The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeAndre Carter, playing for his late brother, has carved out a key role for Washington

Washington’s DeAndre Carter returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown in the team’s win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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DeAndre Carter made a promise that he has carried with him for more than eight years.

In 2013, his younger brother, Kaylan, collapsed during a weight-training session with his high school football team in Modesto, Calif. He suffered from an enlarged heart, and after he was rushed to the hospital, he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke. Kaylan was only 17, a promising running back and defensive back entering his senior season at Enochs High.

“On his deathbed, I made him a promise that I would make it in the NFL for both of us,” Carter said. “It was both of our dreams. I always took it upon myself that I was going to do everything that he wanted to do — that we wanted to do — and that he never got the opportunity to. Since he passed away, that’s been my drive and motivation, to get it every day — and when it wasn’t looking good in the NFL to keep pushing and keep working.”

Now 28 and with his eighth NFL franchise, Carter has experienced a breakthrough with the Washington Football Team, playing key roles as a returner and wide receiver. He has been its most productive free agent signing of the year.

“We knew he was a slot receiver, and we were looking for slots,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “When he started practicing, you started seeing this quickness, this explosiveness once he gets the ball in his hands, and that really truly intrigued us. He had a very good camp, which led to him obviously making the team. And quite honestly, seeing what he’s given us as a wide receiver we think is a pretty good bonus. But the truth of the matter is we saw that during camp and we should have known better.”

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Carter has emerged as more than a depth piece at wide receiver or simply another returner. After five weeks, he leads the NFL with 381 kickoff return yards (and his 27.2-yard average ranks second), thanks largely to his 101-yard return for a touchdown in Washington’s 34-30 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 3. He also leads all Washington receivers at 17.2 yards per catch; his playing time has increased because of injuries to Curtis Samuel (groin), Dyami Brown (knee) and Cam Sims (hamstring).

With speed and experience in a league that rarely gives second chances, Carter has built a career on perseverance. He has been cut nine times since 2015, when he signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent out of Sacramento State. For the first four years of his career, he bounced on and off practice squads, and he spent the entire 2016 season unsigned.

The New England Patriots — his third team — cut him Sept. 3, 2016. At 3 a.m. the following day, he showed up with his bags at the house of his friend and mentor Eddie Smith, a guidance counselor at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hayward, Calif.

Carter told Smith he needed a place to stay. Smith knew he needed more.

“He wasn’t battling depression, but he wasn’t in the right mind-set. He was stuck,” Smith said. “He thought it was over. We always talk about, ‘As long as we’re breathing, it’s never over.’ We never know where the process will take us, but we trust the process.”

At his mentor’s urging, Carter became a substitute teacher at Smith’s school after passing the California Basic Education Skills Test. At 6 a.m. each day, he was on the field with Smith and their “Get Money Bag,” with ladders, cones and hurdles for conditioning. At 7:30, they were at school, where Carter helped guide underperforming students and taught math, English and history when needed.

“Those kids are special,” Carter said. “They grow up in a rough area and deal with a lot of unfortunate things. I just tried to be there and try to be a person that they could come and talk to about whatever they’re going through. Middle school is tough on some kids, especially if your home life is not 100 percent stable. So you’re trying to be somebody that they feel comfortable coming to talk to and helping with academics when I can.”

When school let out at 3:30 p.m., Carter was back on the field for training to stay in shape for any potential workouts with NFL teams.

“The kids loved him,” Smith said. “They challenged him — ‘Oh, you’re not really an NFL player.’ That’s when DeAndre really learned you have to give back for football to work and it’s not about money. It’s about time. … If you make a genuine effort to give back, it will give back threefold.”

Still, Carter’s winding path was only beginning.

The San Francisco 49ers signed him to a futures contract in 2017, when current Washington general manager Martin Mayhew was a personnel executive with the team. But it wasn’t until the following year, with the Philadelphia Eagles, that Carter finally got on the field in the regular season — as a starting receiver. A few months later, he was picked up by the Houston Texans and stayed there for two years, his longest stint with a single team. Earlier this year, after the Chicago Bears declined to tender him as a restricted free agent, Carter landed in Washington.

“I knew he was a great dude,” said Washington’s leading receiver, Terry McLaurin, who shares an agent (Buddy Baker) with Carter. “… But when he got here, you just saw the ability that he had. He was just a guy that needed that opportunity. You could see it right when he got here how dynamic he was returning the ball, so he obviously had a chance of making the team there. But I don’t think enough people gave him credit for how good he can be at receiver.”

Smith said he watches all of Carter’s games. He saw his most recent outing, Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, when Carter was targeted a career-high eight times and caught four passes for 62 yards. And of course he saw Carter’s performance in Atlanta, where he sprinted the length of the field for his first career touchdown. On his feet were yellow cleats bearing the image of Scooby-Doo, Kaylan’s favorite cartoon, and “KC5” in all black.

“It was a big moment,” Carter said, “for me and him.”

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