This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Brandon Carr sat down near the 40-yard line, clenching his arms around his knees and staring straight ahead, occasionally bowing his head.
A feeling of disbelief had swarmed over Carr, who couldn't imagine what had just happened seconds prior as the Cowboys trailed in Cincinnati before mounting another fourth-quarter comeback win. The cornerback sat quietly, almost motionless, next to another teammate who was quiet and motionless for different reasons.
Too much had occurred the past two weeks for Carr to believe that another misfortune could pop up so quickly.
The team had found out a day prior to the game that practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown had passed away after a crash in a car driven by Josh Brent. Carr didn't find out about the incident the same way as the rest of his teammates.
He was already distraught from the previous weekend's events, when he learned two of his friends from his playing days in Kansas City had died in a murder-suicide. Carr was leaving the funeral services of former Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher's girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, when he received the call that Brown had also passed away.
He was stunned. More befuddled, really, that something so tragic could happen two straight weeks. Somehow, Carr found the strength to play his second consecutive game after hearing about the death of a friend.
Already with a heavy heart, Carr sat down, staring at the ground, contemplating how a young player he'd taken under his wing could be lying still on the field.
"I'm just like, man, my little brother's down on the ground," Carr says. "I didn't really know the severity of everything. I had to just sit down and try to get myself back together."
Rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne went to make a tackle along with a horde of Cowboys defenders along the sideline when his helmet popped off as he was completing the hit. A stretcher came out for Claiborne, but eventually he regained his composure and his senses and walked off the field under his own power, pressing a towel to his bloody lip.
Carr had been doing quite a bit of that himself recently, getting up under his own power. The veteran had taught the rookie the basics of what to expect in the NFL, on and off the field. He helped him understand receivers' routes and how to handle the newfound fame and attention. But when Carr went through his personal anguish following the string of tragic news, it was the rookie cornerback who had helped the seasoned veteran.
"I'm here for whatever he needs, and at the same time, when I was going through my little rough patch, he was there for me," Carr says. "The same speech, the same texts I was sending him, he was sending right back to me.
"He's like my little brother, man, seriously. We talk about whatever. I care for him. We all care for each other. It goes further than just football. I feel like after this game is over we can hopefully still be friends, maybe coach a team together or something like that one day."
The Cowboys overcame a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit in Cincinnati, sparked by an interception from Carr earlier in the game. One week later, Carr would go on to seal another win with an overtime pick of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Claiborne contributed this season as well, leading the team to a victory against the Eagles in their second meeting with a 50-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. He also forced a fumble and earned his first career interception, all while fighting through the obstacles of his first NFL season at cornerback, playing arguably the most difficult position to transition to from college.
The Southeastern Conference has developed some of the NFL's better receivers in recent years, including Cincinnati's A.J. Green and Atlanta's Julio Jones, but never in college football had Claiborne faced so many good wideouts at once the way he does now.
"When you're playing in college, you probably have one main guy that you really have to worry about and focus in on," Claiborne says. "There's so much you can do to stop that guy, being that he's probably the only threat. Coming into the NFL, you've got four guys across the board you've got to cover, and you've got to watch all of them because all of them are dangerous. It makes it a lot harder, but it makes you work even harder to go out and be the best."
Adjusting became easier with Carr by his side.
Carr and Claiborne seemingly discuss every topic possible, on both football and life. When it comes to the gridiron, Carr spoke to Claiborne about busting through the "rookie wall" late in the season. On a team where continuing "the process" is stressed, Claiborne says Carr influenced him to vary his routine to help combat the longer NFL grind.
When the Cowboys' campaign started off at 3-5, Carr was there to keep Claiborne motivated and on top of things. After all, with the many bowl games the rookie experienced at powerhouse LSU, he wasn't accustomed to losing records.
"I sit back and I listen," Claiborne says. "I learn. I know I don't know everything."
That has been Claiborne's process since his college days. It seems at every stop he has had some sort of mentor to whom he could turn. In college, that player was current Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who Claiborne sat behind and then played alongside with the Tigers.
Now, that mentor is Carr.
"I've been blessed to have those type of corners when I come to a team to kind of learn from and let those guys motivate me and bring me on," Claiborne says. "That's all I've been having since I've been playing football. I'm just going with the flow, and when it's my turn to step up and learn everything that those guys have taught me, I give it to somebody else."
It wasn't so long ago that Carr was in Claiborne's shoes. Just as Claiborne hopes to do later in life, passing on his knowledge to new teammates in future seasons, Carr decided to share the information he has received from the veteran cornerbacks he lined up next to while playing for the Chiefs as a rookie in 2008.
When he came into the league, his influence was Patrick Surtain, whose final year in the league marked Carr's first. Surtain finished his career with 37 interceptions and three Pro Bowl nods. Carr and Kansas City cornerback Brandon Flowers, who entered the NFL the same year as Carr, confided in the veteran.
"We'd lean on Pat for just different stuff on and off the field," Carr says. "He pretty much showed us the ropes. This situation is an opportunity for me to return the favor and get a young guy to learn more."
As he says, he has basically become Surtain, "minus the Pro Bowls." Now Carr has a disciple who wants to absorb all of the knowledge he can bring from his four previous NFL seasons. And, Claiborne possesses the same desire for greatness that Carr wanted to achieve when he entered the league.
"I've seen pretty much all of these teams and coordinators, so we'll talk about things like that," Carr says. "I try to give him some insight. … He can put that in his arsenal and use it down the road. [embedded_ad]
"I guess what I'm saying is kind of sticking in his head."
As any young defender might, Claiborne experienced a few rough patches in his first year at cornerback, but he was locked in down the stretch and began to display the kind of performances for which the Cowboys had hoped when they moved up to draft him. His forced fumble on Marques Colston in overtime against the Saints could have changed the course of the game had New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham not won a footrace for the loose ball.
The rookie credits Carr, who led the team with three interceptions, for helping him develop and pushing him when times got tough. Carr and Claiborne finished No. 1 and No. 2 on the team, respectively, in passes defended.
"It's a learning process," Claiborne says. "You have some growing pains, you just have to get over those and keep growing and keep learning. Hopefully, I keep it balanced with how I played and come in for next year, get a good offseason in and get ready."