When St. Louis Rams defensive end Kevin Carter was 14, a starring role in the Super Bowl looked remote. He was short and heavy and didn't even play for his high school freshman team. He thought he was too small, so he played the saxophone in the school band instead.

There was something else, too. He stuttered. Carter's mother told him his brain worked so rapidly, he couldn't talk fast enough to keep up. He didn't believe her. "Maybe it was a lack of confidence," Carter said. "I got picked on quite a bit."

Then suddenly, in the two months between his freshman and sophomore year at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Fla., there was a transformation. Carter grew an astounding eight inches, from 5 feet 7 to 6-3, and football became a possibility. The extra weight disappeared and the stuttering started to go away, too. It was as if, like Clark Kent, he went into a phone booth and came out a different person.

Carter, an all-pro left end, likes the phone booth metaphor because his hero as a child was Superman. He still has Superman souvenirs--hats, shirts, bed sheets, etc. He even has a big "S" tattooed on his right arm.

If you want to call him the Man of Steel, go right ahead. His teammates and opponents think the 6-5, 291-pound Carter is super, too. He led the NFL in sacks with 17, but he brings more to the defense than just speed and determination rushing the passer. He is particularly good at stopping the run; the Rams have not allowed a running back to rush for 100 yards in their past 20 games.

"He's so good at stopping the run and the pass both that I've seen opponents have to shut down the whole right side of their playbook," said St. Louis defensive tackle D'Marco Farr.

Added Atlanta Falcons tackle Bob Whitfield, "We had to face both [Jevon] Kearse and Carter. Kearse was fast and very dangerous. But Carter was fast and strong."

Carter, in his fifth season, started to demand attention from opposing offenses last season when he recorded 12 sacks. But the Rams were having another dreadful season (4-12) and Carter, a first-round draft choice (1995) from the University of Florida, didn't show up on the radar of many Pro Bowl voters.

Even this season he is overshadowed by Kearse, a fellow Gator, who will line up Sunday in the Super Bowl for the Tennessee Titans.

"Everyone's talking about Kearse and how he is The Freak, but the real freak is Carter," said Carl "Big Daddy" Hairston, the Rams' defensive line coach and former pro defensive end. "Kevin is powerful like Reggie White, but he is fast like Harvey Martin. That's a rare combination because he can go around you or go through you."

While there are similarities between Kearse and Carter, there also are differences. It has taken Carter longer to gain national attention, in part because he doesn't have the flamboyance of Kearse.

Carter smiles. "I just put on the helmet and play," he said. "I'm a humble, Christian man who just likes to play the game."

"People are talking about Kearse, but Kevin can be as good as any defensive end that has played this game,' said Rams defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, a seven-year pro. "He can be as good as Reggie White if he doesn't take plays off. Sometimes he might slow down on a play, but when he really goes it takes a double-team to stop him. He's our big play on the defensive line."

St. Louis had four consecutive losing seasons (22-42 overall) before breaking out this season. Carter--the only player from the 1995 draft who has started every game of his NFL career (82)--has been a large part of that transformation, and was rewarded by being voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

"He should have been the NFC defensive player of the year," Farr said. "An injustice. People will see on Sunday. He's Superman."

CAPTION: Kevin Carter (17 sacks) has emerged as one of league's premier pass rushers.