49ers' Carter Just Wants a Chance to Play

SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

Here's what Michael Carter, the San Francisco 49er All-Pro nose tackle and Olympic shotput silver medalist, has been doing every weekday the past 11 weeks while his teammates have been honing themselves into what might be the finest NFL team of the decade:

He'd call his wife around noon from the locker room and ask if she'd had lunch yet. She'd say no, so he'd take her to lunch. Then they'd go to a movie or to the mall. Later he'd help clean the house and maybe wash some dishes. At 4, they'd pick up their two daughters from preschool, make dinner, watch TV, read to the children and go to bed.

Only in the morning was he still a 49er. He'd get to the 49er training facility at 6:30 or 7, ride the stationary bike and lift weights. Maybe he'd visit with the team trainer, who'd inspect his sprained foot. Carter left by lunch time. No reason to stay around. Even if Carter was able, players on injured reserve can't practice with the team.

"You feel like you're not really a part of the team," Carter said. "You have to keep setting goals for yourself. You have to keep busy. If you didn't keep thinking about the light at the end of the tunnel, you couldn't make it."

When Carter sprained his foot against the Jets on Oct. 29, doctors put him in a cast and told him he'd have to wear it four weeks. The 49ers would be playing the Giants on Monday Night Football in four weeks. Carter thought of nothing but that game. It was his light at the end of the tunnel.

But when the doctors removed the cast, the foot hadn't healed. Two weeks later his foot went into a cast again. That cast, like the first one, would have to stay on a month. So now the light at the end of the tunnel was the playoffs.

The doctors removed the cast Jan. 1, five days before the 49ers' semifinal playoff game against the Vikings. The foot still wasn't strong enough for Carter to return to practice.

"It was a big letdown," Carter said. "You anticipate something for four weeks and then it's not what you expect.

"I told the guys, 'Win this one for me so I get a chance to play in the next one.' After they won, they said, 'OK, now get your butt out there.' But here I am still limping around."

Doctors took X-rays of the foot Wednesday. Carter's status for today's NFC championship game against the Rams is still uncertain.

He returned to practice for the first time Tuesday but didn't participate in drills. He jogged on the sideline and felt sore afterward but not as sore as the doctors warned him he would. So he's encouraged.

"The last 11 weeks have been a roller coaster that hasn't stopped yet," he said. "Normally when you have an injury, you can deal with it, compensate for it in some way. But with a foot injury, well, you don't think of a foot injury as significant, but if you don't have a foot, you can't walk. You can't run. You can't do anything."

You can't stand for long periods either. So Carter attended only four 49er games while he was out. He knew it wasn't good for him to stand on the sideline for three hours, and he didn't want to sit in the stands. He tried that when he was injured a few years ago and found it to be more trouble than it was worth.

So he watched his teammates on television.

"I almost didn't want to watch," he said. "It was hard."

He looked at the game like a coach, analyzing the 49er defense, picking up on his teammates' tendencies, their strengths and weaknesses. On Mondays, young defensive players such as Larry Roberts and Charles Haley would corner him for his observations.

"The role I took during that time was more of a coach's role," Carter said.

If Carter doesn't play today, and the 49ers win, he'll likely be ready for the Super Bowl. Lord help the center who faces Carter in his first game back.

"I want to make someone pay," he said, smiling. "I'm not worried about being out so long. Once the Adrenaline gets going and if your heart's big enough, you're going to make something happen."

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