Flint, Mich., is best known as the birthplace of General Motors (GM). The social climate and prosperity of the residents of Flint are often reflective of the health of the auto industry giant, and when times are tough for GM, the locals feel it the most.
If you grow up in Flint, you had better be able to handle adversity, manage the good times and be prepared to work hard for what you get – all of which can be good training for making a living as an NFL cornerback, like native son Brandon Carr.
More importantly for Carr, an appropriate name considering his city's most notable employer, he had a supportive family, led by his parents John and Kathy Carr, great role models like his older brother Tony, and a group of friends with a drive to succeed, who worked as hard in school as they did in sports.
"I had it different than a lot of kids because I had both parents in the house. My dad was a supervisor in the auto industry; my mom was a schoolteacher. My dad was always my coach, and my parents were always involved," said Carr. "I didn't want to get into trouble with my parents, so I hung out with a group of guys who were competitive on the field and in school. The people I grew up with are the reason why I didn't fall to the streets or get involved in other distractions. I had my mind set on a goal and a vision of being successful."
Sports were a big part of Carr's vision. Initially, he saw himself on the court. As an undersized point guard playing with kids two years older, Carr excelled in basketball. With his dad as his coach, he played on an Amateur Athletic Union travel team that competed in tournaments all over the country.
"I was the travel league basketball coach. The coaches in the high school ran a certain offense, so I wanted to start the younger kids off with the same offense. We traveled around the country," said John. "Brandon started when he was 8 years old on a team with all 10-year-olds. When we would go to national tournaments and the team would walk into the arena, Brandon looked like he was the ball boy. But when the tournament started, he was the one who wowed everyone."
Kathy is quick to point out that her youngest son did not start out so small.
"Brandon was 10 pounds, 7 ounces when he was born. He was so big I couldn't walk very well when I was pregnant. That's when I decided we wouldn't have any more children. I put a stop to that."
Along with being gifted athletically, Kathy thinks growing up being one of the smallest players on the team fueled her son's desire to succeed.
"Brandon was an easy-going kid. He liked to play a lot and have a good time. He enjoyed going to school and hanging out with his friends, but he was also a very hard worker with everything he tried to accomplish," she said. "Sometimes when you are small, it motivates you to do your best. Brandon has always been a top athlete, but I think being small made him even more determined to succeed."
By the time he got to high school, Carr realized that his lack of height probably meant his future would not be in basketball, so he started to concentrate on football. Tony, who is four years older, was the star quarterback at Carman-Ainsworth High and Brandon wanted to be like his big brother.
That determination led him to a local trainer named Jerome Batson, who ran a gym and was known locally for his intense workouts. After two years of high school, Brandon realized that if he was going to fulfill his dreams on the gridiron, he would need to work on getting stronger.
"Going into the 11th grade, my friends and I were trying to figure out a way for us to get better. We wanted to work with a personal trainer, but we couldn't afford to go to some of the facilities. It was my first year on varsity and I was this scrawny little guy who wore goggles, so it was time to take care of my body," remembered Carr. "Some of my friends knew Jerome because he owned a gym on the north side of town. He said we could work out with him. The first day we did a two-hour workout and he held nothing back. We really went after it. By the time we got to the back room, I was hurting."
That night, Carr felt the pains of his labor. The mere thought of going back caused him to lose sleep.
"I was hurting so bad I made up my mind that I wasn't going back to that gym. I woke up every 45 minutes and had nightmares all night," said Carr. "My friends kept calling me to go back the next day and I didn't answer the phone. When they came to the door, I hid in the bathroom, and told my mom to tell them I wasn't home and to go on without me."
Carr's request was not acceptable to his mother. Kathy told the friends that Brandon was hiding upstairs and to go up and get him. Skipping the workout was not an option in the Carr household.
As is usually the case, mother knew best.
"Day Two of the workouts my whole mindset changed. I got my body right. [Batson] was always talking about 'making it', but he wasn't talking about making it in college. He was talking about the pros. It was the summer and we would be up at 6 a.m. and Jerome would talk to us," said Carr. "If I didn't go back that second day, I don't know what I'd be doing right now. My parents always said, 'don't quit.' The only thing they asked was if we started something to stick it out.
"That small situation and the decision I was forced to make (going back to the gym) changed my life. My dad drilled me harder than everyone and gave me a strong work ethic, but Jerome was a huge influence on my life, too. It was another person who had concern for me, and he made sure we made our bodies the best that they could be. I still use some of the same drills he taught us."
Kathy doesn't just talk a good game. She knows a little bit about not giving up and fighting through pain herself. She is currently battling breast cancer for the second time. The illness led to her officially retiring after 30 years as an educator.
"I'm still in the fight with my cancer, but I believe everything is going to be OK. I'm in treatment, but I'm able to do normal things. It's not where I'm bedridden, so I'm able to function. It's my second round with breast cancer so you have to have hope inside you."
Brandon blossomed physically and mentally his junior and senior years at Carman-Ainsworth. The team went to the state finals with the help of Carr and several players who would go on to play college football, including three who eventually reached the NFL: Carr, linebacker Dan Skuta and placekicker Todd Carter. All three continued their climb together locally at Division II Grand Valley State. Skuta is now with the San Francisco 49ers, while Carter, who was scooped up off the soccer field to play football his senior year in high school, is now a free agent after a brief stint with Carolina. [embedded_ad]
Initially, the plan was for Carr to redshirt his freshman year at Grand Valley and keep four years of eligibility. He traveled with the team, but was considered an emergency backup who would only burn his redshirt season if needed. As it turned out, he was indeed needed. When injuries mounted, Carr was forced into the lineup, and ended up starting eight games as a freshman and 41 of 49 in his collegiate career overall.
In Carr's sophomore and junior seasons, Grand Valley won back-to-back NCAA Division II national championships, and as a senior, he was named the conference's Defensive Back of the Year. His dream of playing in the NFL was now within his reach, but it wouldn't be easy.
Carr wasn't invited to the NFL Combine and he did not play in any of the big, year-end All-Star contests. There was a Division II invitational in Texas, but it was not a major blip on the radar for NFL Scouts.
If he wanted to get some attention, Carr would have to impress at a pro day for area Division II players that was held at Central Michigan University. The workout went very well, but he still wasn't satisfied. Through a friend, though, he was able to get into another pro day scheduled at Michigan State.
"All I wanted to do was get on the field turf and get my feet on the ground. I wanted to put myself with these Division I guys that everyone was drooling over and see where I stood," said Carr. "After the workout, one of the coaches who organized the pro day, the one who gave me a hard time when I wanted to go, asked how Michigan State let me slip through the cracks when I was being recruited."
While Jacksonville, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Kansas City all brought him in for visits before the 2008 draft, Carr had a premonition it would be the Chiefs who would eventually call. They did so in the fifth round, 140th overall.
"I was hoping I would get picked earlier, but that wasn't even a big deal to me. I know getting drafted earlier would have been great for my family to hear my name, but once it got to rounds five to seven and coming from a Division II school, I just wanted to get my foot in the door," said Carr. "Honestly, when I went on my pro visits, there was something about Kansas City that reminded me of when I went to college – it was in the boonies. The ride from the airport to the stadium was all country. Something was telling me that this would be my next stop."
Once Carr got to Kansas City, he struck up an immediate friendship with veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain and fellow rookie Brandon Flowers. Surtain, who was the starter, took Carr under his wing and even joked about getting him ready to be his replacement. When Surtain got hurt during the preseason, he did just that. Carr was in the starting lineup on opening day, and he's been a starting NFL cornerback ever since, four seasons with Kansas City and the last two with the Cowboys.
Following the 2011 campaign, in which he tied for 12th in the league with four interceptions, a career-high, and 19 passes defensed, Carr had an opportunity to enter the free agent market. In this day and age of pass first and ask questions later, shutdown cornerbacks are held in high esteem and are very hard to find.
Given that, the Cowboys surprised many by making a strong pitch to sign him, offering a stunning five-year, $50.1 million contract, which Carr gladly accepted. Oddly, despite growing up about 60 miles from Detroit, he had always been a Cowboys fan.
"It was time for me to try something new. Brandon Flowers and I had an incredible bond, and we still do, but it was time for me to test the waters and make a name for myself with a different team," said Carr, who has two children with his fiancée, Shatory Campbell: an 8-year-old daughter, Sidney, and a 4-month-old son, Austin. "I had never been to Dallas before I came here to visit. I kept an open mind. When I got here I talked to some of the players. It's a city with a lot of opportunities, not just for me, but also for my family. Plus, the Cowboys were always my team. I had a Cowboys uniform when I was just 6 years old. It was an opportunity to play for a team I grew up idolizing."
Cowboys secondary coach Jerome Henderson was part of the staff that evaluated Carr during free agency. Needless to say, he was impressed.
"I really didn't know a lot about Brandon because I was focused on my guys, and we didn't play in the same conference, so I didn't see him a lot," said Henderson. "When we went into free agency that year, we looked at corners that were available and Brandon stood out because of his competitiveness, consistency, skill set and aggressiveness. I mean, there's a lot to like about him. He started every game in Kansas City and every game since he has gotten here, so he obviously has unbelievable ability. You don't come out of a small school and do that by happenstance. He's a very good player and he's done a great job."
Like Surtain did for him, Carr is now determined to help the rookies on the young Dallas secondary adjust to life in the NFL.
"Obviously, it helps to have veterans that young players can watch go about their business. Brandon is one of those guys," said Henderson. "He doesn't worry about the younger guys replacing him because he's a team guy and he wants to help. I honestly think even if he was threatened, he'd still help them."
The fact that her son enjoys helping out the younger players is no surprise to his mother.
"Brandon has talked about coaching or working with young people," said Kathy. "Because I was a teacher, he's always been around kids. I would bring him to different functions at school, and he always enjoyed doing it."
In 2012, Carr was reluctant to jump into a leadership role. He took defeat and setbacks very personally, but started all 16 games for the fifth straight season, and led the team in both interceptions (3) and passes defensed (11), while ranking eighth in tackles (62). On Nov. 11 at Philadelphia, he returned a pick 47 yards for his first career touchdown.
This past season he continued to have his usual moments in the spotlight, as he again recorded three interceptions, tops among Cowboys defensive backs, and returned his first one 49 yards for the game-winning score in the opener against the Giants. Unfortunately, though, he also had one of his most frustrating and disappointing campaigns, as he was on the wrong end of big statistical performances from the likes of Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Washington's Pierre Garcon and even Oakland backup and former Cowboys receiver Andre Holmes.
Still, Carr had a better feel for the climate in the locker room and had more of a presence on the team, making him an invaluable leader in the secondary.
"Now I'm becoming a man both on and off the field. I respect the coaches, but I have to let my voice be heard and be that vocal leader for the team," said Carr. "I enjoy trying to be there for the young guys and sharing my experience. I was battling Patrick Surtain for his spot, but he always looked out for me. [Current teammate and former Kansas City lineman] Brian Waters helped me out a lot, too.
"It's my duty now. I owe it to the team to be someone to come to. Be someone who you can get advice from, be a mentor. I'm challenging myself to be a better person. Actions speak louder than words. I watch what I do."