SB Nation

Matthew Fairburn | May 1, 2014

The development of Derek Carr

The personal struggle that turned him from an immature freshman to a top tier NFL prospect

Derek Carr is helpless.

It's the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 2013, and Fresno State is in the midst of fall camp. But Derek Carr isn't going to make it to practice in the morning. He's fighting through tears as he calls Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter to tell him why, his words barely understandable through the sobs.

Derek Carr's son Dallas, who was born just a few hours earlier, is being rushed into surgery to untangle his intestines.

"If my son was born on time, he wouldn't live."

Carrfamily_mediumHeather and Derek Carr with their son Dallas. (Photo via Heather Carr)

"If my son was born on time, he wouldn't live," Derek says. "He couldn't keep anything down."

Derek was supposed to spend the night with Heather, his wife of just over 13 months. They were supposed to hold their newborn son and plan out his future. Instead, Heather and Derek would spend that time crying and worrying about Dallas. They would pray, because they weren't sure what else to do.

The days that followed would become grueling for Derek. He would wake up at 5 a.m. to get to football practice on time. The various responsibilities of fall camp ran from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. On his breaks, Derek was rushing to the hospital to be by Heather's side. When practice was over, Derek went straight to the hospital and was there until 11 p.m. each night. Then he was up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.

Heather recalls asking Derek if he was tired and whether he was OK. But Derek didn't complain. How could he?

"The way we looked at it, we just got to spend another day with Dallas," Heather says.

Everything seemed to be going well for Dallas. He was recovering in the hospital, and Derek had settled into the routine of being back and forth from the practice field to the neonatal intensive care unit at Valley Children's Hospital. But one day at practice, Derek had to be pulled off the field. Dallas was being rushed into surgery again.

Again, Derek was fighting through tears as he made his way off the field.

"I can't do anything to help my son but pray for him," Derek thought.

But Derek wasn't alone. He had Heather, he had his family and Heather's family, and he had his family of Fresno State teammates. It wasn't just those closest to the Carr family that were thinking of Dallas.

"We had so many people praying for us," Heather recalls. "The whole community came together and prayed for us. It's just amazing how many people come together in a time of need."

Heather likes to think that all of this support played a part. From the members of the community who would stop her and Derek on the street to let them know they were praying for Dallas to the countless hours Derek and Heather spent by Dallas' bedside trusting their faith, it all had a small part in helping Dallas pull through his second surgery.

Dallas was released from the NICU just a few days before Fresno State's season opener, but his time there was not finished. He would require a third surgery, and this time Heather was facing the prospect of being there alone while her infant son underwent the operation.

Derek's family had gone back to Bakersfield. Heather's parents had returned home as well. The day Dallas was scheduled to have surgery, Fresno State was scheduled to travel to play Colorado.

Football games don't often get canceled, but that Saturday game in September between Colorado and Fresno State did because of flooding in the Colorado area. Suddenly, Derek's schedule was free to be with Heather while Dallas was in surgery.

"Everything happens for a reason, right?" Heather said.

Derek was there for all three of his son's surgeries. When he talks about it months later, the tears come back. Not the panicked, frightened tears from his phone call with DeRuyter or that August day running off the Fresno State's practice field. These are tears of gratitude that he fights back with a smile. Dallas is getting bigger every day, and Derek couldn't be more proud of the fight his son showed.

"He's a trooper," Derek says with tears in his eyes.

* * *

Derek spent the better part of his first two years at Fresno State living what he describes as "the college quarterback lifestyle." He got to Fresno State a semester early and was instantly the star on campus thanks to his brother, NFL quarterback David Carr.

he's glad he didn't receive the Johnny Manziel treatment from ESPN back then.

Carrcombine_mediumDerek Carr answeres questions at the Combine. (Getty Images)

So Derek Carr soaked it all in. The parties, the girls and a lifestyle that directly contradicted the faith-based way of life on which he was raised and talked about carrying out. He told The New York Times in August that he's glad he didn't receive the Johnny Manziel treatment from ESPN back then.

That's when he met Heather Neel. At the time, in 2010, she was just a friend. But Derek Carr told his teammates and friends that she was the type of girl he would marry. Heather didn't quite feel the same way at the time. She saw Derek trying to do the right things when he was with her, but she also saw what else he was doing.

So, Heather wrote Derek a letter. The message was simple: "You're not the person I thought you were," she wrote.

Derek doesn't like to think about the person he was when he got to Fresno State. He knows he was immature and not living a lifestyle of which he or his family could be proud. He was caught up in it all, but he learned from it and grew up.

Four years later, Carr is standing at a podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium representing who he is now. Most prospects have scripted answers to questions at the NFL Scouting Combine and do a good job of saying nothing using the typical platitudes.

Derek seems different. He thanks reporters for asking questions about his son and smiles through the tough questions about his past. For a player going through the biggest job interview of his life, Derek couldn't be more relaxed. Heather says he's the same when he's at home. He prides himself on being the same person outside the house that he is inside.

Derek's maturation started with the letter from Heather that helped him realize his priorities. It continued with the hire of DeRuyter as the head football coach at Fresno State prior to the 2011 season.

DeRuyter, like Derek, is a man of faith, and he instilled that in his team. The Bulldogs always have Sunday off and are encouraged to find a church and bring a teammate with them. DeRuyter would have team prayer sessions, which Derek was leading by his senior year.

Without that structure and constant reminder of faith, Derek wouldn't have developed into the leader he is now.

But Derek was leaning on his teammates as often as they were leaning on him. As Derek battled through fall camp constantly worrying about his wife and son, football was more of a comfort than a burden. His teammates kept him laughing when he needed to be picked up and offered words of encouragement when necessary. By allowing himself to be vulnerable, Derek showed his real leadership.

"You might see the part of him where he looks like a leader all the time," Fresno State wide receiver Davante Adams said. "But he'll come to me even and say, 'I need a pick-me-up right here; I'm not feeling too good about this.' Whether it's life or on the field. He's human just like the rest of us."

Derek's fellow senior, tight end Marcel Jensen, had a particular connection to what the Carrs were experiencing. A few months before Dallas was born, Jensen and his wife, Che'mique, had a son, Josiah. After the birth, Che'mique battled through medical complications.

Jensen knew what Derek was going through, but not much had to be said. Jensen isn't much of a talker, according to teammates. He was there for Derek and his family as much as he could be but didn't want to intrude. The entire situation seemed to bring Fresno State together as a team.

"The core values on the team are trust and love," Jensen said. "Trust each other and love your brother and that's what I tried to do."

Derek and the senior class led Fresno State to an 11-2 record and the Mountain West championship. Four years earlier, he was an immature kid who was a star from the moment he stepped on campus and thought only about having his jersey retired alongside his brother's. Now he had overcome injuries on the field and adversity away from it. He was a leader and the type of person everyone on his team looked up to.

"I had to grow up fast," Derek said.

* * *

Twelve years ago, David Carr was going through this same process. He was interviewing with teams, working out in front of decision makers and dealing with the pressure cooker of the pre-draft process.

David ended up walking across the stage on draft night as the No. 1 overall pick to the Houston Texans. He never lived up to that pick, but he did have a long career in the NFL, one he is still trying to keep going.

David's name has cast a long shadow over Derek in the public eye.

Carrbrothers_mediumDavid and Derek Carr before the Las Vegas Bowl. (Getty Images)

When some people hear the name Carr, the disappointment of David's career, the potential of what could have been is the first thing to come to mind. David's name has cast a long shadow over Derek in the public eye.

But don't try to tell Derek that. Anyone who thinks David's NFL career could possibly hurt Derek's isn't looking closely enough. They're not seeing the 8-year-old Derek standing behind David while he was doing interviews. They're not seeing the 12-year-old Derek who was already breaking down NFL game film. In essence, Derek says he's been preparing for this since he was 3 years old.

"It's a great experience that not a lot of people get to have," Derek said.

Derek and David have been training together throughout the pre-draft process in Bakersfield, where Derek moved in with David. Rather than pay for time at an expensive training facility, Derek has had the luxury of reconnecting with his brother and having him to guide him through the process. David's wife, Melody, has also been able to help Heather know what to expect from the entire process.

One piece of advice from David has stuck with Derek over the last few months: "You're going to be praised, and you're going to be criticized. Ignore both, because neither matter."

That encapsulates Derek's career at Fresno State. He spent his junior season being criticized constantly as he battled through a hernia injury. Derek was timid in the pocket when blitzed and his footwork and accuracy suffered as a result.

"It hurt to sneeze, let alone play football," Derek said.

That perception of his game continued into his senior season, but Derek was much improved. Still, there were highs and lows. There was a 52-completion game against Rutgers and a seven-touchdown game against New Mexico. But the final taste Derek had from his college career was a bad one.

Fresno State played against Southern California in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. USC was one of the toughest teams Fresno State played all season and one of the best defenses Derek would face in his college career. Many used the game as a measuring stick for Derek to gauge just how well prepared he was for the spike in competition he will see in the NFL.

Derek and Fresno State flopped.

USC ran away with a 45-20 win, and Derek seemed to revert back to old habits. USC blitzed early and often, and Derek's mechanics were thrown out of whack. At one point in the second quarter, down 21-6, Derek faced a blitz but had Adams open down the sideline. He threw the ball falling backward without stepping toward Adams, and the ball sailed 10 yards past him, hitting the field.

Derek looked down and smacked his hands together repeatedly in frustration. He would finish his final college game having completed only 53.7 percent of his passes for an average of four yards per attempt. The questions about his game began to surface again and at the worst time of year.

"I wish it was at the beginning of the year," Carr said of the game. "But it's going to happen. It's football. How do you handle adversity? How do you handle the last game people are going to be able to see you before the Senior Bowl not being a good one?"

* * *

It's a Friday in late March, Derek's 23rd birthday. Heather is going through old photos of her and Derek and comparing them to the new family photos they just had taken with the newest member of their family, a healthy and constantly growing Dallas. She can't believe how much Derek has changed.

"It's like I married a completely different guy."

Carrfamily2_medium(Photo via Heather Carr)

"It's like I married a completely different guy," she says.

Heather doesn't know where they will end up or what the next phase of their life has in store for them. Derek is at peace with it. They have both put it in God's hands, they say.

Derek's not worried about what the media says about him. He knows what coaches, general managers and owners have told him and takes more stock in that.

Heather continues to look through the pictures, comparing the ones from when they first started dating to one of her, Derek and Dallas on the football field at Fresno State. She laughs.

It was the letter she sent so many years ago, it was the injury his junior year, and most of all, it was Dallas. It all played a role in Carr becoming the man he is today, the man he hopes an NFL team falls in love with, the same way Heather, his Fresno State teammates and the entire community did over the last five years.

"People think, ‘Can people really change?'" Heather says. "Derek's a prime example that people can really change. It's just amazing how far he's come in life."

More Coverage
  • Derek Carr NFL scouting report

    In terms of physical ability, Derek Carr has everything a team could ask for in a franchise quarterback. So what's holding him back? CONTINUE READING

  • Ranking the QBs in the 2014 NFL Draft

    Where does Derek Carr stack up against the other signal callers who could be selected in this month's draft? CONTINUE READING

  • Fresno State is still feisty, even without Derek Carr

    Derek Carr or no Derek Carr, Tim DeRuyter's third Fresno State team should look a lot like his first two, with lots of pace and ball distribution on offense and all sorts of defensive aggression. CONTINUE READING

Producer: Chris Mottram | Special Thanks: Josh Laincz | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

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Originally from Haverhill, Mass., Matthew Fairburn is a graduating senior at the University of Missouri. He has spent the last three years working as SB Nation's NFL Draft Editor and covered the Missouri football team for the Columbia Missourian this past season. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewFairburn or email him at matthewfairburn@gmail.com.

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