Tyrone Carter has always been a great tackler — on the football field and in life.
Whether it was a running back in college, a wide receiver in the National Football League or one of his many inner struggles, Carter has confronted the challenge head-on.
“He was the best tackler I’ve ever coached,” former Gophers head coach Glen Mason said of Carter, the all-time leader in career tackles at Minnesota.
Carter spent 11 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL and won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now retired from playing football, Carter said he wants to make a difference in the state that helped launch his success.
“I want to start my coaching career here,” he said. “I want to give back to the state of Minnesota and let them know how much I appreciate them.”
He’s already talked to current head coach Jerry Kill about a possible coaching position, but Kill’s staff is full.
Carter said he’s ready for the challenge. He’s never shied away from a chance to tackle.
A dream comes true
Carter fulfilled his dream of playing in the NFL when he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round of the 2000 NFL Draft.
He played three seasons in Minnesota and one season with the New York Jets before settling down with Pittsburgh in 2004.
In his first season with Pittsburgh, tragedy struck when his wife April was paralyzed in a four-wheeler accident less than a month after they got married.
“It was tough seeing a person that was there for me every step of the way have that happen at such a young age,” he said. “It was baffling … but it was a learning experience … and a gut check for me.”
Carter said after the accident, the Steelers organization said to take care of his wife first and that his job will always be there. He never had to worry about losing his spot on the roster.
Carter said it “let me know that they valued the person beyond what he can do on the football field.”
The next season, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl.
Carter appeared in all 20 games that season and had 24 tackles and one interception in the regular season. He added three tackles and a pass deflection in the Super Bowl.
“I had aspirations of being [in the Super Bowl], and I dreamed it,” Carter said. “But to actually live it is totally different.”
He continued his NFL career for five more seasons and collected his second Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2009.
Carter, who was a rotational cornerback for most of his career, also filled in at safety at various points in his career.
He had the most prominent game of his career in 2009 filling in for safety Ryan Clark.
Playing against the Denver Broncos, Carter had two interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
He spent one more season in the NFL with San Diego and then retired.
A chance to grow up
Carter’s path to the NFL was a difficult one, but it molded him into the hard-nosed player he became.
He grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla., in what he described as a rough neighborhood and was raised by his grandma at an early age.
Carter was taken away from his parents because both were addicted to drugs. But he said both his parents have been drug-free for more than 18 years now, and he has repaired his relationships with them.
However, his grandma was the one who steered him onto the right path.
“I had a lot of anger. I fought a lot,” he said. “I was young and dumb and didn’t know anything about life itself, but she instilled into me the idea that anything you want in life, you can have it if you work hard enough.”
So Carter went to work. He took care of his grandma as she suffered from diabetes. Carter recalled waking up every day as a kid to get her breakfast and make sure she took her insulin shots.
He said that circumstance taught him discipline and forced him to grow up fast.
While Carter developed a new sense of responsibility, he admitted he still made a lot of mistakes as a kid.
Then, as a junior at Blanche Ely High School, his life changed. Carter had his first child that year and vowed to make a better life for his son.
“There were always some obstacles I had to overcome … but once I had my son, I put it into my mind that I don’t want him to go through what I went through,” he said. “He was my motivation.”
That motivation translated onto the gridiron as Carter starred for his high school team.
He was named to the Miami Sun-Sentinel all-county defensive first team in his senior season. He also played on offense and was named to the Miami Herald all-county offensive first team as a running back that season with 1,349 yards and 23 touchdowns.
The Gophers showed extreme interest in the 5-foot-8 defensive back. Carter said his grandma really wanted him to get out of the state of Florida and go to Minnesota. He said she particularly liked then-head coach Jim Wacker.
But Michigan State showed interest too, and at first, the Spartans had the upper hand in recruiting Carter because his cousin played football there.
“I wanted to keep the family tradition going, but when I took my visit there, they wanted me to commit right then and there,” he said.
Carter said the Spartans told him they’d pull his scholarship if he didn’t commit on the spot.
He wasn’t ready to make such a decision.
“Once Michigan State did that … I was like … ‘I’m going to go to Minnesota, and we’re going to play that team and I’m going to make sure I kill them,’” Carter said.
A star on the rise
It took Carter a while to adjust to the Minnesota lifestyle.
“[In Florida] it was always ‘You’ve got to watch your back, you’ve got to be protective, you’ve got to be this tough guy,’” he said. “Then I come here to the Midwest … and people actually are nice.”
He said his toughest adjustment was to the cold.
But Carter made an instant impact for the Gophers and started as a freshman. He became a household name in the Twin Cities in his third game when he returned two fumbles for scores in Minnesota’s 35-33 win over Syracuse.
Tyrone Carter was now on the map. That was the beginning of a special career.
“Every once in a while you get a guy that is truly a tone-setter for your entire program, and that was Tyrone,” Mason said. “He’s one of the toughest guys that I’ve ever been around in football.”
Mason took over the Gophers program after Wacker resigned following a 4-7 season in 1996.
Mason said the team wasn’t talented when he took over, and Carter helped turn the program around.
Mason said in his first season at the helm, the team tried to funnel almost every play to Carter.
He nearly always made the tackle.
Carter was named captain in his final two seasons with the Gophers. His former teammate Ryan Thorman said Carter was a natural leader.
“No matter who you were … as a captain and as a teammate he made everyone feel like they were special, like they were part of the team,” Thorman said.
Carter flourished in his final two seasons and was twice named a first-team All-American. In his final season with the Gophers, Carter also won the Jim Thorpe award — an annual trophy given to the best defensive back in the nation.
These accolades were a testament to his work ethic on the field.
“He always went hard no matter what,” former teammate Crawford Jordan said. “It was never one of those practices with him where you were just walking through it.”
In addition to his on-field accolades, Carter finished his college career a University graduate.
“I think he’s the epitome of what college athletics should be all about,” Mason said. “It gave him the opportunity. I think the bonus was playing pro football.”
A long way from home
Carter left for college a little more than a year after his son was born.
“He really couldn’t talk on the phone, but he could hear words,” Carter said. “It was tough with me being so far away from him that I couldn’t help raise him.”
In his second year with the Gophers, Carter missed home so much that he almost dropped out of school, he said.
His older brother Tony Carter wouldn’t let that happen.
“He called my phone, and he was ready to give up,” the elder Carter said, “and I said, ‘No, what are you doing, man?’ I told him I’d be on the next bus up, and when I got my paycheck I was out of there.”
Tony Carter left his life in Florida to make sure his brother graduated.
“I chose the wrong path in life, and I wasn’t going to let him blow his opportunity,” he said.
Tony Carter said money was tight at the time, and he would sleep many nights on the floor in Comstock Hall. Other times, he would sneak in a free meal at Sanford Hall.
“I was right there through the struggles,” Tony Carter said. “We’ve both … gone through a lot in life, but we always stayed together, and we made it.”
A coach in the making
Even while Tyrone Carter played in the NFL, he took time to coach his cousin and current Gophers cornerback Michael Carter.
“He’s been helping me ever since I was in [Pee Wee] football — just being around there and showing me little techniques and drills,” Michael Carter said.
Now, Tyrone Carter said coaching is the next step in his career.
Carter has five children and said he has embraced some of his time away from football, but now he’s ready to get back into it.
His family is currently in the process of moving from Florida to Minnesota.
His wife, April, is originally from the Minnesota area, and he said she’s thrilled to return.
She said she will always have a place in her heart for the Steelers organization and what they did for her after her injury. She said she had a great time traveling around the world watching her husband play. But now she’s happy to be home.
“She’s sacrificed a lot for me in my career,” Carter said, “and now it’s time for me to sacrifice for her.”
Carter has already completed a coaching internship with the Steelers, but said he ultimately wants to coach the Gophers.
“The state of Minnesota has been nothing but good to me throughout my career,” he said. “This is the place I need to be.”