A year ago today life was almost perfect for Jan Carinci. He was a senior in college and a star for the University of Maryland's football team. He had worked hard to achieve that status, migrating south from Canada as a scared, introverted freshman, then working his way up to becoming the team's leading receiver as a junior.
Carinci's goals for his senior season were like those of so many others in his sport: make all-conference; play on a bowl team; be looked up to as a team leader, and, perhaps most important, play well enough to catch the eyes of the pro scouts.
As he ran onto the field that warm afternoon in Byrd stadium, Carinci paid little attention to the slight ache in his right knee, a hangover from a weight-lifting accident four weeks earlier. His thoughts were only on his goals, his hopes, the gorgeous weather and the 11 weeks ahead, weeks he had looked forward to for years.
He had no idea, not even a notion, that the next 11 weeks were to be the most frustrating of his life, that he would question himself as he had never done before, that he would learn many lessons, each one the hard way.
For Jan Carinci, 1980--the year that was supposed to climax his college career--was the year that never was.
As the University of Maryland prepares to kick off its 1981 football season Saturday at Vanderbilt, somewhere on its team roster there is at least one player who will have the same shattering experience Carinci suffered through one year ago. Virtually every athlete undergoes such a testing at some point in some way. One morning he wakes up and finds he no longer controls his own destiny. The game, once so easy and so much fun, has become horribly difficult.
Carinci survived the knee injury. He survived his battles with coaches, teammates and his girlfriend. Most important, he survived the mind games he played with himself. That was the toughest fight of all.
Around here, seniors are the Main Men. When you get here, you look up to them almost like they're gods or something. You sit there as a freshman hoping you'll be like that some day," Carinci mused one day last fall.
It was week 11 of Jan Carinci's senior year, a biting, windy day. He sat, both hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, talking about failed expectations.
"Last year, after every game, reporters came by to interview me. This year, people just sort of nod at me, like they feel guilty about not having any questions.
"Last week, one guy from Baltimore came by and said, 'You have to be disappointed because you know you thought you would be the leading receiver.' What kind of stupid statement is that? Sure, I'm disappointed. Shouldn't I be?
"I worked all through high school hoping to get a college scholarship. I got one. I got here and I worked to be one of those seniors I looked up to when I was a freshman. Finally I'm a senior. Only, it hasn't been the way I dreamed it."
Except for his size, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Carinci fits none of the stereotypes associated with football players. He speaks softly, rarely falling into the clich,ed football-speak one hears so often. He won't tell you he doesn't care if he never catches a pass as long as the team wins--he cares. He doesn't say he would run through a wall for his beloved teammates because he would n't. He would try to convince a teammate not to run through a wall because he looks at most things rationally, not emotionally.
An introvert, he will never get up and deliver an emotional pregame speech and he isn't likely to get involved in the mindless pounding football players seem to enjoy inflicting on one another just before kickoff.
He has never developed the habit of referring to his coach as "Coach," as if it were his name--as in "Coach told us to just keep on hitting." In fact, after 13 year of playing the game, he finds a lot of football's traditions silly and some of them unnerving.
But Carinci loves football. He loves the competition, he loves being good and he loves the glory. He has always worked hard at the game and until last fall the hard work always paid off.
Again and again he repeated the credo of many Maryland football players: "Don't let them get your mind, 'cause they've already got your body."
His offering-up of his body led to his knee injury. His keeping of his mind for himself seems to have set in motion the events that snuffed out his star role on the Maryland gridiron. In the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 1980--the day Maryland lost the ACC championship to North Carolina and wrecked its season--Jan Carinci's thoughts were far from football. Instead of sleeping in preparation for the big game, he was storming around his room till 1 a.m. trying to figure out the whereabouts of the girlfriend he'd been trying to reach by telephone for hours. His insecurities were running at full tilt then and later in the day, when he trotted out on the field--and played miserably.
The day after the 17-3 loss, Carinci says, coach Jerry Claiborne drew him aside after a team meeting in the Byrd Stadium fieldhouse and said bluntly, "You are the reason we lost that game." (Claiborne says his words weren't that strong and that he lectured at least half a dozen other players as sternly as Carinci.)
Carinci took the criticism at full weight. He blamed himself for the loss, agonized over it, sat in his room saying, "How stupid can you be?" He saw his carefully built world crumbling, and had no sense then that 11 football games are just a chapter, not an entire book.
"Some days," he said, "I wondered what I was doing out there on that practice field. I just wanted to take my cleats and turn them in. I said to myself there's too much else in life for this to mean so much to me.
"But it does. If I said it did n't matter, I'd be lying. I've worked hard at the sport and I want it to be part of my future. It isn't that I can't survive without it because I know I can. But I'll be much happier with it, than without it."
Football coaches often talk about players who think too much. Like Carinci. Because such a player knows there is Life Beyond Football, he often questions the values of those around him, doesn't automatically accept a coach's word as gospel and wonders why he is on the practice field at times.
Carinci has no lack of desire--he's as intense as the guy who jumps up and down when his team wins the coin toss. His stumbling-block is an inability to develop the kind of single-mindedness that makes athletes great. Jimmy Connors lost it and now he loses tennis matches. Dave Cowens lost it and quit basketball. Carinci never had it, by choice.
Ironically, the questioning mind that can ultimately make him a success in life will hold him back in football. He knew last season that if he adhered to the Claiborne Way he would be better off, at least as far as Maryland football was concerned. But he couldn't do that because to him, the Claiborne Way was a cop-out. He never believed football is all there is and he couldn't act that way when it was expected, almost demanded of him. His heart just wasn't in it.
When the captains called a players-only meeting after a humiliating loss to Pittsburgh, Carinci sat quietly in the back of the room while others stood and pledged to give heart and soul for Maryland.
On most football teams, different is bad; 1980 became a long, lonely season for Carinci. "Jan's always been kind of a loner," said fellow wide receiver Chris Havener. "Sometimes guys resent that. But he was in a tough position last year, having been the star in the past.
"He could have taken his frustrations out on me (Havener became leading receiver last season), but he never did. He never really blamed any one else for his troubles. He was in a tough position, but he handled it well most of the time."
Carinci is movie-star handsome, with the dark brown hair, dark eyes and kind of boyish face that gives girls the giggles. He has always been an athlete, a football player good enough that the Toronto Argonauts wanted to make him a pro when was 17. He is bright, articulate. He left Maryland in May 12 credits shot of a degree but with grades good enough to get into law school, something he wants to do in the future. His plans to finish school this winter.
Carinci is the son of a welder. His father, Carlo, grew up in Genoa, Italy, joined the Italian Navy at 18 and moved to London at 21 because he wanted to learn English. There he married an Englishwoman and in 1959, the first of three sons, Jan, was born. In 1966 Carlo Carinci read an ad in a Sunday newspaper that touted the merits of life in Canada. Within weeks the family moved to Toronto.
Two years later, after his parents had bought him hockey equipment, Jan was talked into joining a football league by a friend. He never became a hockey player.
From the first day on the gridiron he was a star. His coach, Bill Jukes, remembers him not only for his skills, but his attitude. "He was always on time, did exactly what you told him and worked harder than anyone," Jukes said. "Anything he's ever gotten out of football, he's worked for."
Claiborne agrees: "Jan's as tough as any player we've had here. He can catch the ball in a crowd, he's a super- hard worker and he made himself an excellent blocker."
As a senior, Carinci quit his high school team at Jukes' urging to play in the more advanced junior league, meaning he was facing older, stronger players. By then he knew he had an excellent chance to go to an American college on a football scholarship. Canadian schools do not give football scholarships.
Carinci was recruited by Maryland and Florida State, whose scouts had watched him play at a summer camp the previous year. The young Canadian visited Maryland with his father, and both were impressed. The Terrapin recruiter, assistant coach Tom Groom, kept reminding him that Maryland completed 58 percent of its passes.
"What they didn't tell me," Carinci says now, face clouded, "is that they almost never threw the ball. And I wasn't smart enough to ask to see the statistics."
So it was settled. Carinci would pass up the pro money to hone his skills and get a free education. But life was not perfect, and not the way he pictured.
"He has done everything we had hoped he would do," Carlo Carinci said. "He has been nothing but a success."
The son does not look at it that way. His memories of Maryland will always be mixed. Three years were spent building to what should have been a triumphant bang. Instead, his college career ended in a near-whimper.
When he arrived at Maryland in the summer of 1977, Carinci was miserable. He felt out of place. The rah-rah, conform-to-the-system's-rules-or-get-out atmosphere at Maryland was difficult for him.
It quickly became apparent to him that he wasn't going to play much. He wanted out. "He kept calling and saying, 'I'm coming home,' " Jukes remembered. "We said, 'Hell with you, stay down there, it'll get better.' "
It did. As a sophomore, Carinci as the starting wingback caught 21 passes on a team that threw only when it had to. As a junior, he caught 30 passes, was the team's leading receiver, got some votes for All-ACC and began attracting the attention of NFL scouts. He wasn't fast, but he could catch the ball in a crowd and he was a hellacious downfield blocker.
Away from football, Carinci learned to enjoy the university. He began dating Jean Bourne, a cheerleader and former winner of the Miss Maryland pageant, and his grades improved so that he was honored as one of the outstanding student-athletes in the ACC.
Everything was under control. Making all-conference aHe has nend being drafted by the NFL were realistic goals. And he knew if the NFL didn't work out, the CFL wanted him. The team was going to be excellent. Carinci worked hard all summer. The future could not have been brighter ...
Then came Aug. 8.
It was hot and humid in College Park. Five days remained before the team would report back to campus. It was the last Friday before preseason workouts and Carinci and two friends went to Byrd Stadium's field house weight room to work out.
Carinci had been working at what he considered important--running, speed drills, timing drills. He went to the weight room only because it was expected. He always considered Claiborne's obsession with weight lifting silly.
"For the linemen I understand it because so much of what they do depends on strength," he said. "But why receivers? How strong do I need to be? If I run my patterns well, catch the ball and take a hit, why do I need to bench- press 300 pounds?"
The weight room itself is a depressing place to be on an August afternoon. It is a dank, bare room with signs on the wall that say things like, "The work we do in the offseason will determine our success in the onseason," and, "Give me a man who hates to lose, and I'll give you a winner."
A new floor had just been put down and, unknown to the players, was more slippery than the old floor. Carinci was not killing himself to lift a lot of weight and his companions began to chide him.
It is difficult to say no when challenged by your peers. Even at 40 many men aren't mature enough to recognize folly when they are about to commit it. At 21, Carinci didn't recognize it either.
"We were kind of horsing around," Carinci said. "They wanted me to try and bench 275 (pounds). I can do that much fresh, but I wasn't fresh. Still, I thought I could do it. I set myself under the weight, got it up and felt my left leg slip. For a second, all the weight was on my right leg.
"I felt a pain in my side, my stomach and in my knee. The worst pain was in my stomach. My knee didn't feel that bad. Pretty stupid way to hurt yourself."
Claiborne: "It was the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, easily. If he had been trying to lift more weight than he had ever done, that would n't have been smart. But he had the weight up and slipped. It was probably the floor more than the weight. It was a fluke, bad luck, nothing more."
By Sunday, his knee was swollen. The next day Carinci ran into Maryland football trainer J. J. Bush and asked him to take a look at the knee. Bush didn't like what he saw or felt and scheduled a doctor's appointment for the next day.
The examination findings were not encouraging: a two- inch tear in the cartilage. "My first thought was, 'Oh no, that's the end of it, that's the end of football,' " Carinci said. "I was freaked out completely."
Team doctor Stanford Lavine wanted to examine the knee further before surgery. He told Carinci to take a little time to think and come back at 3 p.m. that afternoon.
"I was scared and upset," Carinci said. "I'd never been hurt before and all of a sudden, we're talking about a knee operation. I couldn't believe it. You hear 'knee,' you panic."
Panicked, he walked across the street to a bar. "I sat there by myself and downed four Heinekens. I couldn't think straight."
A waitress, seeing a clean- cut young man who was obviously brooding over a serious problem, sat down and tried to comfort Carinci. It did no good. Carinci wanted to talk to his father.
Carlo Carinci had knee surgery done as a young man and went back to work too quickly. Another operation followed. Then another. Six in all. Before he let any doctor cut on him, Jan wanted to talk to his father.
Father, son and doctor talked it out on the phone. Carlo Carinci and Lavine were both calm and soothing. The decision was made: Jan would go through picture day with the team on Thursday, check into the hospital that night and have the knee cut on the next day. If the dol. Making all-conference aHe has neamage was bad, further surgery would be done.
Jean Bourne was in Tennessee at a cheerleading camp that Tuesday night. The phone rang.
"All I'm hearing is that he hurt his knee, he's having surgery, he doesn't know what's going to happen," she remembered. "I'm completely panicking. All I can think of is all the plans we made. Now, he's talking about red-shirting (sitting out a year, then having an extra year of eligibility) and I know things are going to get messed up."
On picture day, Carinci was one of the main men. He posed running, jumping, catching. Claiborne later commented to Carlo Carinci that, "I couldn't see why he was going into the hospital."
The next day an orthoscope showed no serious damage to the knee. With luck, Carinci wouldn't miss more than a game or two. "I was relieved," Carinci said. "I was thinking it was going to be okay, that I could live with missing one game. I felt like a guy who had beaten the rap. It would all be behind me in a couple of weeks."
The dream had detoured. But it was still clear and real. The scriptwriter was just adding a little suspense.
The preseason passed slowly for Carinci because he couldn't practice. But the week of the opener with Villanova, he began light workouts. The knee was tender, but better. He called Jukes, who had been planning to come down for the game and told him not to bother.
But on Thursday, receiver coach John Misciagna, after watching Carinci run, told him, "You'll play Saturday."
Carinci called Jukes. "Guess who's playing Saturday?" Jukes, his wife and son drove down Friday.
On Saturday, they sat in the stands and watched the game. Carinci stood on the sidelines and did the same thing. He was angry.
A week later, against Vanderbilt, Carinci played. The knee was sore but held up. His smile returned. The team was two games into the season and he hadn't caught a pass. But now he was ready.
By the next Thursday, the smile was gone. In Carinci's absence, Chris Havener had become a starter at split end. Mike Lewis was at wingback. Carinci was listed behind Havener, who was taking advantage of a long-awaited chance.
Claiborne does not change his lineup unless someone plays himself onto the bench. Carinci was angry. "I took my frustrations out on Chris (in practice) and that wasn't fair. When we got to the hotel in West Virginia Friday I told him I was sorry for the way I had acted. We shook hands and felt good."
The next day, they felt better. On Maryland's first touchdown drive, Carinci made a key catch for an 18-yard gain. Midway through the third quarter, Claiborne called him over.
"You remember wingback?" he asked.
"Better than my own hand," Carinci answered.
"Get in for Lewis."
As Carinci trotted in, Havener thought Carinci was replacing him and started off. "I grabbed him and said, 'No, it's you at split, me at wing.' Chris and I had talked about playing together that way some day. The two slow white hopes."
Maryland won 14-11 and Carinci was back at number- one wingback on the depth chart that Monday. The three big games of the season, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Penn State, were still ahead. Everything seemed to be working out fine.
The trouble started the night before the North Carolina game. When Maryland arrives at a hotel the night before a game there is a meeting and then the players are sent to their rooms to get a good night's sleep.
But Carinci didn't sleep. The idea of Jean out with the other cheerleaders haunted him. Before he went to sleep, Carinci wanted to know that Jean was in her room. If he was going to be alone, he wanted to know that she too was alone. As the buses unloaded at the hotel, he quietly told her he would call at about 10:30 p.m. She said she would be there awaiting the call.
At about 9:30, fiercely hungry, Bourne agreed to go out for a quick sandwich with some friends. "I figured I would be back by 10:30," she said. "It should have been no problem."
But Bournes friends were having too good a time at 10:30 to head back to the hotel. She couldn't call because no calls are put through to the player's rooms. When Carinci called at 10:45, he got no answer. "I kept calling, every 10 or 15 minutes, no answer, no answer," he said. "I didn't know what she was doing or anything. I was mad."
Finally, at 12:45, after two hours of wild thoughts, Carinci got an answer at the other end of the phone. He did not wait for an explanation.
"Where were you," he yelled. "Why weren't you in the room when I called? You said you were going to be there."
"Why bother calling someone," she yelled back, "if you're just going to scream at them?"
End of conversation. Both hung up angry.
Already up far past curfew, Carinci tossed most of the rest of the night. By the time the team arrived at the stadium he was tired and still very upset.
He played that way.
"I let it get to me," he said. "I was terrible. I didn't run a decent route all day. I didn't throw one good blcok. It was the first time in my life that a fight with a girl affected my football. I was bad."
"He certainly wasn't good," Havener said. "But I think a bigger thing was made of it than should have been just because Jan had played such a big role in beating them the year before. That probably wasn't very fair."
The Terps lost 17-3 that day. Star tailback Charlie Wysocki fumbled three times. The offense did not move all day. Even though it was clear early in the game that Maryland was not going to be able to run against the UNC defense, Claiborne stubborly kept trying to run the ball. When he finally opened up the offense it was much too late, the deficit too large with time running out.
Carinci walked off the field miserable. He was mad at Jean and mad at himself. "I got dressed in about two minutes," he said. "I got on the bus and just sat there by myself thinking how stupid I was. I couldn't believe the way I had played and I couldn't believe I let a fight with Jean affect me that way. I was angry at myself."
Things got worse the next day. As the Sunday film meeting broke up, Claiborne took Carinci aside. "I knew he did n't want to tell me I had been wonderful," Carinci said. "But I was really shocked, hurt, when he told me I was the reason we lost the game."
Claiborne doesn't remember the conversation exactly that way. "I told Jan he hadn't played well," he said. "But if I told him he lost the game, I shouldn't have. I don't think I did. I would never tell a player that even if it were true.
"I talked to a lot of guys that day, maybe nine or 10 of them to tell them they hadn't played well. Jan certainly was n't alone in playing poorly that day."
But Carinci didn't know his coach was thinking that way. He thought he alone was being held responsible for the loss and he agonized over it. He was hurt, confused, angry. He ached to prove his dogmatic coach wrong. But first he had to prove he deserved another chance.
Monday, Carinci was back to number two on the depth chart.
He called his parents and his ex-coach for support. The coach's message was simple: Keep hitting. It will get better. Like any mother, Ursula Carinci suspected the reason for the problem--her son wasn't being treated fairly. The father, more pragmatic, said softly, "In the end, you will succeed."
"I do not know football," Carlo Carinci said. "At Maryland, I wanted Jan to have the degree. The football was secondary. But when my son is hurt, I am hurt. I could feel his disappointment. What could I do? Mr. Claiborne knows what he is doing even if I do not understand it.
"The games I saw, I could see Jan alone and they do not throw to him. They go Wysocki into the center, into the center. Big surprise. For surprise, they have Wysocki go to the left."
Carinci was down. He had stormy sessions with Misciagna. He wondered about his own attitude. He sulked.
"But he never quit working," Misciagna said. "For Jan a letup means he's only givingking all-conference aHe has ne 100 percent. Even when he was really down, he kept trying. He never quit. And he got better. I think he did a lot of growing up during the year."
"It would have been easy for him to quit because all of a sudden he wasn't getting the recognition he had in the past. But he hung with it. And he contributed in a lot of ways people didn't notice. We ran to his side a lot because he blocked a lot better. He did a lot of good things whether they were noticed or not."
Claiborne: "If Jan did anything wrong, he tried too hard. He wanted to contribute so much he would do things his knee wasn't ready for. I remember one day in practice we were worried about (punter) Dale Castro having a sore leg.
"I asked Jan if he thought he could punt (he had done it in high school.) He said, 'Absolutely,' and worked on it during practice. The next day the knee was swollen again. A lot of guys would have just thought of themselves and not even tried to kick. Not Jan. That's always been his way."
The bad moments didn't end against North Carolina.
During the Terps' humiliating 38-9 loss to Pittsburgh, Carinci fumbled a kickoff trying to lateral as he came out of the end zone. The play had been executed wrong by others but the fumble was Carinci's. The blame was Carinci's.
The script was all messed up.
Nov. 15, 1980. The final game of the season against Clemson. Jean Bourne, who had already gone through many a rocky Saturday during the fall, stood in front of the Maryland student section straining to see the field, which was partially hidden from ground level.
"I would look, see (quarterback Mike) Tice go back to pass, see the ball in the air and see part of a uniform with a 2 go up to make the catch," she said. "Jan wears 21, Chris Havener wears 22.
"I would hear a cheer and think that Jan caught one. Then I would hear the PA announcer say, 'Pass to Havener.' "
Finally, early in the fourth quarter, Bourne saw a receiver she knew was Carinci go up for a pass. She heard--she thought--a cheer. Then, she heard the PA announcer: "Pass to Carinci."
"I got all excited, started jumping up and down and cheering," she said. "Then someone said, 'Jean, your boyfriend dropped the ball.' "
Carinci had indeed dropped the ball. He had watched all day with mixed emotions as his friend Havener caught six passes, two of them for touchdowns.
Finally, the pass had come his way. Carinci went up, the ball hit his hands, the defender hit him and he dropped the ball.
It all caved in. His knee throbbed. His head hurt too. Suddenly, Carinci was aware of how rotten the weather was. There would be no happy ending. Carinci came out and stayed out.
They went through the motions at game's end. He, Jean and friends posed for pictures. This part was right--the pictures. Maryland had beaten Clemson to clinch a Tangerine Bowl bid.
But the rest was wrong.
"I guarantee you I'm not smiling in any of those pictures," he said. "I kept thinking that I would never play another game in Byrd Stadium and in my last game I hadn't caught one pass. It was like the final straw. It wasn't supposed to be that way."
But it was, because, as Carinci found out, life is never scripted. In the end, he could not control his own destiny the way he had once thought he could and it angered him.
When the dream finally faded, reality hit Carinci in the face as squarely as the football had hit him in the chest minutes before.
Havener was being mobbed by press and fans, he was soaking in the glory and the satisfaction Carinci had hoped would be his. Athletes often dwell on a fleeting moment of heroism but Carinci didn't have that chance. So, his thoughts turned to the future because they had to.
And, as he stood in the rain that day, Carinci realized that, like the glory, the disappointment was fleeting. The ending was a letdown but that was all it was.
In the long run, it changed nothing, just as six catches and two touchdowns would have changed nothing.
Because the future was still there.
Today, Jan Carinci is 22 and has few complaints with life. He is playing football for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, something he dreamed about doing as a little boy growing up in Toronto
He was the Argonauts' first round draft pick this spring and he signed a five-year contract worth about $500,000.
In his first six games as a rookie wide receiver, Carinci caught 10 passes for the Argos, six in the last two games when he broke into the lineup as a starter. At the same time he was being used as a punt returner for the first time since high school. He has responded by averaging 10.5 yards a return--second in the league.
He is engaged to be married next year to Jeane Bourne.
"The first surprise when I got here was that I had not learned nearly as much football as I thought," Carinci said. "It was almost like starting over again, and I'm just now (in the seventh week) starting to become comfortable withthe system.
"Basically, though it has been great. The knee is fine. I love being back home, and it feels like last year is about 10 years away.
"I think I'm a lot more mature now; I certainly hope I am. I learned a lot about myself last year and hope the next time I'm faced with a crisis I'll deal better with it because of what I went through. When I look back, I really don't blame anybody down there for what happened. It was just circumstances more than anything else.