Chris Carson has overcome a torn ACL, a broken leg, a Division I detour and a childhood bout of ADHD. Now he's trying to establish himself as the Seahawks' starting running back.
When he was 4 years old, Chris Carson fell down the stairs in his house.
Then he got up and walked away like nothing happened.
Symbolically, at least, the Seahawks’ second-year running back has been climbing and falling ever since. When he was in elementary school, Carson was diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), a chronic condition that makes it difficult to pay attention or control impulsive behaviors.
“I was hyper,” Carson said last week, sitting on the floor in front of his locker. “I was always trying to do something. I couldn’t sit still when I was young.”
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Carson’s parents took him on a parade of doctor’s appointments. He tried out medications aimed at reducing and managing his symptoms.
In the end, the cure — if you want to call it that — was Carson.
“Football helped,” Carson’s stepfather, Dorian Rowe, told The Times last week. “It gave him something to focus on — a little extra something to strive for.
“I don’t know whether it was prayer or what, but he was able to master it and get it under control.”
Today, Carson says ADHD is no longer an issue. Just like in the season opener against Denver on Sept. 9, he encountered an obstacle, then hurdled it.
“He knew that he had to focus,” Rowe said. “My other kids, they could have the TV going, the radio going and dogs barking and they could do four or five things at one time. When he was studying he had to just study. That’s what he learned to do.”
As the Seahawks prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday, Carson is still learning. He’s still climbing and falling. That was true to a lesser extent last Monday, when the second-year running back received six carries early in a 24-17 loss to the Chicago Bears, but was inexplicably held out for the entire second half.
This was simply the latest entry in Carson’s dizzying list of setbacks.
When he was a senior at Lilburn (Ga.) Parkview High School in 2012, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound athlete racked up 1,146 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns before his season abruptly ended because of a torn ACL.
Before the injury, Carson was expecting to receive and accept a scholarship offer from the in-state Georgia Bulldogs.
After the injury? His options quickly eroded. College coaches stopped calling back.
“You’re getting the letters and the calls and mom and I are getting in the car and driving him to different schools,” Rowe said. “Some weekends it was three schools in one weekend in three different states. Then all of a sudden you don’t hear from anyone.”
Carson’s stock plummeted, and his grades suffered. Eventually, he accepted a spot at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan.
Population: 13,000. Enrollment: 8,365. Nearest major metropolis: Kansas City, 170 miles away.
Carson’s path to Division I football took an unexpected detour.
But it wasn’t the end of the road.
“He had a couple physical therapy sessions after the knee (injury), and a few weeks later I’m sitting there and I wanted to see something that would tell me that he was back to being Chris or he was going to be OK,” Rowe said. “I went to the window one day and I saw him standing out in front of the garage where the basketball goal was, and he was just standing underneath it. He was going to test himself.
“Sure enough, he jumped from standing still under the basket and dunked with both hands. I’m sitting there, gritting my teeth, waiting to see what happens when he comes down. No problem.
“He hadn’t given up, even though some other people gave up on him. Maybe a couple coaches or other friends gave up on him, but he never gave up.”
• • •
The mythical South American city of El Dorado is described by Merriam-Webster as “a place of fabulous wealth or opportunity.”
El Dorado, Kan., on the other hand, has a library, a municipal airport, a bowling alley and not much else.
And yet, when Carson arrived in 2013, opportunity awaited.
“It’s a small town, but it keeps your mind focused on football, so I enjoyed it,” Carson said. “I really cherished those years more than my Oklahoma State years, because I met my closest friends — my brothers — there. The coaching staff at Butler was probably the best coaches I ever had.
“The people there are just different. Everybody there was grinding to get out. It’s that hunger. You don’t see that in D-1, to be honest.”
Carson showed up hungry.
And for two consecutive seasons, he ate.
“He was just very consistent,” said former Butler Community College coach Troy Morrell. “You could close your eyes and grab one of the (game) DVDs out of the cabinet and put it in there and watch it and you’re just going to see a guy that’s going to make plays.”
Specifically, Carson ran for 1,605 yards and scored 19 touchdowns in his two seasons at Butler, in 2013 and 2014. He also shared a huddle with a surprising wealth of NFL talent, including Dallas Cowboys rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup and University of Buffalo wide receiver Anthony Johnson, a likely 2019 draft pick. His roommate was former Los Angeles Rams defensive back Afolabi Laguda. Dallas defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and Chiefs wide receiver Byron Pringle also cycled through the school.
They helped build a football powerhouse at a community college in eastern Kansas.
And now they reconnect inside stadiums holding five times the population of El Dorado.
“It’s crazy to see (former junior-college teammates) in the NFL, because you know their story. You know what they’ve gone through,” Carson said. “We would always say it’s like being in jail, because you’re in these little dorms. You don’t have what the D-1 teams have. You’re eating ramen noodles and warming up Easy Mac, because that’s really all they’ve got.
“You just really learn to appreciate a lot of stuff in JUCO that you don’t think about while you’re there. The whole time you’re thinking about getting out, but once you leave (you realize) this was the best time in my life and I met the best people.”
That included Cowboys receiver Gallup, whom Carson said last week is “damn-near family, to be honest.” In that case, Sunday’s Seahawks home opener will also serve as a football family reunion.
And though it was never the plan, they’ll be standing on opposite sidelines.
“Honestly, we were hoping we were going to be on the same team when it came down to it,” Gallup said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Just to be able to say I came out of junior college with this man and he’s out there doing his thing on the other side and I’m doing my thing, it’s just a blessing.
“To see him take over, he was a seventh-round pick. Folks were writing him off. Now he’s the starting running back for the Seattle Seahawks.”
• • •
Back in high school, the starting running back for the Seattle Seahawks suffered a hairline fracture in his forearm that made it impossible to hold a football.
So he played linebacker instead.
Then there was the torn ACL in 2012, and the torn ligament in his thumb that kept him out of four games at Oklahoma State. After securing the starting job last season, he promptly broke his leg in a win over the Colts on Oct. 1. Watching at home, Rowe said, “It was just like being stabbed in the heart.”
Back in December 2013, Carson’s house nearly burned down in an electrical fire. The damage was extensive, forcing his family to hop between hotels and rented apartments.
And yet, despite a veritable mountain of setbacks, Chris Carson keeps climbing.
In bold black ink, there are three words etched across his chest:
“Strength from within.”
“My whole life, I’ve been going through a lot,” said Carson, who got the tattoo at age 16. “So my mom and dad would always tell me, ‘Just stay strong. Your motivation doesn’t come from what people are telling you. Your motivation should come from yourself.’ That’s something I kind of stuck with.”
Maybe that’s why Carson routinely asked his stepfather to drive him to high school at 5:30 a.m. for an extra workout, when class didn’t start each day until 7:10. Maybe it’s why he sacrificed most of a summer to start classes and practices at Butler Community College early. Maybe it’s why his Oklahoma State teammates used to send Rowe videos of Chris leading offseason drills on a sand volleyball court at 3:30 a.m.
Maybe he’s here because he refuses to let each fall defeat him.
“He was working out three times a day here in Atlanta (this offseason while rehabbing the broken leg),” Rowe said. “He was running up the hill in Georgia at the house and doing wind sprints uphill, which was something I never did … and I ran track. It never occurred to me to do them uphill. He had the parachute on and everything.”
It seems the only thing that can slow Carson down is a befuddling lack of carries. Despite re-establishing himself as the Seahawks’ starter this offseason, the 5-foot-11, 222-pound running back has received just 13 carries in his team’s first two games. The 2017 seventh-round pick has still produced 75 rushing yards and 5.8 yards per carry.
And yet, in a loss to the Bears on Monday night, he mysteriously didn’t play at all in the second half. First-round pick Rashaad Penny led the Seahawks with 10 carries for 30 yards.
“I just looked at (Carson) on the sideline,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll explained on ESPN 710 on Tuesday morning. “He looked like he was kind of worn down a little bit, and I knew that he was a factor in special teams, and I just missed it. (Special-teams coordinator Brian Schneider) had taken him off on a couple of (special-teams) things because he was running the ball well. I just missed it.”
Regardless of the reasons, don’t expect Carson to encounter a little adversity and crumble.
For 24 years, he’s been climbing and falling, and nothing has stopped him yet.
“He’s always been able to fight through and find the positives and come out better on the other end of it,” Morrell said. “That just goes back to his character and who he is as a person, and that’s really for any of us what helps us be successful.
“He’s as good as any person I’ve ever known.”