Carter was ‘cut above’ the other athletes

Editor's note: This is Part 3 in a series of stories looking at the life and high school, college and professional career of Middletown's Cris Carter who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 3.

The Road to Canton series so far:

Sunday: Carter reflects on his long journey to Canton

Monday: Carter and his complex relationship with Middletown

Today: Carter's choice of football over basketball viewed as the right one

Wednesday: Carter and his childhood friends remain close

Thursday: Is Cris Carter the greatest Middies athlete ever?

Friday: The making of Carter's hall of fame bust

Saturday: Guide to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Cris Carter made the right decision.

As a two-sport athlete who earned six varsity letters at Middletown High School, Carter, whose 6-foot-2 frame and leaping ability made him an ideal wide receiver on the football field and a guard on the basketball court, had to decide which sport to play in college.

In the end, he said, the decision was simple: He had a better chance to be the next Lynn Swann than Isiah Thomas.

And fittingly, on Saturday, Carter will join Swann, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton when he’s inducted with the rest of the Class of 2013: Larry Allen, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells, Dave Robinson and Warren Sapp.

If he had taken a different career path — gone to college on a basketball scholarship instead of Ohio State University on a football scholarship — Carter could be getting inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and joining Thomas. People say Carter, arguably one of the best athletes ever from Middletown High School, was that talented.

He was heavily recruited by college basketball and football coaches alike. The parking lot at Peoples Place Apartments, where his family lived after it moved to Middletown from Troy when he was 7, was a gathering place for some of the country’s most noted coaches. Since his oldest brother, Butch, was a standout player at Indiana University under Coach Bobby Knight and later in the NBA, many insiders figured he’d follow in his brother’s footsteps and continue playing basketball in college.

“I always wanted to be a little different, do my own thing,” Carter said during a phone interview from his home in Florida. “There was always more pressure on me to play basketball.”

That’s because of the three-year career he had playing for the Middies. He finished his high school career with 1,299 points, averaging 11.5 points as a sophomore, 19 as a junior and 21.8 as a senior when he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player. That same year, he was MVP on the football team, too.

As a junior, Carter led the Middies to the Final Four of the Boys State Basketball Tournament in Columbus, the last time the school advanced that far. The team lost to Toledo Saint Francis deSales, 73-70, ending the school’s run at its eighth state title and first since 1957.

The following season, as a senior, Carter led the Middies to another deep tourney run. They lost to Dayton Dunbar, the eventual Class AAA state runner-up. That also was the last season Ted Stewart coached the Middies.

One of Carter’s closest friends in high school and today, Al Milton, said everyone expected Carter to play basketball in college. Milton said Carter, despite being 6-2, played “above the rim” on the court and “in the air” on the football field.

“Cris was a cut above the other guys,” Milton said, noting he was always more amazed by Carter’s basketball prowess than his football talent. “He had the ability to get to the basket. He was Michael Jordan in training.”

During his senior year on the football field, Carter caught 35 passes and was named the team’s MVP, and he shared defensive back MVP honors with Sean Bell, who to this day, is one of his close friends. The Middies finished 9-1 and second in the Greater Miami Conference. Their only loss was a one-point defeat to Princeton, called one of the greatest football games in school history by some longtime fans.

Milton, the Middies quarterback, recalled one game when Carter scored three touchdowns three different ways: passing, receiving and an interception return. Milton said he played with a simple and successful motto: “When in doubt, throw the ball up to Carter.”

When Carter arrived at OSU, he initially thought about playing football and basketball. But after his freshman football season, he only played basketball in the offseason to stay in shape for football.

That freshman season at OSU, he posted 41 receptions for 648 yards and led the team with eight receiving touchdowns. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked 13th in the nation, Big Ten Champions and lost narrowly to USC in the Rose Bowl, 20-17. Carter set the Rose Bowl receiving record as a freshman with 172 yards.

“I think somewhere along the line he understood that he should go football and not basketball,” Milton said. “It was an important decision and a well-informed one.”