Captain For Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker

While football star Walter Payton's biography is making headlines, don't miss 'Captain for Life,' Harry Carson's poignant and revealing autobiography.

Captain For Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker By Harry Carson St. Martin's Press 336 pp

Without question, the blockbuster football book of this season has been “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” But there is another work that shouldn’t be lost under the pile of recent releases. That’s Harry Carson’s Captain for Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker.

Payton, once a megawatt running back for the Chicago Bears, is surely is the better known of the two players, and his story, as told by biographer Jeff Pearlman, is a legitimate page-turner. Carson’s book, however, is every bit as fascinating, revealing, and poignant as Payton’s.

In a number of ways, the two players' stories are similar – yet also widely divergent. Both, for example, grew up in the deep South as integration dawned. Both were band members who emerged as high school football stars, went on to play at historically black colleges (Jackson State and South Carolina State), and captained pro teams in major Northern cities (Chicago and New York) that shed losing images to win Super Bowls. They also both played for coaches with outsized personalities (Payton for Mike Ditka and Carson for Bill Parcells) and were both elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although in far different ways – Payton in his first year of eligibility, Carson in his 13th .

Payton became addicted to painkillers, while Carson, in the most disturbing development of his career, had to submit to random drug tests two or three times a week during his final season. The order came after he tested “dirty” in training camp, a finding Carson viewed as outrageously false and demeaning. The regular urine tests, which never provided any substantiating evidence, were kept quiet, but they still managed to create an awful cloud over an honorable player winding up an outstanding career. 

The differences in personal lives of Carson and Payton are striking, with Payton a tragic, ultimately lonely and troubled, man who died at age 45, just 12 years after his football retirement. Carson, by contrast, is a rock of consistency, a person whose teammates came to depend on and trust him. He is the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s 2011 “Man of the Year,” a character award based on a person’s service to the game and the public. (The award presentation was made on Jan. 14 in New York).

That Carson’s Hall of Fame enshrinement took so long may have been due to his playing alongside Lawrence Taylor with the Giants. Carson was the hard-hat middle linebacker, charged with stopping inside runs amid the blur of bodies. Taylor, a flashy outside linebacker, used his speed and ferocity to become an electrifying defender and one of the foremost pass rushers in NFL history.

For the record, Taylor made the Pro Bowl 10 times, Carson nine times.

Carson was tasked with anchoring the Giants defense from midway through his rookie season, a very tall order given that he’d played defensive line in college. Although making the transition to middle linebacker was not easy, he enjoyed the challenge of playing the most mentally demanding job on defense, one that, as he says, “was normally reserved for white guys.”

Over the years Carson’s name continued to move up as a Hall of Fame finalist. An Atlanta radio station once even mistakenly called him to say he had been elected.  When the report proved false, Carson was crushed.

Making it to the Canton, Ohio, shrine, Carson indicates, was never on his career “to do” list. Nevertheless, the annual disappointment of falling short began to wear on him and his family and supporters.

At one point he considered coming out of retirement and signing a token $1 contract with the Giants in order to make him ineligible for the hall. (Active players are not on the ballot).

Finally, in an unprecedented move, he formally submitted a letter to the Hall of Fame, requesting that his name be removed from consideration. It was ignored by the hall, but when news of the letter spread, some fans and talk show hosts took Carson to task for stiff-arming away the honor.

But when he was finally elected in 2006, Carson decided the right thing to do was to accept the accolade for the sake of the family, friends, and teammates who had supported him throughout his career. At the induction ceremony, he used his 10-minute acceptance speech to urge the NFL and the players union to do a better job of taking care of retired players.

He has become a major advocate for his “pro football brethren” in the study of head trauma, an issue that he came to identify as a personal concern related to repeated head impacts from tackling. He, for example, has participated in neurological testing programs.

Because of the steep physical toll football can take on players, Carson has concluded that playing the game “was not worth the glory, fame, or the money.” In fact, he doesn’t recommend that parents encourage children to suit up.

The best thing about playing the sport, from his experience, is the people. He cherishes lifelong friendships made in the game and considers it his duty and privilege to act as a “captain for life” to those who’ve looked up to him.

Today, Carson is the president and CEO of Harry Carson, Inc., a sports consulting and promotion company based in Westwood, N.J. He also gives motivational talks and leads the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization named for the NFL’s first black head coach that promotes equal executive and nonplaying opportunities for minorities in the league.

Ross Atkin is a sports writer for the Monitor.

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