“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” — Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
Derek Carr took his golden right hand, big enough to grip a football and spiral it across the field, yet small enough to rub the fuzz on his baby’s pinkish forehead.
He lowered his deep voice, which is gruff enough to call out an audible over the roars of a sellout crowd, yet shushed enough to keep saying, “Daddy loves you, you’re doing great,” without waking up the sleeping baby in his arms.
Baby Dallas just gave a glassy blue-eyed stare across the sterile hospital room, sucking away at an orange binkie. This newborn son had no idea how his two emergency surgeries and 23 days lived in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital would make football mean nothing to a college quarterback about to start his senior-year chase after a Heisman Trophy, a BCS bowl game and the Fresno State passing record book.
This is supposed to be Carr’s dream season, a retelling of his brother David Carr’s 2001 fairytale story of Sports Illustrated covers, top-10 rankings and millions banked as the top draft pick in the NFL. All Derek Carr wanted at this point was to take his boy home and show him the words of Jeremiah 29:11 written on his boy-blue bedroom wall, and tell him there’s not an intestinal knot that is tight enough to keep him from God’s plans.
“These three weeks, I keep telling my son he has made me so much tougher through this and he doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying, but I tell him anyway,” Carr said Monday. “I’ve had to live off my faith this whole time or I don’t know how I’d get through it. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life, no doubt.”
David and Heather Carr shared their previously untold story with me this week for a college football profile that ran in today’s New York Times. The newspaper story allowed only so much space. This is the rest of his story, with an emphasis on his Christian perspective.
Carr fell asleep at around 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 4, exhausted from a third day of training camp with two-a-days and long workouts in the Valley heat. He had just nodded off thinking about football — Cover 2? Cover 4? — when his wife Heather woke him with this life-changing oomph in the night.
“I look over and her water broke,” Carr said. “I remember all those daddy classes: when that water breaks, she’s going to be a different woman, get her to the hospital.”
He loaded the prepacked bags — his wife, Heather, already had one false alarm, and was having contractions while watching Carr practice that day. He helped Heather climb into the tall Hummer his brother bought him for college, then hustled over to Clovis Community Hospital. Twenty-four hours later, he’s calling Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter to say “had-a-baby-it’s-a-boy” before hanging up for the next call.
Maybe two hours later, Baby Dallas started to throw up, and it wasn’t normal baby vomit. It was dark green, it was nasty, and something was terribly wrong.
Carr called for a nurse, who called for a doctor, who called for a ride to Children’s Hospital Central California, where Baby Dallas would need immediate surgery.
The baby’s intestines were tangled up, and nothing could get through. They called it intestinal malrotation and mid-gut volvulus. Doctors said if he hadn’t been born eight days early like he was, it may have soon cut off the blood flow with no one knowing. He could have lost his intestines. He could have lost his life.
Carr found a place to cry where Heather wouldn’t see. He called back DeRuyter, trying to explain it all but sounding like a blubbering mess.
“I just tried to reassure him it’s in God’s hands, you need to be strong for your wife and take the time you need to take,” DeRuyter said. “Football has to be your last priority right now.”
Carr hung up, went back in the room and found space to pray. That’s been his fallback position throughout life, and it’s what this parents Sheryl and Rodger trained him to do. Carr is the grandson of an Assembly of God pastor, and he’s someone who rediscovered his own faith, after several years of college partying, when he fell in love with Heather.
The parties have been over for three years. Carr was expected to be the Christian man of his house. This was his son on the operating table, this was his family in crisis. Mom looked at him, and said it was his turn to do the leading.
“I had to be strong for my wife, I had to stay strong for my son,” Carr said. “We just laid hands on my son and prayed, right in front of the nurses, I didn’t care. We’re praying.”
Two days later, Carr returned to practice, just long enough to stretch and throw some warmup tosses, when Heather called. Baby Dallas was throwing up green gunk again. The intestines were left too thin where everything had been tangled, and nothing’s getting through.
He was going in for a second surgery. Carr sprinted up the ramp to the parking lot, raced to the hospital, and they prayed again before the doctors wheeled him out. That’s all Carr did for the next 20 nights, asking Jesus to heal his baby, reading Scriptures of encouragement to his wife, leading group prayer when family visited.
“He’s been my rock,” Heather said. “Just the other night he read something to me in the Bible and explained how we’re not supposed to be discouraged about things. He’s become such a man of God who is so on fire for God, and not just talking it or faking it. He’s been so strong, and that makes me stronger.”
By day, Carr went to football practice, met with media, did photo shoots … and told almost nobody his baby was still in the hospital. Carr didn’t want it to be a distraction to the team, and his family didn’t want him being asked for daily updates.
Football was his escape from everything, his time to not think about his son lying in a white metal crib with monitors taped to his chest and toes, while his wife was left to answer the doctors’ questions without him.
It was easy to forget on the football field. When defensive ends are flying around your helmet, focus comes sharper. It wasn’t so easy when he sat in meeting rooms, or when the lights went black for a film session, and his thoughts would boomerang back to his family.
Carr wondered if his wife and baby were all right. He knew the second surgery worked, cutting out the thinned piece and sewing the rest back together again. But then, he thought the same about the first surgery, and look how that turned out.
“That was the hardest part, being away every day,” Carr said. “You have to draw a line in the sand at some point … I have to get up at 5 a.m. for an 18-hour workday during two-a-days, I have to get some sleep, but how do I leave my son? I’m never going to let him think that I’m not there for him because he’s more important than football.”
So, Carr would lip sync the words of Philippians 4:6,7 to himself. He learned them by heart.
“Do not be anxious for anything,” Carr kept telling himself. “But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“Giving thanks,” Carr said. “That was the hardest part, going through this and still giving thanks, but you just do. It gives me a peace that people just can’t understand. I’ve been living off that the whole time because, without it, I’d be a wreck.”
Baby Dallas finally gained enough grams to go home Tuesday, two days before Carr and Fresno State open his senior season against Rutgers at Bulldog Stadium. He’s slowly gaining each day, which means the intestines are learning how to work again after three weeks of being bypassed by feeding tubes.
It becomes all football again from here, except with Carr, it will never be all football again.
He tells everyone he is a Christian, foremost. Then, he’s a husband, and a father. Only after that, then yeah, he gets to be one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football, running down every passing record in Fresno State history, including the ones set by his big brother David Carr 12 years ago.
“The jersey is going to be taken away one day, whether because I throw too many picks or I’m too old,” Carr said. “So that doesn’t define who I am. I’m going to be a dad and a husband a lot longer than I’m going to be a quarterback, it’s not even close.
“I just thank God every day for going through this, for making me stronger, for making me tougher.”
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** Thanks to all who shared kind words and retweets on Twitter, particularly my former colleagues. And, thanks to the Carr family — Derek and Heather, in particular — for letting me share their story.
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