of the top picks among the sandlot teams.

On those days when we competed in the neighborhood, we sometimes wore T-shirts. I recall using black shoe polish to write the number of my favorite player on mine. At that time that was either #87, Willie Davis, a defensive end with the Green Bay Packers, or #86, Buck Buchanan, a defensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs. I focused on those guys when I watched football games on television. Like everybody else I watched the more skilled players in games, but I thought that if I was ever going to play football on some higher level, it would be as a lineman. I knew I didn't have the skills of a running back because I wasn't fast enough. I didn't have the arm to be a quarterback, nor did I have the grace, speed, or sure hands of a wide receiver. So there I was onthe "make-believe" pro teams, playing the biggest games, trying to emulate my favorite players.

I developed many friendships through those days of playing sandlot football. Whether it was playing at St. Anne's Church or Levy Park, playing in pickup basketball games or spending time in the wading pool, it was always good to get together with friends to just hang out. I would watch some of the guys who were much older than me play in organized baseball games at Levy. Sitting in the stands I saw fans rooting them on and enjoying the game regardless of who won or lost. At times I would think to myself, "One day I'm gonna be out on that field and everybody will be cheering for me!" I thought it would be fun and exciting to hit a home run or strike out a batter in front of all those people at the park. It was a good feeling to be a part of that community where everybody knew one another and just had fun on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Some of those players who played at Levy Park, some of the other parks in Florence, or at the local black high school became role models for me. I had no clue as to what type of people they were outside of sports, but I admired their will to compete before so many people.

One thing stands out from a high school game I went to when I was in the seventh grade. At the end of the game, I remember standing next to the gate watching the players walk off the field. Some of the players were dirty, some were sweaty, some were bloodied, and some were just downright stinky. No matter how funky those players were after the games, all the pretty girls seemed to flock to them. I remember thinking, "Damn, I wanna be a part of that!"

CAPTAIN FOR LIFE. Copyright © 2011 by Harry Carson. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Mama's Boy 1

Chapter 2 If at First You Don't Succeed … 7

Chapter 3 Try, Try Again 16

Chapter 4 Desegregation 28

Chapter 5 So Hard to Be a Bulldog! 48

Chapter 6 Welcome to the NFL! 81

Chapter 7 Injured Reserve 129

Chapter 8 "The Crunch Bunch" 141

Chapter 9 Change, Change, Change … 155

Chapter 10 The Dawn of a New Day 168

Chapter 11 Harry … We Have a Problem! 179

Chapter 12 On a Super Run 193

Chapter 13 You Know When It's Time to Go! 214

Chapter 14 After the Cheering Stops 235

Chapter 15 Harry, Now We Really Have a Problem! 244

Chapter 16 Living with PCS 254

Chapter 17 HOF-#231 263

Chapter 18 Quack … Quack! 300

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